A Grown Up’s Guide to Reading

A collection of advice I frequently give about reading

I’ve had a really common reading experience as a lot of people. I was, as they say, a voracious reader as a kid. Then, somewhere along the way, I kind of just stopped. Maybe high school turned reading into homework, or maybe I was so busy in college that it became hard to keep up with. But either way, I found myself still holding onto this identity as “a reader” without having read a book, especially one outside of The Canon1, in years.

I still probably don’t read as much as it might seem, but I’ve found a much happier, more productive2 relationship to reading and I think that all starts with my first reminder:

Reading is fun

The reason I read a lot as a kid was very simple: ​it was fun. I wasn’t doing it to Learn for the sake of it necessarily. I wasn’t doing it to fulfill my identity as a Reader. I did it for the reason most kids do things: I had fun doing it.

Life doesn’t need to be so serious all the time. There are a lot of reasons to read. Sometimes it’s to grow, sometimes it’s to learn about something, sometimes it’s to make sure I still have a semblance of an attention span, sometimes it’s to get my mind off things, sometimes it’s to laugh. I grow from being silly and having fun just as much as I do from being serious. And reading doesn’t always need to be about growing, it can also just be dumb. There are bad books just as much as there’s bad TV, but sometimes something dumb is fun and that’s what we need at that moment.

The people I know who read the most are the ones who take it the least seriously. They aren’t the I Set A Goal To Read 100 Books In A Year ones. They read a lot because it’s a way they like to spend their time.

Don’t feel guilty dropping books

This is probably the biggest thing that got me reading more. As soon as reading something becomes a chore ​stop reading it​. Whenever I have the thought “maybe I should read tonight” and I feel a pit in my stomach, I stop reading that book.

But isn’t it worth pushing through that? Don’t some books get better? Maybe that’s true! But you won’t get to that point if you dread reading the book. Maybe a different you will find the book again in the future and want to give it another go. Maybe that you will be you next week, but the you right now really doesn’t wanna be reading that book. Save reading difficult-to-get-through books for when you have some good reading momentum.

I am often in the middle of multiple books at a time. I’ll read one book when I need something lighter, and read another when I feel like digging into something meatier. There are no rules! You don’t have to finish a book before moving on to the next one on your list. You don’t have to read one book at a time. You don’t have to do anything, because your life isn’t English class.

Fiction is good for your soul

I read a pretty even mix of fiction and nonfiction, but I’ve met a lot of other grown-ups who never read fiction and that makes me very sad. When I ask why they often say that fiction feels frivolous or that they should be using that time to learn about something.

Allow me to give you my quick, very earnest, pitch about fiction if you need to hear it.

Nonfiction might help you learn about a topic, but fiction helps you learn about life! The human condition! I dunno, your own soul! I learn so much more through fiction, and if that’s surprising to you, you need to expand your definition of learning. Stories put words to the mysterious, the things you thought couldn’t be made concrete, the felt but not seen. Stories pull water from the mist in the air.

I am a more empathetic person because I read fiction. I’m a good storyteller because I read fiction. I know myself on a deeper level because I read fiction. I understand the world better because I read fiction. I’m more in touch with my imagination because I read fiction. Fiction helps me understand how much perspective can change a narrative, which is a skill we could all use these days.

If you don’t read fiction, here’s your nudge to try it. I feel a little silly even talking about fiction like this because it’s such a huge genre. I fully believe everyone can find something they like. Yes, even as a grown-up.3

Take notes, but not too seriously

This one you can take or leave, but I like to read with a pen. I feel like it helps me pay attention as I’m reading, it helps me read a little deeper, and it helps me come back to things that stuck out, made me feel something, made me laugh, was a particularly beautiful turn of phrase, the list goes on and on. Honestly, my most frequent note is probably “lol.” It doesn’t need to be that deep. Yes, I physically destroy my books with this. It’s fine. They’re not library books. If you don’t want to use a pen, use a highlighter, use post its, use the highlighter on your kindle. Just try it and see if it helps you. If it feels like a chore, or it’s taking too much work, forget it! I’m not the boss of you! 4

Independent bookstores have great book recommendations

It can be hard to break out of The Canon if that’s what you’re used to, but independent bookstores are genuinely an amazing way to find new books. This is the second biggest thing that got me out of my reading rut.

Walk into any independent bookstore where you live and there will probably be a Staff Picks shelf.5 Or a Bestsellers shelf. And probably plenty of other fun sections that speak to you. My favorite stores have personally written notecards with their favorite books. Plus, there are really lovely people there whose whole job is to talk to you about books. The books you’ll find will be interesting, different, often contemporary books that weren’t written decades ago by a dead white guy. They will be books that speak to our lives today, and books that stretch your idea of what a good book can be. Maybe you’ll get exposed to short story collections6, poetry, or graphic novels.

If you don’t live near a bookstore, a lot of places will post recommendations on their site or in their email newsletters.

If you live in NYC or SF (sorry I’m a coastal elitist), or you don’t live near an independent bookstore, here are some quick plugs of my favorites, and links to their online recommendations.

1. The Booksmith—Haight Ashbury, San Francisco

2. Dog Eared Books—The Mission, San Francisco

3. Green Apple Books—The Richmond & The Sunset, San Francisco

4. City Light Books—North Beach, San Francisco

5. Books Are Magic—Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

6. McNally Jackson—Various locations around Manhattan

7. Greenlight Books—Fort Greene, Brooklyn

8. Word Bookstore—Greenpoint, Brooklyn & Jersey City, NJ

There are no rules

If there’s anything I hope you take away it’s this. Read on a Kindle. Read physical books. Read on both depending on your mood. Listen to audiobooks. Read four books at a time. Who cares! Do what feels right to you and find books that make you fall in love with reading.

  1. Books you might get assigned in a high school English class, for example. ↩︎

  2. Productive here defined simply as: I read more! ↩︎

  3. YA is still fun as an adult too. ↩︎

  4. I like to share my messy hardcopies with friends and have this romantic notion that it’s as if they’re reading the book along with me. My friends disagree and find my “lol”s very distracting. ↩︎

  5. If you’re lucky, the Staff Picks shelf will have the bookseller’s name, and if you like something on there, you can assume you might like their other recommendations. ↩︎

  6. I did, which mini tip: is also a great way to get out of a rut. ↩︎