One of my goals in 2017 was to read 52 books. By the end of the year, I’d significantly exceeded that number, as you already know from the super subtle title of this long-form listicle. More important than goal achievement though, hanging out with all those words and characters was wonderfully fulfilling.
I talk to a lot of people who say they want to read more but struggle with how to make that happen, especially while working full-time and not becoming a total hermit. To help, here are five of the most important beliefs or practices that have allowed me to both enjoy and finish reading more books.
1. I’m going to die one day and so are you.
I used to be a compulsive book-finisher and SO freaking sanctimonious about it. If anyone told me they were giving up on a book, I made sure to tell them that I basically never gave up on books. (This was obviously a very endearing quality.) I tried to finish every book I started because, even if I didn’t enjoy it, I believed I had something to learn as a writer from the experience of getting all the way through it. For instance, finding out what about the book’s structure wasn’t working, or how the pacing could have been improved. But circa 2016 or so, I changed my mind on this.
Here’s why: I’m going to die. As are you! Therefore, almost certainly neither of us will EVER read all the books we want to in this lifetime. It’s simply impossible. Even if I did nothing but read, sleep, and eat for the rest of my life (which actually sounds pretty wonderful hello could that be my existence?), my appetite for books would likely keep increasing and expanding. New inspirations would come in, new works would keep being published, and at most I could still read only a book or so a day. And then I’d die, hopefully many thousands of days (and books) later, and also probably quite unhealthy from spending so much time in comfy chairs. But even still, with that kind of commitment, I would have only read a fraction of the books that I’d wanted to.
Contemplating mortality is generally a fast track to clarity. In this case it freed me of the responsibility to finish whatever book (or essay, or article) I was reading if I didn’t want to.
Typically, I now give books about 20–70 pages. If I don’t keep wanting to read, with something inside myself that feels like a yes!, or at least a strong sense of curiosity, then I put it aside. There’s always another book waiting (more on this later). You know that feeling of barely being able to wait to get back to reading the book you’re currently reading? Or, maybe you want to move slowly through it, but every time you pick it up, you feel DEEPLY satisfied by the process of reading the sentences? By giving up on books instead of forcing myself to finish them, I have that feeling almost constantly while reading.
As someone who loves words, I had to get over the sense that I was letting down the author or, somehow, disappointing the book. (I know, I know. But it’s true! I used to worry I might hurt the book’s feelings. Being socialized as a woman is weird.)
I like what Austin Kleon says as remedy for this concern. He says if there are books you don’t enjoy or don’t want to keep going with, you can just tell yourself (and others): “It wasn’t for me.” One simple sentence! (Bonus, this can also be applied to unsatisfying dates.) We don’t have to punish ourselves right now for not enjoying a thing.
2. There are 168 hours in a week.
For most of the people who tell me they don’t have time to read, I have some sense of what their lives look like: they look fairly similar to mine. They work 35 to 65 hours each week, they commute between 15 minutes to an hour each day, and they have an active social life. Variables like kids, dependent family who live nearby, side projects, health, and what the commute looks like can of course change how much time we have for activities like reading.
Here are some ways I try to structure my time differently to allow for more reading. I ride the bus, and read on the bus. (For folks who get carsick or drive: audiobooks!) Commute reading adds up to at least 30 minutes of reading for me each weekday. I also try to schedule at least one night in the week where nothing is planned except to go home and read.
If reading more is what you want to do this year, it’s unlikely anyone else will prioritize it for you. So you have to figure out how to prioritize it for yourself. This might also include re-evaluating the other media you take in.
Which shows are you not 100% enjoying, but just watching because it’s habit? What kinds of online content are you consuming mindlessly in a way that sucks up hours of your day but brings you little to no joy? Where can reading fit in as life works for you right now, if reading is what you want more of?
3. What’s on deck?
So, my to-read stack is so high that it stresses me out to look at. Because tsundoku. But other people finish a book and then they don’t know what to read next, so they end up having months-long gaps in between books, during which time they wish they were reading more but they aren’t. If that’s you, it’s important to have a running list of books you want to dip into next.
At my public library’s website, (THANK YOU LIBRARIES!) I can request books to be delivered to my local branch and also save books onto my “for later” shelf with one click on the website. Other people I know keep a note on their phone just for book recs with their own organizational system, and of course there’s wishlists on Goodreads. The internet and social media make it fairly easy to be getting book recommendations every minute of every day.
If that’s overwhelming, just ask your readerly friends for three books they read lately that they loved. I’ve included a few of my favorites at the bottom of this post to get you started.
4. The way you read is beautiful.
Things I learned this year when I started talking to friends more about my, and their, reading habits: PEOPLE HAVE SO MANY FEELINGS ABOUT READING. Which makes sense. Reading is all entangled with beliefs about intelligence and knowledge, and we’re forced to read books we might not enjoy in school for a long number of years, so a lot of people associate reading with feeling terrible.
But the less you can make reading into a way to self-flagellate, the more enjoyable reading will become. So. What are the ways reading is currently feeding into you being mean to yourself? What would it be like to believe instead that the way you read, including what you want to read, and how you want to read, is totally acceptable?
5. Reclaim your brain.
There’s a lot I could say about how to make your phone less of a distraction device, but to start: if you’re settling in to read at home, or at a cafe, or really anywhere, DO NOT keep your phone nearby and in sight. Unless you read books on your phone in which case: airplane mode. (Right after I wrote that sentence, my phone lit up with a reminder from my water-drinking digital plant app, reminding me to drink water, and then I realized I had two unread text messages, and then I lost my train of thought. So, basically, point proven.)
Your phone is a slot machine that wants your attention and time. DO NOT SURRENDER.
When you’ve carved out this nice space for reading a book you’re super excited about, you’re doing yourself and the words on the page a disservice by allowing yourself to be interrupted. I’d put it on airplane mode in another part of the room, or even in a different room. Any buzzing or lighting up interrupts the flow and makes the reading less pleasurable. The phone doesn’t need to be next to you while you’re reading. Reclaim your brain. Allow your attention to be singular.
I hope this helps you read more books if that’s what you’re wanting for your year. And I hope the books give you joy and insight, and illuminate truths about yourself and other people and the world that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see. As for me, you can probably find me in a used bookstore, trying to exert some self restraint. ❤
Bonus: What to Read
A few of my favorite books from 2017 were Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose, and PERSON/A by Elizabeth Ellen. I share books I’m loving on insta, as do most writers (and indie bookstores), and I’ve shared abridged reading lists here from 2014, ’15, ’16, and ’17, if you need another place to start. Happy reading!