One of the most common pieces of advice I hear directed to aspiring writers (that is, directed to me and everyone like me) is, read. Read, read, read and read. Read broadly, read critically, read for fun, read for work, read as much as you possibly can. Because the way you learn how to write well is by reading other people -- reading good writing, so you can see how it looks when it's done right, reading bad writing, so you can see exactly what doesn't work,* and reading a huge variety of writing, so you can pick up on stylistic variables and develop your own voice. The thing is, I'm kind of bad at reading.
I don't mean I have trouble with it. I mean every book I pick up has this intimidating thickness to it, so that whenever I start a book it seems unimaginable that I'll be able to get to the other side. (They're just so much longer than blog posts, you know?) I have to psych myself out, pretend I'm not reading a book, and just get into the groove of reading page after page without being too conscious of the number of pages I have left.
So, over the years, I've been sort of passively trying to find a methodology of organizing my reading life that maximizes my ability to finish books.
For a long time, I'd read several books at once. This seemed to be efficient, but I quickly learned that no matter how many stories I can keep in my head at once, what it actually meant was I'd get a few chapters into six mildly interesting books, and finish one, at best. I'd only get through the most gripping, most engaging, and often least difficult books.
There are always exceptions -- the truly brilliant books that, though difficult, still manage to drag me from one end out the other. These seem to most frequently benefit from the paired motivations of (a.) their constant and reinforcing quality and (b.) my desire to have read them. (As Mark Twain brilliantly put it, A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.") Books on that list include the Lord of the Rings, The God Delusion, and Perdido Street Station.
I've also tried the well-worn method of a to-read list, or shelf.
Right now, my to-read shelf has 40 books on it. The last 4 books I've read did not come from it. I don't particularly think it works.
Most recently, a new methodology that might actually be working has occurred to me. Or, rather, came somewhat by chance. I've been reading the Hunger Games trilogy, a brilliant young adult series about a dystopian future America, which is gripping, difficult to put down, and targeted at high school age children, so nothing about it is particularly challenging.**
After the first book, I put the series down to re-read The Great Gatsby.
And I tore through it. Not just because it's a great book (it really is, it's truly brilliant) but because I was so eager to find out what happened next to Katniss after the cliffhanger-flavored ending of the Hunger Games.
I finished the second book in about two days, and now I've started Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, which has also been on my to-read list for quite some time. I find myself seeking out opportunities to read it in every spare moment, because I want so badly to get to the third and final Hunger Games book. Little Brother has, thus far, been excellent.
So, a methodology appears to emerge. It still bears quite a lot of testing, but it's definitely what I'm going to be trying for the next several books I read, to see if it holds across the vacation. I'm going to try and alternate between stand-alone books I've been meaning to read, and young adult series (or, failing series, sets of books by young adult authors I've been meaning to get to.) After the Hunger Games, I think I'll start on Scott Westerfeld's Uglies books. John Greene's books also look fairly appealing.
In that time, I'm also going to try and cut my to-read shelf down enough that I can fit all the books spine-out next to each other. (Right now, quite a few are laying on top of one another.)
Wish me luck?
*I think the latter actually works better, because you're more likely to spot -- and fix -- when you've done exactly those horrible things in your own work than you are likely to successfully employ the brilliant devices in good prose. **Though it's brilliantly thought-provoking. I would absolutely love to see these books added to the curriculum of high school classes everywhere.