Welcome to Advice in The Stacks, a bookish advice column from me, Traci Thomas, the host and creator of The Stacks podcast. My show is all about books and the people who read them, with new episodes out every Wednesday on your favorite podcast platform. Due to the nature of the show I am constantly asked for advice on all things books, so I’m making it formal and bringing my advice to all of you with my monthly column here at SheReads.com.

If you have questions about anything book related, CLICK HERE and submit your question, and then come back the last Thursday of the month to see my advice.

Hi Traci, Do you have any tips or tricks for how to focus when trying to read? I sit down to read and find myself instead picking up my phone and mindlessly scrolling without even intentionally doing it. I love to read but I just get distracted so easily sometimes. 

Help! Distracted Bookworm

Of all the questions I get asked about reading, this is the one I get asked about the most, besides maybe “how do you not fall asleep while you read?” Funnily enough the answer to both questions is essentially the same. So, here it goes.

  • Set your scene. I like to get everything ready for a reading stint. I will get my snacks and beverages prepared, go to the bathroom, light a candle, grab my favorite blanket and sit in my reading spot. This way everything I need to have good reading time is at the ready. There’s no distractions; no reason to get up and do something else.
  • Dispose of your phone. Spoiler alert: your phone is messing you up. Put that thing on do not disturb or airplane mode. If that is still not enough, put it walking distance away from you and your book. Get it out of your line of vision. Turn off all sounds and vibrations. Do what you need to do to avoid the temptation of that tiny little distraction machine. If your book is on your phone (which I super do not recommend for people struggling to focus) you could get one of those productivity apps like Forest that dings you when you open other apps during the time you’re supposed to be focusing.
  • Pomodoro, baby! I am all about structured reading time. I use the Pomodoro method. Here is how it works;I will set my timer for 25 minutes and read without any interruptions. When the time is up I set my alarm for a five minute interval for phone time, bathroom breaks, or refills. I am super rigid with these time limits even when I’m in a really good part of my book. The breaks help me to stay focused during the reading time. If you’re reading for a long time, after your fourth round of a 25 minute sprint,  you have earned a nice long break, I usually eat a meal or go on a walk.
  • Get a better book. Sometimes the reason you’re not into your book and you’re more into your phone is the book just isn’t that good. Or it isn’t that good for you right now. Put it down. Start something new. It is more than okay to not finish a book.

In January 2019 I wrote about ‘reading resolutions” and you might find some other tips there that will help you stay on track. Good luck, and let me know if any of these tips help. And remember…

What books would you recommend to someone who isn’t a reader but wants to start reading more books?

This is a really hard question since I don’t know anything about your taste in books based on the question. When recommending books, I usually like to know what you’re into, either in your reading life or any other part of your life. I also like to know about your relationship to reading. Did you used to read and stopped? Did you never enjoy it? Why don’t you consider yourself a reader? All of this plays into how I think about book recommendations, because a really solid book rec is personalized for the recipient. That being said, here are some books that I’ve had a lot of success recommending to people who don’t consider themselves readers.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This is one of those thrillers that is so easy to read and such a wild ride. If you haven’t seen the movie it’s hard to guess the twists that are headed your way. The writing is smooth and there is so much going on, you won’t hit that readerly rut that so often can derail folks from finishing a book. Plus, when you finish you can watch the film adaptation (which I would argue is as good as the book, but it is slightly different).

Grief is Love: Living with Loss by Marisa Renee Lee

I’m picking this book because there is not a single person who has not or will not be touched by grief. We all have lost loved ones, opportunities, parts of ourselves, jobs, friendships, pets, etc. and this book addresses the experience of loss so well. It is accessible while still having context from grief scholars, and Lee also includes her own insights as a person who suffered from pregnancy and parental loss. It is not the most unputdownable of books, but it does offer so much that is relevant to any reader. For a little bonus content, Marisa was a guest on The Stacks, and you can check out that conversation here.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster Jon Krakauer

If you know me, you know that Jon Krakauer is one of my all time favorite authors. I love how he tells stories by zooming both in and out on his subjects. What you might now know is that Into Thin Air is the book that got me into reading (and loving) nonfiction, especially investigative journalism, back when I was a senior in high school. It was an extra credit read and I devoured this book, and have read everything he has written since. The book details the deadly 1996 Everst expedition that Krakuer was on as well as the history of attempts to summit the tallest mountains on earth. This book is as unputdownable as they come and if you love this one, Krakauer has a handful of other books that I simply adore.

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

About 13 years ago I was in a place in my life where I was finding it really hard to find a book that I liked. My BFF suggested I read The Hunger Games series and after I finished scoffing and got off my high horse, I was obsessed. Yes, I even have a mockingjay pin. I am not normally a sci-fi/fantasy reader, nor am I a YA person, however these books were just so good. I fell in love with the protagonist Katniss and her love triangle and the high stakes. If you want something good, easy to fall into, and a page turner, I can’t suggest these books more highly. There is a fourth book in the series that came out in 2020 which I have not read, but I plan to.

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton

If you’re not so into reading because you hate the daunting look of paragraphs upon paragraphs of text, might I suggest this fictionalized oral history. I’ve always loved the ways oral history breaks up the traditional structure of the page and the story. It makes reading feel more manageable to me. The book is about Opal and Nev a 1970’s rock duo and the murder at the center of their origin story. Walton manages the tempo of this book perfectly. There is heart and rhythm and joy and rage. It is the perfect book to lose yourself in. Dawnie was a guest on The Stacks in 2021 and we had the best time together, check it out here.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

This might not be a great book recommendation for everyone. It deals with some really heavy topics (the death penalty, racialized violence, prison culture, and mass incarceration and more) but it is ultimately one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read. True story: when I finished the book I looked into going to law school, instead I started The Stacks. Bryan Stevenson tells the story of a man who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death at the start of Stevenson’s career. This case inspired Stevenson to go on to become an advocate for hundreds of other people who have been locked away due to the United State’s unjust carceral practices. The book looks at both this one case, as well as the bigger picture of wrongful convictions, the death penalty, and the appeals process.