How to read more books

My Bookshelf: Calvino to Camus (plus Chabon)

In 2019, I read 44 books. That’s a record for me. They weren’t all great. Many were quite short. But I’m still happy with the accomplishment. And I thought how I’ve managed to get more reading into my life might make a good blog topic. Many people want to read more. It’s good for you, like eating your vegetables, or working out. If you don’t read much, you’re made–from a young age–to feel guilty about it. Assuming you want to read more, how can you do that? Here’s what’s worked for me.

Track your Progress

These days, I do a lot of analytics work. There’s a saying in my field, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” The more blunt form is “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t count.” Measuring the number of books you read in a year is easy. It can be as high-tech or as low-tech as you like. A notebook in your pocket, or a net file on your phone are good ways to manage it. For years now, I’ve been using Goodreads to track books I’m reading, books I’ve read, and books I want to read. (Note: I don’t make any money off Goodreads. But I love it and recommend it to everyone.) Tracking what you read is motivating. And keeping a list of books you’d like to read shortens the gap between finishing one and starting the next. It’s motivating. If you do use Goodreads, here’s my profile. Let’s be friends.

Set Goals

I’m not a very competitive person. I don’t like keeping score. Most sports leave me cold. Music and books are more my thing. But there is something almost magical about setting a goal, so long as it’s a more-or-less reasonable one: neither too high nor too low. As with tracking, goal setting can take high-tech or low-tech forms and can be highly motivating.

I’ve read more since I started participating in the Goodreads Reading Challenge. But it took me a while to find the right goal. I started doing the challenge in 2011 (which was the first year they had it, according to The Atlantic). That year, I pledged 12 books. I figured one a month was a safe bet. And it was; I read 17. So I gave it another shot in 2012. That year, I got more ambitious and pledged 20 books, but only read 14. Discouraged, I skipped a few years and tried it again in 2015, when I pledged 24 and only got 12. I failed two hit my mark twice! But, starting in 2018, I hit my stride. I pledged 24 books and read 37! And, this year, 2019, I pledged 24 and read 44. What changed? Well, a few things, but this next one is clearly the most important.

Use your Ears

Being a bookish sort, I used to be a snob about audiobooks. The only reading that counted for me was the traditional sort: sitting in a comfy chair or cafe with a book made of dead trees. Electronic books didn’t count. Audiobooks certainly didn’t count. But, recently, I’ve had a change of heart, for several reasons:

  • Writing is a relatively recent invention
    Literature had a long history before people started writing stories down. It predates written language itself. Go all the way back to Beowulf. Literature starts out as oral tradition. The person in the tribe with the best memory and oratory skills learned the epic tales at the feet of the master, committed them to memory, and performed them live for others. Today, we associate being read to with childhood, because that’s where we get our start with books. But that association shouldn’t mean it’s childish to consume books with your ears rather than your eyes.
  • Plays are meant to be seen (and heard)
    While there is a genre called “closet drama,” which are play designed to be read off the page, and while reading plays is a great joy, Shakespeare made his living off people paying to see his plays live, and that’s still the best way to enjoy and understand them (or any other play). In Shakespeare’s day, publishing plays just made them easier to steal. Even the actors only had little books with their own lines and cue lines so they’d know when to come in. The Bard didn’t get around to publishing his collected works until his active career in the theater was over. My point is that what’s good for plays also makes sense for other forms of writing.
  • Life is busy
    I still read books, even ones made of dead trees. But I have a commute to and from work each day. Once I got an iPod and a car kit for playing it through my stereo, I started listening to music. Then I experimented with language lessons (and got a lot better at French). Then I discovered podcasts. And, while I still enjoy podcasts, I realized I had spent most of 2017 keeping up to date on podcasts and not reading much at all. I decided I’d be happier, at the end of the year, of having read a dozen book of than having listened to dozens of podcast episodes.
  • Size doesn’t matter
    Everything you read doesn’t have to be of the length, complexity, or caliber of Anna Karenina or Infinite Jest. Short books are fine. There’s a lot of interesting reading out there if you widen your scope. This is another thing in which my snobbery took a backseat to practicality. Also, when you’re reading a lot, every books doesn’t have to be magnificent. You can chip away at the classics while still enjoying less impressive fare.

If you’re still on the fence about this, you hereby have my permission, as a bookish sort with a master’s degree in English and as a former college English instructor, to “read” audiobooks and count them the same as any of the other books you read. I do, and I no longer apologize for it. That’s why the word “read” isn’t in scare quotes when I’m referring to audiobooks.

While I will grant that the phenomenology of reading the printed word off a page made out of paper is an experience to be cherished–and one you should continue to enjoy–there are only so many hours in the day, and there’s a lot of ground to cover. There are more books being published every day. And there are more things to read besides books. If your life is at all like mine, you have a career, a family, a home, and a dozen other obligations that all demand time. Use your commute, your time on the treadmill, and your time washing the dishes or doing laundry to keep your mind sharp by feeding it a diet of books.

Love Libby

This won’t be an option for everyone, but, if your local library is hip, they’ll have a way for you to borrow audiobooks that fits into your busy life and saves you money. In my neck of the woods, the lovely town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, the quite impressive Fayetteville Public Library lets you borrow audiobooks via a great app called Libby. I blogged about Libby previously, but the post got eaten in a database crash. Here are the high points:

  • You can borrow audiobooks for free
  • You can browse audiobooks based on their availability
  • Audiobooks check themselves back in automagically, which means there are no late fees, ever.
  • You can tag books to make finding your next one easier. My tag is called “maybe.” I use it to mark audiobooks that I might want to try.
  • You can preview anything. You’re never stuck with something by a narrator whose voice grates on your nerves.

If you have sufficient budget for Audible, or for buying audiobooks one at a time, that’s certainly a good route, as you can pick exactly what you want. For me, the cost of audiobooks, or of an Audible subscription, has always seemed a bit too much. So Libby–or other apps of this sort–are a real benefit. And because I have to choose from what’s available, I end up reading a wider variety of books than I normally would. I’m happy to support my local public library through my taxes. This lets me enjoy some of the benefits of that, in a way that fits easily into my life. Check your local library and see what options they have. You might be surprised. Libraries are a lot hipper these days than they were when I was a kid.

Recently, I discovered Chirp, which is more-or-less a cut-out bin for audiobooks. They offer deep discounts through limited-time-offers on a wide selection of books. You have to give them your email address and use their (free) app to enjoy the books. I read one via Chirp in 2019 and it was a good experience for me (and the book itself cost $1.99).

Mix it Up

I’ve recently found a winning formula for aways having something handy to read. I keep three books going, in different formats, at once:

  • An Actual Book
    I keep a dead-trees book in my bag at all times. It often takes me a long time to finish it, but I cart it around with me. I use this a lot for books that are graphical in nature or have lots of illustrations.
  • An Audiobook
    I already discussed this in detail, so no need to elaborate further.
  • An Electronic Book
    After years using Kindle App on my iPhone, I’ve recently started to like Apple Books for the sole reason that their automatic night mode switching is really good. Reading 10-15 minutes right before you go to sleep is a pleasant way to end the day and adds up over time.

The dead trees book is something I might read a few pages of at lunch or on the weekend. The audiobook is mostly for my commute, housecleaning, and other tasks around the house when I’m alone. I often read a bit of the ebook in the morning, before the rest of my family wakes up and in the evening, right before I go to sleep.

Ignore Your Inner Critic

That voice in your head telling you that you suck for not reading more? Ignore him. He’s never done you any favors. If you’re reading at all, you’re doing better than most people. And, by following a few of the tips above, you can probably fit in a few extra books this year, which will help silence the inner critic and give you something to be proud about.

Penny for Your Thoughts

Okay, not literally. This is not a binding agreement. But, I’d love to hear what you think. I’d love to be part of your reading journey, if you will. I’ve disabled comments here, to fight the spam bots, but you can find me on any of the social media links on the right. If we’re friends on Facebook, hit me up there. If you’re more a Twitter sort, I’m there, too. In the rare chance that you’re on Quora, you can find me there. Whatever works.