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Opinion Want to love books again? Read something bad for you

Reader, I was in a slump. A reading slump. Not a single book on the towering stack by my bed enticed me: not the worthy novel recommended by friends, not the screed about how robots were coming for our jobs, not the graphic novel about German history. My phone, that bite-sized seducer, was much more tempting.

Then, one morning, I passed the Free Little Library on my neighbour’s lawn and looked inside. For book lovers, the little libraries are like animal shelters, filled with the lost and the broken and the once-loved, each one a tiny story in itself: Who abandoned the book about trying to save a marriage? Whose children never loved the uncracked Anne of Green Gables?

Lying on its side was a fat, musty no-hoper, even sadder for the fact that it had once been “the number one novel of the year!” When it was published in 1968, Arthur Hailey’s novel Airport cost $1.50. When it was published, this is the way you’d describe a female character, if you were writing jacket copy: “The hot-tempered English brunette from ‘Stewardess Row’ where liquor is served in pilfered two-ounce bottles.”

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Of course I brought it home, and I don’t think I spoke to another human till I got to the end. If adultery and airports can’t cure a reading slump, what can? My love for Arthur Hailey has been a secret until now, as the summer reading season approaches and my experience may prove useful: Shame has no place in reading, whether it’s in your choice of material or the fact that you’re in a slump. In the end, it may be serendipity that saves you.

Please know that if you are also in a slump, you’re not alone. “Perhaps you have felt a pang of something subtle that is missing when you seek to immerse yourself in a once-favorite book,” writes Maryanne Wolf in Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. “Like a phantom limb, you remember who you were as a reader, but cannot summon that ‘attentive ghost’ with the joy you once felt in being transported somewhere outside the self.”

Prof. Wolf is not only one of the world’s experts on the science of reading, she is also a generous friend who understands the modern reader’s dilemma. You want to read more, you really do, but every time you pick up a book, your brain skitters like a marble on an ice rink. The laptop is so close, the phone even closer. She does not blame you, dear reader: Your brain was only recently wired for reading, in evolutionary terms; its bias toward novelty is much older, practically knob-and-tube in comparison. Blame your inner lizard when it leaps on a tasty new notification.

You’re not off the hook, though. You have to try to regain the love. Reading is an essential skill, Prof. Wolf writes, for the contemplation necessary in learning, for critical thinking, and crucially for gaining space away from a wired world that is constantly driving us toward a shrinking set of self-affirming thoughts. She worries about the future of democracy if people increasingly rely on shallow, undifferentiated shards of information.

She writes about the need to regain what William Wordsworth called “the harvest of a quiet eye.” Attention and time are our most valued commodities, and reading means putting those in the bank and watching them collect interest. “We read,” she says, “to take this most economical transport away from our frantically pursued everyday lives.”

In other words, when we read, we steal time back for ourselves. We regain autonomy over our own thoughts, because a book recommends nothing but itself. It does not want you to buy an avocado slicer that another customer has bought, or to get in a fight with a stranger on social media. It really is nature’s perfect product. The question is, how do you learn to flex that reading muscle again, and bring books back into your life?

For Prof. Wolf, the answer was to reread Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, a novel she had loved when she was younger. I cannot recommend this approach, having once tried to read The Glass Bead Game (even she admits that the experience is like “having molasses poured on my brain”). In fact, one of the barriers to reading might be the pressure we feel to read what is “good” for us – the hip bestseller everyone is talking about, the brain-expanding door-stopper that the billionaire recommends, the misery memoir that makes you want to set fire to your book club. It’s no wonder we abandon books when they become yet another chore.

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There’s a way to inject joy back into it, and that means reading the book less taken. Summer is a time for serendipity, for taking a side road instead of the highway, or having a drink on a patio you’ve walked by a hundred times. What if you did that with books, too? Ignore the billionaire’s summer reading recommendations. Avoid the algorithms that tell you what other readers bought. Instead, haunt the churchyard rummage sale, the little library, your friend’s cottage bathroom. Find books that were published 50 years ago, and that you’re pretty sure are bad for you. That is where the best reading surprises lie.

I’m not making any arguments for Airport as a great literary experience, but it was a great reading experience. After I’d finished, I started Mr. Hailey’s 1965 novel Hotel, an original hardcover borrowed from my grandmother-in-law’s bookshelf (according to the wonderfully démodé dust jacket, the author lived part-time in Toronto “with his lovely wife Sheila”). Suddenly, I was transported to a grand hotel in New Orleans, and time once again disappeared. I shared with Prof. Wolf the sense that “I read both to find fresh reason to love this world and also to leave this world behind.” I might even send her a copy of the book. It would be our secret.

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