Perhaps if we were better-read, we’d be able to make more sense of IKEA’s instructions on how to put together a desk. That’s not the stated reason the Swedish furniture maker is creating reading rooms in its Wembley store in north London in partnership with the Man Booker Prize, though it’s perhaps a secret motivation.
Rather, IKEA says that it just wants to remind people of the benefits of picking up a book. “As the boundaries between our work and home lives become more blurred, it’s become harder to switch off. Our homes aren’t the haven they once were. Yet reading for just six minutes a day can be enough to reduce stress levels by more than two-thirds,” the company explains on its website.
Between July 31 and August 5, customers at the Wembley store will be able to snag a sofa and curl up with a selection from the Man Booker Prize 2018 longlist. Bonus: You can take a book home gratis.
The downside, however, is that slots must be booked online in advance, which means you can’t just wander into the store and ease into an armchair by chance—you have to plan to go to Ikea and read, which seems weird, frankly, and undermines the endeavor. Because spaces must be reserved, people who are already bookish are the most likely to benefit from the literary project. Yet if anyone needs to be reminded of the benefits of reading, it’s regular IKEA shoppers—people roaming the store in a stressed state, desperately trying to figure out how to furnish their living rooms.
IKEA is far from the only organization trying to entice more reading, which may be some indication of the state of reading books today. Most of the programs are aimed at kids, however. For example, Pizza Hut has the “Book It” program, which since 1984 has rewarded kids with a free personal pan pizza when they achieve a reading goal their teacher has set for the month, and has a summer scavenger hunt component. The bookstore chain Barnes & Noble has a program to encourage summer reading that gives kids a free book. And singer Dolly Parton created the Imagination Library in 1995 in Tennessee to encourage adults and kids to read together by making access to books easy and inexpensive, sending age-appropriate tomes to kids’ homes; the program has since been replicated throughout the US.
Because many of us are reading all the time—articles, emails, tweets, and texts—it’s sometimes difficult to remember that picking up a book and getting lost in it is a pleasure with benefits. Parents especially should be aware of their reading habits, according to experts. If you want your kids to appreciate books, they have to spot you in the act, book in hand. Sue Wilkinson, who founded the Reading Agency nonprofit, tells the Guardian, “When a parent says, ‘I can’t get my child to read’, the first thing we ask is, ‘Do they ever see you read?’”
Children’s book writer Joseph Coelho says parents can also encourage reluctant children to read via roundabout routes. “Pretty much every game has a downloadable manual,” Coelho tells the Guardian. “You can get them to read about how best to play the game. They are still learning the importance of reading.” The next step is to get them reading fiction inspired by video games—like Ready Player One, a novel about a dystopian future in which people find escapism in virtual reality. Someday, kids may learn to enjoy books.
Breaking out of a literary rut
Even if you love reading in principle, it can be hard to get into the habit. Maybe you’re picking books and putting them down after a couple of chapters, or perhaps you don’t know what books to choose—you’re used to liking a certain genre or author but your tastes have changed.
If you’re stuck in a rut, switch things up. Pick a book by its cover, knowing nothing about it. Read something that’s not at all in your usual wheelhouse. Get recommendations. Re-read an old favorite. Delve into a new genre. Tackle that classic you always meant to read but never did. Be methodical or random, says Bustle’s Charlotte Ahlin—just read something, anything, to get into reading again.
On the flip side, the Biblioracle at the Chicago Tribune, John Warner, suggests that it’s fine to enjoy “literary comfort food.” Sometimes it’s great to read a book that changes your worldview and teaches you new things. But it can also be reassuring to settle into a familiar novel and just enjoy fine, reliable writing. “Sometimes you don’t want your palate challenged. You just need your meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy and a side of macaroni and cheese,” writes Warner. For him, that means reading an Anne Tyler novel.
Either way, there’s no shortage of books to be read or writers recommending them. Apart from the old standbys, like the New York Review of Books, Quartz’s Thu-Huong Ha offers regular recommendations from business leaders and a fantastically fierce summer reading list. Politico shares what “leading lights” are reading. And University of California-Berkeley professors aren’t averse to offering opinions in their local paper.
Take it slow
Yet another way to get back into reading is to slow down. We’re used to rushing through things and reading on screens, which encourages skimming text. The burgeoning slow reading movement—like slow food—is about stepping back from a harried culture, deliberately taking time to savor a book.
Writers work in drafts. They are deliberate. Words are chosen with some care. A great reader appreciates that. Rather than hurrying through a story as if reading in a race, the slow reader examines closely to delight in the fine turns of phrase and stylish nuances and to better understand. Slow readers physically change their consumption pace. That means going back to reread a passage when you realize you haven’t been paying attention, reading aloud, taking in the text word by word and line by line.
This slow approach decreases stress and improves brain function (paywall), especially if done for a minimum of 30-minute stretches. It also helps you to grasp deeper truths in a narrative and make connections between the book and your existing web of knowledge. And it counteracts the effect of reading frenetically on the internet, which technologist Nicholas Carr contends makes us more stupid.
A good plot might make you want to rush. But a slow read makes each twist more delicious. Although it only takes six-and-a-half minutes of reading to become more relaxed, as IKEA notes in its promotion, devoting just a bit more to this intellectually beneficial pastime certainly can’t hurt and will likely ignite your imagination and help you reduce stress.