The case for a reading routine — and how prolific readers stick to theirs

Tips and tricks from a Giller Prize winner, a literary agent, an editor and a books columnist.

Tips and tricks from a Giller Prize winner, a literary agent, an editor and a books columnist

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

I love reading. In fact, I'd consider myself a big reader. But I have a confession to make: for the last six months of 2021, I didn't finish a single book. My bookmark was stuck in the middle pages of The Bonfire of the Vanities, and try as I might, I couldn't make it budge.

I began to regard the huge block letters on the cover that declared it a "#1 national bestseller" as some sort of taunt. If so many people enjoyed the novel, why wasn't it clicking for me? Let's not call it a resolution, but I felt I needed to get back on track, so I filled the last of my New Year break burning through it. And surprise, surprise, I liked the book (I like the vast majority of books I read). I've since been reading regularly again — a chapter or two before I go to bed every night, and another few before I clock in in the morning (so much better than doomscrolling when I can't sleep, too). On the stationary bike, I've found that some titles work and some don't, so it's good to have options. In short, I'm back into a reading routine, enjoying the time I'm burrowed in pages, and happily wearing away my bedside stack. If I hit another rut, I feel confident I can find my way out.

Thinking about my personal regimen made me curious: how do the pros do it? What are the special habits that help prolific readers read so prolifically? Do they set up dedicated spaces or daily page quotas? What helps them through slumps like my Bonfire fiasco, if they ever have them? In search of how professional readers make successful reading routines, I spoke with Giller Prize winner and 2022 Canada Reads shortlister Omar El Akkad; Haley Cullingham, senior editor at Penguin Random House Canada; Léonicka Valcius, literary agent at Transatlantic Agency; and Becky Toyne, Should I Read It? columnist on CBC's Day 6

Whether you're looking to shake your own slump or just make this the year you tackle the books you've been meaning to, here are some tricks the pros shared that help them read more — and make their reading more enjoyable. 

Find your time 

What Strange Paradise author El Akkad calls himself "an incredibly slow reader," rereading lines and contemplating their construction. A night owl, he tries to read every night once his family's gone to bed, between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. "I try to do 100 pages a day and I fail almost every day," he said. The benchmark is unimportant, according to the writer. What matters most is that, as much as possible, he keeps that time for reading. "There are days when I get through a couple of pages, and you can tell pretty early on when your brain isn't in that mode," he said. He doesn't push it. But he'll try again at the same time the next day.   

Have multiple titles on the go

Since we experience different moods, it's nice to have different reading options to complement them, said Toyne. "Maybe I'm reading a novel and a sort of fluffy, gossipy celebrity memoir at the same time." Cullingham does similar, with one book she's "really reading in earnest," as well as a work of non-fiction that she tackles slowly, plus an easier read, like a YA or fantasy or romance. "I'll often have a couple books that are designed for whatever mood I'm in so that I always sort of have something to go to," she said. 

Read anywhere and everywhere

"When I'm having trouble sitting still to read, I don't try to force it," Valcius said. "If I'm feeling fidgety, clearly I need to move! So I like to take my reading material with me on my walks or prop it up on the console of the treadmill or stationary bike." 

Embrace audiobooks

Cullingham dislikes when someone tells her they've read a certain book and then quickly corrects themself with a "Well, I listened to it on audiobook." "It's all the same," the editor said. "Don't let anyone make you think that there's a right way to read a book.… Embrace the thing that makes it feel fun and good." El Akkad, who calls audiobooks "an art form," mentioned a hack that he finds "nightmarish," though it's helped a friend of his plow through books: listening to them at 1½ times the speed. 

Talk it out

Discussing what you're reading helps connect you more deeply to the material. For Valcius, reading is not a solo activity. "I love to discuss what I've read, share quotes I love, and engage with other readers," she said. "Book clubs can be intimidating and add extra deadlines to your life, but there's no harm in asking one friend if they want to read a book together." Similarly, El Akkad said, "I'm one of those people who, every time I read something, all I want to do is talk about it." He has a bunch of friends who are "pretty voracious readers," so he can usually find someone to indulge him. 

Try a recommendation

When Cullingham gets in a reading slump, she's found that turning to a recommendation from a friend or a colleague often helps. Recommendations can get you outside your regular bubble of interests, plus they guarantee you already know someone who enjoyed the book and who'll likely be willing to discuss it with you (see above!). When Cullingham put together a list of her favourite books of last year, she found that so many were recommendations she wouldn't have read had they not been suggested to her. 

It's OK to quit a book

When Valcius experienced a reading drought about two years ago, she found that giving herself permission to quit a book lowered the pressure significantly. She tells herself — and advises others — to just read 20 pages. "If after 20 pages you're not feeling it for whatever reason, close the book and, here's the key, pick a new book." She used to feel bad about not finishing books, but not anymore. "There are literally thousands of books published each year," she said. "Why spend precious time muddling my way through a book I don't like when I could move on to a new book that I might adore?"

It's important to remember that deciding not to finish a particular book now doesn't mean you won't ever. "If a book isn't clicking, I will just put it aside," Cullingham said. "There's a lot of books that I've done that with two or three times, and then I come back to them … and end up loving them."

Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in the New York Times, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, The Walrus and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram @chris.hampton.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?