How to get back into fiction

 

I bloody love books. I’m the kind of person who keeps a stack of books teetering on the bedside table and arranges bookshelves by colour. I’ve got copies of my favourites on my Kindle so they’re always on my phone and while I grew up on a steady diet of Enid Blyton, and remember parts of The Magic Faraway Tree like they’re childhood memories, it was Stephen King that got me through my teens. I dutifully read the classics for school but at home I wanted thrilling, spine-tingling stories to devour. Books were my escape and while other kids were out riding their bikes, I was getting lost in another world.

As I’ve gotten older the book love hasn’t diminished but the type of books has noticeably shifted. Truthfully I don’t remember reading much fiction in my twenties because college and career-building took up most of my time, but into my thirties things changed. I was 32 when my partner died and one of the most important things I did in the first month was type “grief” into the Amazon search bar. I bought a huge stack of books that day. Most of the authors wrote in a clinical way that felt far away from what I was feeling, but there were others with stories that helped me feel less alone. As the months passed I found solace in fiction that took me out of myself, reading Jane Eyre and Rebecca for the first time and crying my eyes out at the end of The Time Traveller’s Wife.

As I began to heal in earnest my creativity blossomed again, spurred on by guidance from The Artist’s Way and the soul-nourishing poetry of Sharon Olds, Jane Kenyon and Mary Oliver. Within a few years I was building my own business and my bookshelves now bulged with non-fiction titles. Spare time was dedicated to reading for work and soon life became a fiction-less desert. I thought I didn’t miss it — social media and Netflix do a very good job of plugging the gaps — but something was definitely missing.

At the start of 2019 I made a conscious effort to get back into reading fiction and I’ve read 10 novels from start to finish this year. There’s been about 10 others I didn’t finish, several short story anthologies I’ve devoured and easily 20 or more non-fiction titles I’ve purchased for work. My Kindle is littered with book samples and my Audible account’s been getting a workout too. And while 10 finished books might not sound a lot, it’s 10 more fiction titles than the last ten years put together.

The truth is, if you want to read more fiction you have to aggressively make time for it. You have to steal time away from other activities and purposefully use those gaps in your day. Train rides, bus journeys and lunch hours are made for rehabilitating bookworms. Choosing to watch one less episode on Netflix and read a chapter instead is a game-changer. It can feel strange to read in silence when you’re out of practice so playing music quietly in the background or leaving the TV on but turned down low can help. I can confirm that reading in the bath is heavenly!

Figuring out the sort of fiction I enjoy has helped enormously. I started with a book everyone was talking about — Normal People by Sally Rooney — then stumbled upon a brilliant book of short stories in Foyles bookshop (Her Body and Other Parties). After that I started playing book detective, tracking down similar titles and reading interviews with authors to discover their inspirations. Subscribing to booksellers’ newsletters has alerted me to a few great books, and I’m currently obsessed with recommendations on GoodReads.com.

The best books I’ve read lately were ones I lost myself in. I’d eagerly hit the sofa after dinner so I could read just a bit more, staying up late to finish a book in bed, something I haven’t done since I was a kid. I wholeheartedly believe reading should be a pleasure and if you’re not enjoying a book you should simply stop reading it. Skip to the last chapter if you must know what happens but don’t stick it out otherwise. Life is too short to finish books that bore you, so donate your half-finished books to charity, and while you’re there pick up a few new ones to explore. Keep the book energy moving!

HOW TO GET BACK INTO FICTION

Start small — With most novels clocking in at 90,000 words it feels intimidating committing to a book when you’re out of practice, so start with short stories. Finishing a couple of stories in an evening is wonderfully satisfying and will spur you on to longer texts.

Change the format — Audio books are perfect for long car rides and dog walks so set up an Audible account and start listening to stories. If physical books feel clunky invest in a Kindle and sync it with your phone so you always have a book with you.

Go on reading dates — Treat yourself to an hour in a coffee shop, a bookshop or a library. Put reading dates in your day planner and make them happen. Join (or start!) a book club so you have a sociable reason to read.

Let it be fun — Don’t feel you have to slog through Uylsses if you’d rather be reading Harry Potter. Read whatever makes you excited to curl up with a book again.

SHORT STORIES

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

The Loss of All Lost Things by Amina Gautier

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Things We Say in The Dark by Kirsty Logan

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

NOVELS

The Power by Naomi Alderman

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Stories for my Sister by Elizabeth Duvivier

I Who Have Never Know Men by Jacqueline Harpman

Normal People by Sally Rooney

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

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The original version of this post first appeared in Project Calm magazine

5 responses
  1. Heidi

    If you liked The Time Traveller’s Wife, you’d also like Life after Life by Kate Atkinson. I was crying in the first chapter. So good!

  2. Jen Moneagle

    Hello Susannah –

    Love your post – I too had strayed far from fiction and was immersed in biographies, memoirs, and non-fiction with only an occasional foray into a best seller. I did, however, join a book club that only reads fiction and in the last 18 months I’ve read 18 non-fiction novels that I most likely wouldn’t have picked up on my own – some I loved and some I hated but I read them so I could participate in the conversation with the group which was very enjoyable.

    I also rejoined the Book of the Month club and have been grabbing some great fiction reads there. The nice thing about BOTM is that you aren’t obligated to buy every month, but you get to see what is new out there. I just finished The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides and I think you might like it.

    But, you are right, and I wholeheartedly agree – you have to make the time for fiction! Enjoy!

    Happy New Year –
    Jen

  3. Nina Mistry-Rhoades

    How timely is this blog post? I haven’t been much of a reader in the past but I am giving myself grace and less shame about this. This last year I’ve read a few books and read lots of blog posts and articles on my phone. I’ve found two authors I now love, Jhumpa Lahiri being one of them and the first book of hers I read last year was the Interpreter of Maladies, the book of short stories perfect for a reader with short attention span. Writing this I am remembering that I’ve bought and read at least 10 illustrated children’s books. Books I would’ve loved as a child, definitely books I would’ve connected with. Today I have written a list of 10 fiction books I’d like to read in 2020, which I’ll be topping up with books on health in particularly peri-menopause.

  4. Marguerite Bryant

    Susannah~ I am so grateful for the Unravel process that you shared! I especially love how you add “which books will I read this year?” I am determined to read more this year after watching this awesome video by Max Joseph. I think you will really love it. https://youtu.be/lIW5jBrrsS0

  5. Stephanie

    I found some gems in a used book store that had a wonderful set-up and great dialogue around different books. Through that shop I discovered the work of Anthony Doerr and Amor Towles. Anthony Doerr has the most beautiful book of short stories. I started with his novel All the Light We Cannot See and fell in love with his writing and then found his short stories. To date I have devoured his work. Amor Towles Gentlemen in Moscow had me completely swept up with the characters and I did not want this one to end. I learned a bit about Russian history as well through this book. It is one of those that you dont understand quite where the story is taking you for the first two chapters as it is developing the characters and then it just blossoms and open your heart wide open with it.

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