Note: a more comprehensive version of this article was posted on my personal, non-author blog. This also doesn’t discuss the pain of reading during a honest-to-god pandemic, so…
Whatever you think of certain leaders or politicians, many of the most successful ones read a ton. I used to work for General McChrystal and Admiral McRaven and both of them had annual book lists of “recommended” (ie: almost mandatory) books for people in their command to read.
Reading is a good in itself, even more than one would think. Because of smartphones, our brains have been trained to scroll down short news articles and posts in a manner that is not conducive to retaining information. We need to get back to books, whether in digital or analog form, to retrain our attention spans.
A few years ago, I asked myself, why read? I actually started with the premise that we overemphasize books, given the fluff (this includes me; I love fluff. No hate.) some people read and the wealth of information at our fingertips. The research indicated I was wrong:
Let’s assume for the moment that most of your article reading is done online, in a format that includes links ….On the flip side, let’s assume even if you are reading on your Kindle, the medium at least attempts to simulate a printed book, with page flipping and no extra distractions.
One difference you’ll see is in how your brain decodes the text. As Rachel Grate points out, our brains actually are not designed for reading long spans of text, and it is a use-it-or-lose-it skill. As we read, our brains construct a “mental map” based on the text, and with a traditional book, the brain will map the text in a linear fashion. With online reading, however, especially with attendant distractions such as links, ads, and the power to scroll down fast, most people begin skimming rather than truly absorbing a text.
A 2006 study showed reading on screens (especially Internet reading) led to people scanning the text in an F pattern—that is, reading the top line then skimming along the left side of the page. As individuals become accustomed to reading in this nonlinear fashion, the brain becomes less and less accustomed to comprehending and focusing on denser text.
With this is mind, I started my own online book club. We have 50+ members who are either friends of mine or friends of friends. We have a Facebook group and we share whenever we finish a book. If we are so inclined, we also furnish a review. In just three weeks, it has grown into a little community with book suggestions and cheering each other on.
Is everyone in my club trying to read 100 books? Heck no. Some have goals of 10 or 20 books. But as I told them, the actual number isn’t as important as giving yourself motivation to read when you are tempted to mindlessly scroll Facebook. And if they or I choose instead to take a walk or craft something, more power to us. Writing and photography, for example, isaregoing to cut into my reading time. But at least I’m doing something. We all want to learn to experience our lives a little more deliberately.
How to read:
1.) Set a realistic goal
As of late January 2019, I had finished 20 books. I was on pace to finish about 240 that year (I ended up with 198).
That is a lot of books. To most people, that is already an insurmountable amount of books, even for a year. This is understandable.
I don’t really like other articles about reading 100-200 books that proclaim, “Anyone can do it!” Most people have the intellectual capacity to do it, for sure. Can anyone, regardless of their life circumstances, do it? Maybe, if they pursue that goal to the exclusion of everything else. I think that rather misses the point.
I am the perfect storm for reading at least 100 books. First, I already am acclimated to reading. It actually does surprise me when I go on book suggestion forums and people go, “I haven’t read a book since high school, and I’m 40. How do I start?” To me, that’s unthinkable. But that’s where some people are. For me, even though I haven’t been reading as much as I’ve wanted to, and I’ve had recently a very limited selection of mindless reads, reading is still a part of my life and I normally read about 40-50 books a year.
In addition, I’m a speed reader. This does not bode well for serious non-fiction books (which is one reason I want to work on my attention span), but it definitely works for novels. I can down an easy novel in one or two sittings.
Finally — and this is the most important — I have a lot of downtime that’s not my own: young children who fall asleep on me, waiting in a car to pick kids up from school, and a nasty case of insomnia. Most of that time, you can find me on Facebook, or Twitter, or Reddit. Replace that with a book and I’m plowing through the books.
I say all this to point out: That is not most people’s lives. Most people have, you know, jobs. Or they don’t even get a chance to sit down (even if all I personally want to do sometimes is stand up). You should make a goal that works for you. It can be 1, 5, 20, 40, 75 — whatever.
2.) Pick something you’ll actually read
A lot of people who don’t like to read have had very bad past experiences being forced to read. Obviously, it’s great that we have required reading in high school, but sometimes I worry we have destroyed the joy in books. And I’m sure people telling these folks, “You just haven’t found the right book yet” is even more frustrating, when they try to follow suggestions and end up hating those books too.
Don’t read a book just because you’re supposed to. Don’t try out a genre you suspect you’ll hate. Actually, yes, do those things, but do it if you’re an acclimated reader already and “trying new things” is part of your personal mission statement for this challenge. Otherwise, just read what you want. If that’s the Confessions of a Shopaholic series (which I love love love), then read that. If it’s a self-help book, read that. If it’s a primer on science, read that.
So, especially for someone who doesn’t read a lot, how do you figure out what would work for you? I have two threads on Reddit that I love as a good starting point:
Three books per genre on Beginner, Veteran, and Expert Level
If you could recommend just one book, what would it be?
3.) Don’t torture yourself
Try not to sweat it too much. Start with something easy. Drop a book if you hate it. Skim over science and math explanations in the Feynman biography or skip John Galt’s entire speech in Atlas Shrugged if you really can’t deal (I may or may not be talking about myself here). Honestly, I’m applying the same thing to writing. In professional writing, I want to link to lots of stuff to back up my statements, and I want to double check my assumptions and every claim I put on the page. That’s all great, but I stopped writing until I decided to let go and just have fun with a blog. It’s the same thing with photography. Currently, I’m taking random photos on my Pixel and not worrying about getting a professional level shot. In the end, you need to enjoy it.
4.) Create your motivation and a goal
The book club is really helping me, because I look forward to posting a picture and a review of a book as soon as I’m done. I’m also kind of tickled by the number of books I’ve read already and like watching it climb. And I’m really excited about having the chance to read classics I haven’t gotten around to, including old school sci-fi classics. Other people are working their way through top 100 book lists.
What’s your motivation? Why do you want to do this? How will you reward yourself? How will you gain accountability?
Maybe your goal is just to retrain yourself from randomly clicking on Facebook. Maybe your accountability is your own book club.
I’ve mentioned dropping a book, but if you don’t hate a book, then it does serve you well to try to stick with the hard ones. I struggled with Genuis: A Biography of Richard Feynman. I had bought that book last summer under recommendation, but as of Christmas had read about 3% of it, according to my Kindle. Meanwhile, I took stock of all the books I had read that year and they were unvaried in genre and personal difficulty level. How many good books and interesting topics have I missed out on because I was unwilling to put in the actual work necessary?
5.) Don’t mind the format
What counts as a book? Anything you think counts for you personally. Audiobooks absolutely count, by anyone’s measure. I personally also count story-like podcasts that might as well have been an audiobook. And heck, my first book of 2019 was a 2000- page fanfic.
6.) Set yourself up for success
For some people, that means getting rid of distractions: taking social media off your phone, surrounding yourself with only books, scheduling time only for reading.
For me, the main issue I have is access to a good book. I want to read and if the book is digital, I likely will find time to read it, but I end up with books that are physical books and I never find that time. So this year I keep a book in the car for when I get to school pickup too early. I keep a book in the kids’ bathroom, where I read during the toddler’s nightly bath. I try to read when I spend time in front of my SAD lamp each day.
In terms of picking books, often I think, “man I want to read something but I don’t know what.” Or I think, “Ooh,that looks interesting but I can’t buy $11 books every two days.”. And then when I look that book up in the library, it has multiple people ahead of me in line waiting to check it out and it’s all just a pain in the butt.
Resources include subscription services like Scribd or Audible, but this year I’ve had the most success with the library. You just have to plan ahead.
I spent the last few days before 2019 doing my groundwork. I perused book suggestion threads, I researched the top books of 2018, and I asked people which book changed their life. In the end, I had a list of over 100 books. I didn’t plan on reading all 100, but I wanted an inclusive list to remind me of suggestions that I found intriguing.
Then, I inputted that list to my personalized page at my library. Now, I’ll browse through that list and check out whatever looks interesting to me, and if there’s another few that I like but aren’t available, I place a hold. And for the most part, these are e-books so I get instant access. Having a lot on hold means from time to time I’ll get surprised by a library email that a book is ready for download.
Let’s Start a Revolution
I’ve noticed a movement over the last year or two advocating a return to not just reading one book here or there, but turning reading into a lifestyle. To many people, quality is more important that quantity, but I posit the interplay between the two challenges us to be better on all fronts.
As I had mentioned in my article, reading a full non-fiction book provides us in-depth and vetted knowledge you cannot get in an article. In addition, two separate studies by a pair of psychologists at The New School have suggested that reading literary fiction, in particular, can improve empathy. Finally, immersive, slow, deep reading not only retrains your brain to read again, but assists in “empathy, transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence.” We live in an attention-deficient, hectic, technology-riddled society, but we can fight the tide of clickbait and soundbites by using our technological tools to aid in real learning and in training our minds. Let’s make reading great again.