Monday Musings…I Almost Forgot About Martin!!

I have a confession to make. I've never completely read through a fiction novel in my life, until just recently.

You may be wondering how I ever got through high school English classes – easy answer: Coles Notes. Apparently, I wasn't alone as students have been using this literary hack since 1948! It seems that the human race has been bent on finding slothful solutions to life's challenges for a very long time!

It’s shameful to admit this personal fact because really, how hard is it to read a fiction novel? But for me, it really is! I can do many things that might appear significantly more challenging like climbing a mountain or cycling 100k, or even completing and defending my Masters' thesis, but I've just never been able to read fiction. I've never had an interest in the imaginary lives of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby, or Napoleon from Animal Farm. My issue with fiction relates mainly to my attention span: if I’m not captivated in the first paragraph, it’s hopeless. My other litmus test is if I fall asleep before the end of the first chapter. The third criterion relates to the length of the book – why does it take 500+ pages to reveal an ending that you already predicted by page 10? Reading fiction has just never been my thing.

Well, that all got put to the test recently when a friend gave me a book before Christmas telling me that I’d “love it”. This person had no knowledge of my inability to embrace this literary genre, and so, reluctant to say thanks, but no thanks, I brought the book home. And there it sat, taunting me on my nightstand, for months. When she’d ask how I liked the book, I used the excuse, which was valid, that I was busy with school. But then, the semester ended. Hmm, now what was I going to do? You can only avoid the obvious for so long.

So before she could ask me that dreaded question again, I forced myself to open it up to chapter one and begin. I couldn’t make it past the first two pages before my mind started to wander and I had no recollection of even the last sentence I just read. It seemed hopeless.

I was really starting to feel for my students now, who probably struggled to read some of the things I required of them, and had zero interest in completing them. That really put things in perspective for me. Surely there had to be a way to break through this resistance to reading!

So, I spent significant time thinking about the whole topic of motivation which helps explain why we do the things we do, or don't do the things we should. Bottom line, when you're motivated, you have a determination to reach a goal. You know, you might be motivated to work on a project, organize some files, lose 10 pounds, clean your room, or even just do the dishes. But motivation only gets you to the starting line. When things get tough, when it takes too long, when there’s more effort needed than expected, it’s easy to bail. You just don’t feel like doing it anymore. The minute your brain says that, you’re done. So, what will keep you going, or in my case, keep me reading fiction? And then the light bulb went off. If I want to push through each chapter and reach that goal of actually completing it, I've got to instill a habit of reading fiction.

A habit is about doing something repeatedly so that it becomes automatic, like a reflex. In the initial stages it’s tough going, but when you see progress, no matter how small, you’re like: This isn’t so bad. I can keep going. The key though is consistency, especially through those rough patches, because the default is just to give up and go back to your old ways. You’ve got to push through because victory awaits if you’re patient and persistent.

Now I can write that, and you can know it, but if you’re like me, you need help to make it happen.

Enter technology. I downloaded a habit app. A pretty simple one actually, that one of my sons helped me find when I told him what I was looking for. Now, I had a visual reminder and accountability to motivate me and get me to the starting line and then carry me through the 518 pages by building a daily habit! The habit I wanted to create was to read one chapter a day. I picked the same environment and same time of day, and disciplined myself to stay awake (without caffeine as I didn’t want to start that habit) and complete the chapter. I already knew that it takes 21 days to build a habit and this book had 24 chapters, so this sounded like a great plan. But after almost 55 years of never being able to do this, I sincerely doubted this was possible.

To be honest, it was really tough. My brain is hardwired for non-fiction, but I somehow had to find some new circuitry to adapt, pay attention, and not fall asleep. The one-chapter-rule made all the difference. It’s much easier to persevere when your brain knows the task is time limited. So, in the beginning I’d count the pages and then count down as I read through them, knowing I was getting closer and could check off the success button on my app. By day five, I didn’t need to count the pages as my brain knew approximately how much time it needed to focus. The training was paying off. In twenty-four days, I was done! I couldn’t believe it. I could teach this old dog a new trick!

But, if I really wanted make sure I had rewired my middle-aged brain and had truly created a new habit for reading fiction, I needed to keep reinforcing it, right? I had to keep going. So, my husband, who is a voracious reader of multiple genres, suggested I read one of the classics. This sounded like I was going back to high school! Yikes!! So, I reached into his pile of well-read novels and pulled out Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens, perhaps one of Dickens' lesser known works, but hey, I was no connoisseur of fiction.

I had 24 days in the habit development bag, but I soon realized I was definitely not an automatic reader yet. I tried my regular environment and time of day, but for the life of me that old English put me to sleep – every time. I began to think that I’d discovered a new cure for insomnia! But feeling this was disrespectful to Mr. Dickens, I had to switch it up. I didn’t want to see that ‘fail’ symbol on my app! So, I found what worked, changed to a location and time when my brain was energized, and employed that extra effort to keep consistent.

There were days when life interfered with my ideal reading spot, and I could be heard frantically exclaiming that I forgot to read Martin! I scrambled to fit it in, not fall behind, or get that red X on my app. I was driven to build this new discipline in my life.

With the development of good habits there is always a pay off, and in this case, I was benefiting immensely by stretching my vocabulary and my knowledge about life and times in the 1800's. And while Martin Chuzzlewit is an imaginary and farcical tale, I actually learned to appreciate Dickens’ skill, and how the people of that era would have received pleasure from reading his serialized chapters.

I plan to continue using my habit app to reinforce my newfound activity of reading fiction, along with the other items I have added to my behaviour checklist for improvement.

This simple act of reading one chapter a day has taught me that:

· You’re never to young or too old to start a good habit.

· Consistency is key to lasting change.

· Sometimes you need to modify the environment to ensure you can keep practicing that habit.

· There are rewards to becoming a lifelong learner. Indeed, your brain will thank you for it!

I’m currently on page 629 of the 942-page novel, so I better keep following the direction of Mr. Pinch, one of the main characters: “after turning the leaves of his book with as much care as if they were living and highly cherished creatures, made his own selection and began to read.”

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