I still vividly remember rolling my eyes so far back in my head that I accidentally gave myself a headache when I overheard this one guy brag about how good he was at reading because he averaged reading 5 books per month.
My love of reading is an intrinsic part of my personality. So when I heard this guy spouting off about his pages per minute ratio, I took it a little personally. Am I a bad reader because I like to thoughtfully digest my books, or because I don’t like the self-help genre? Am I a bad reader because I frequently turn back to old classics instead of trying out newer books?
To me, a good reader is curious. A good reader is analytical. And most importantly, a good reader loves to read for the joy of reading. Bad readers aren’t defined by the books they read, but rather the attitude by which they read them. Like the guy I eavesdropped on, they tend to give themselves away pretty quickly by embodying these traits of truly terrible readers.
1. They brag about how many books they read
This is the cardinal sin in my mind: the conquest attitude. The “I read three books a week,” type of people. The “Oh, you only read a single book last year? I’m better than you,” kind of attitudes.
As soon as a book is just a number to you, it demonstrates you’re not reading for fun, to improve yourself, or to gain a new perspective. You’re just in it to prove you’re above other people.
Unfortunately, simply reading any given number of books doesn’t make you a better person — or a better reader. It just proves you don’t care about the book or the author, just about making yourself seem more educated. According to this comprehensive study, there is no such thing as speed reading, so when someone brags about the number of books they read, rather than about what they learned, how it changed them, or what their thoughts were, it’s a dead giveaway they’re a bad reader.
2. They don’t think about the story critically
This is most prevalent in the self-help genre of readers. It’s the sort of attitude that because they read How to Win Friends and Influence People and all seventeen knock-off versions, they know how to win friends, influence people, and generally are experts in the people-manipulation realm.
This attitude is so frustrating to me because it means these individuals see reading as a means to an end — they read, they comprehended, they moved on. They don’t read because they’re genuinely interested in the potential takeaways, because they don’t do any work to engage with the lessons beyond simply reading it and forgetting about it.
Unfortunately, simply accumulating titles of well-known books in your conquest pile does not make you more intelligent. Research shows it’s not enough to comprehend — to be a good reader, you have to think critically about the content you’re consuming.
You don’t need to deeply analyze every single story you read, but a trademark of bad readers is that they never do — and still think that just because they’ve read the books, they’re fully experts.
3. They only read in one genre
I’m probably guiltiest of this one: I love my comfort reading. I’ve found high fantasy can always deliver me to a new universe, so I never bother to try other avenues.
But one day a friend convinced me to read The Outrun, a raw, gritty autobiography about a woman who starts drinking at 15, loses everything, and exiles herself to remote and chilly Scotland to find sobriety. I opened myself up to realistic fiction, nonfiction, autobiographies and more — and I loved it.
“The importance of reading different genres should not be understated.” — The Fussy Librarian
Reading in one genre is like comfort food: it’s safe because you know what you’re going to get. It doesn’t challenge you. But being a good reader means you’re willing to take that risk, try something new, crack open a book you’d never dreamed of trying before.
Bad readers don’t like to challenge themselves. Good ones are open to reading something that might change the way they think.
4. They only think about optimizing their book consumption
This attitude annoys me the most — when people start chatting about how they’ve learned to read X number of words a minute or their strategy to listen to books on tape at 2.5x speed.
It’s analogous to some of the earlier attitudes: that books are somehow intelligence points that you can simply consume to gain. Reading to educate yourself is obviously only a good thing, and trying to learn to read faster is admirable, but as soon as you start trying to optimize yourself to become a speed-reading machine, or tailor your list of books to ensure you become the most interesting person in the room, it’s no longer about you reading — it’s about what the perception of being a reader can do for you.
Reading is one of the most enlightening things you can do — research shows it literally increases empathy. It gives you a chance to see exactly how someone else thinks, feels, decides. That’s why it’s so irksome to see bad readers share pictures of their well-curated bookshelves and share their top reading speed — they’ve taken what should have been an experience they share with the writer and the community of readers and turned it into a spectacle of themselves.
It doesn’t matter how many unread books are in your to-read book pile. It doesn’t matter if you’re staying away from heavy classics, or if you don’t like to read for self-improvement. It doesn’t matter if you read one or one thousand words per minute. Good readers are not defined by anything other than the attitude by which they read books.
Being a good reader just means you have an open heart and an open mind when it comes to books. Conversely, being a bad reader simply means you only think about what the book gives you, or how to use it to brag about yourself.
If you’re only reading to have a number, or to make yourself seem more important, or to prove you know all there is to know on a subject, you’ve missed the point. To be a good reader, all you have to do is enjoy reading.
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This article first appeared on Medium.