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How I went from reading five or six books a year to 55
It’s new year’s resolution time, and if you’re currently resolving to read more books, I highly recommend it. In fact, I swear on the stack of the 55 books I read in 2014.
I didn’t start out thinking I’d read that much. I just knew I wanted to read more. I keep a running list on my iPhone of books I want to eventually read. One day I thought: So when am I going to get to them all?
It’s not like I have a lot of leisure time. I’m out almost every night for work. In 2014, I saw 307 stage shows – plays, comedy, opera and dance – and 161 movies. And I spend most of my time writing about them, editing articles about them, talking about them and interviewing people about them.
But nothing is as satisfying as being totally immersed in a book, entering someone’s consciousness and seeing the world – or another world, if it’s speculative fiction – through a different set of eyes. It’s no surprise that a study published in the journal Science found that reading literary fiction encourages empathy.
Before my year of magical reading, I would consume maybe a half-dozen books per year: a couple of prize-winners, novels being turned into films, that sort of thing. I always made sure I reviewed a book or two for NOW’s International Festival of Authors coverage, all to force myself to keep up with current writing.
In 2013 I even joined a book club that meets every few months to discuss a tome over wine and dessert. Reasonable pace, and social too.
Other than that, I’d occasionally pick up a book, read a couple of chapters, put it down and then… well, something would inevitably come along to distract me: an awards show waiting to be live-tweeted, an email or text that needed answering, an acclaimed cable TV series to binge-watch. You know: life.
I did the math. Five or six books a year amounts to a paltry 50 or 60 books a decade. How many decades could I be expected to live, I thought (somewhat morbidly), and therefore how many books would I get to read? The number was puny.
Would I ever get around to Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past? Tolstoy’s War And Peace? Cervantes’s Don Quixote? Not at this rate.
Ironically, it took social media – which everyone blames for causing distractions – to get me to read more.
Back in February, I noticed the #50BookPledge hashtag popping up in my Twitter feed. It takes you to a site that lets you set goals and monitor your reading over the calendar year. There’s a rating and comment system to record your impressions, a cute little digital bookshelf that displays what you’ve read and badges to show you’ve read certain books and mark your progress. (And hey, I’m not stupid, I know this thing is run by a publisher to push their books.)
50 books seemed ambitious, but my well-read tweeps (people like Janet Somerville, Ing Wong-Ward, Saleema Nawaz and Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen) taking the pledge assured me I could do less. I settled on half: 25.
When you add books to your #50BookPledge shelf, you’re told how many books you can expect to read at your current rate. You can also peek at what others are reading and what they’ve thought of a book. You can create a shelf for volumes you’re currently reading and ones you eventually want to read. It’s all geared to making reading fun and – strange though it seems for an activity that’s so solitary – social. I also joined Goodreads.com, which allows you to follow people and carry on conversations about books, sort of like an online book club.
So, deep in the winter months of 2014, I began reading and just kept at it. I’d read at night (my new iPad Mini meant I could read without having to find a good lamp), between shows and during intermissions, on the subway or streetcar. I also downloaded some audiobooks for commuting (see comedy memoirs below – I find fiction difficult to listen to).
My digital bookshelf filled up. Here are the sorts of books I read:
Recently published acclaimed books: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay Revolutionary Road The Goldfinch The Woman Upstairs What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank Tenth Of December
Books I read on assignment: Bark Barracuda Station Eleven The Troop
Memoirs by comics or funny people (also good as stress-relievers, and better served by audiobooks than reading): Bossypants Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Me Talk Pretty One Day Attempting Normal
After reading too many novels, I mixed things up with a work of non-fiction, like Sheri Fink’s Five Days At Memorial, a very detailed look at what happened at a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina, or The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross’s encyclopedic study of 20th-century music. I’d never heard of Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s intriguing experiment involving race in the 1960s, but it proved to be very timely in 2014.
I followed my instincts. Donna Tartt’s page-turning charmer The Goldfinch was so long and absorbing, I didn’t feel like reading any another novel after it. So I turned to short story collections by Roddy Doyle and Jhumpa Lahiri. Each carefully-etched story provided flashes of insight, without me having to commit to the extended arc of a novel.
Soon I hit the 25-book mark and 50 didn’t seem outrageous. The more I read, the easier it was to read. Books became a habit.
There were times when I was simply too tired or busy to read – during the Film Festival, during the lead up to the holidays. My advice? Ride them through. Go live life. You’ll come back.
On #50BookPledge and Goodreads.com, you’ll discover book lovers of all sorts: people who read more than 200 books a year brilliant people people you have absolutely nothing in common with people you totally know you’d like IRL people who only read a certain genre or author. Don’t compare yourself with anyone else. Go at your own pace.
So here we are at the beginning of a new year. I’ve pledged to read another 50 books. I just finished Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which I began in 2014 and was on my “Will I ever get around to reading this classic?” list forever. It’s one of the most rewarding and surprising books I’ve ever read.
Will I finally get around to reading Proust and Cervantes in 2015?
I can’t wait to find out.