I’ll admit, I underestimated the number of books I would read last year. With a full-time job and other things going on, I figured I’d be lucky if I read a book or two a month. Instead, I read forty-eight, which averages to roughly one book per American work week. One of those forty-eight was Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which can double as a doorstop (or dumbbell).
I’ve never resolved to read more books in a year. I just resolve to keep reading a little bit every day that I can. Last year, I learned a few things that, for me, improved my reading and maximized my time spent turning pages. If you have a goal to read more books this year, try these techniques out and see if they help you.
Set a Goal for the Year
I started this year by reviewing the books I read last year and when I read them. I’ve said it before, I’m no statistician, but I do like me some data. I keep a spreadsheet in which I record all the books I’ve read and when I completed them. When I complete a book, I jot down my thoughts about it, including whether I would read it again someday.
In this spreadsheet, I also make a list of the books I’d like to read in the current year. I list them out and give them a reading order, which is like a reading priority. For example, this year one of my reading priorities is to re-read Tolkien’s works, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Another is to read more of Craig Johnson’s Longmire mysteries.
If you want to read more books this year, the first thing you need to do is list out some of the books you want to read. It doesn’t have to be a comprehensive list, but you should at least get something down on paper (or screen) that you can hold yourself to. As you do this, ask yourself, “Which books do I absolutely want to read this year?” Those books should come first, so number them accordingly.
In my spreadsheet, The Hobbit is currently number one, followed by Johnson’s Death Without Company and then some other books interleaved with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As I read, I’ll cross books off the list and move on to the next ones. I give myself enough flexibility to re-order the list if I change my mind on what I want to read, but I rarely move something from the very bottom up to the top.
Break Down Your Year-Long Goal
One problem with New Year’s Resolutions is that they’re so big. Another problem is that they’re often too generic. “I resolve to lose a lot of weight this year” is no good because it sounds too lofty and doesn’t have a measurable goal: What’s considered “a lot”? Ten pounds? Twenty? Fifty?
To combat this, regardless of goal or resolution, give a goal a measurable value and break it down into several smaller, manageable, achievable goals. In the weight-loss example, “I resolve to lose fifty pounds this year” would be a good resolution, and then “I resolve to lose four pounds per month” and perhaps even “I resolve to lose one pound per week.”
Books are a little different. Not all books are the same length. Some are harder to read than others. People have different preferences and attention spans, making a book that’s a breeze for one person to read a chore for someone else.
My solution to this is to set a daily reading goal. For some people, this may be ten pages per day. For others, it may be twenty, or thirty, or even fifty.
Think about how many books you could read if you read just ten pages per day. If you read three-hundred days out of the year, that’s three-thousand pages read in a year, which I estimate to be about ten books a year. If you read twenty pages per day, that’s six-thousand pages read in a year—twenty books.
If you give yourself a daily reading goal and carve out the time to achieve it, you’ll realize two things: One, you’ll be surprised when that pile of books to read starts shrinking; two, you’ll often read more than your daily goal, propelling yourself further down your reading list.
Vary Goals Depending on the Book
I alluded to this above because I think it’s important to remember that not all books are created equal, and therefore cannot all be read the same way. It’s going to take a lot more time to read a chemistry textbook than it is an Agatha Christie mystery.
One of the first things I do when I pick up a book is count the number of chapters or pages. If the book has a table of contents, I’ll examine the average chapter length and try to knock one or two out per day depending on the page count for each. If the book doesn’t have a table of contents, I’ll flip to the last page (without spoiling the ending!) and get the final page count. With that information, I’ll set myself a daily goal for reading that specific book.
For example, last year I read Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace for the first time. I learned two things before I even started the book: First, Tolstoy breaks the big book into smaller books; second, the whole book has 365 chapters. It was a perfect goal-setting book because I realized that I could read the whole thing in one year if I only dedicated ten minutes a day to one chapter. (You should too!)
I usually start a book with a goal in mind and, based on how quickly or slowly I can move through the text, modify my goal based on that. If it takes me fifteen minutes to read just five pages, then I’m probably not going to adhere to a ten-page-per-day rule. On the other hand, if I find that I’m breezing through the book and that I’ve covered fifty pages in thirty minutes, then I’ll probably aim to read more than just ten pages.
Read More Than One Book at a Time
This sounds counter-intuitive, but I’ve found that it works really well for me, and others have reported the same. Reading more than one book at a time allows you to flip between books based on where you are at any particular moment, how you feel at any particular time, how much time you have to read, and any number of other factors.
I used to be a one-book-at-a-time guy and found that sometimes I just didn’t want to read the book I was working on, even if it was a really good book. I wanted to read, but wasn’t in the mood for that particular book. That’s a perfect reason to have two or three books going on at the same time: If you don’t feel like reading one, but you want to meet your daily goal, grab another!
The key to doing this is to make sure that no book gets left behind. If I were to put down The Hobbit in favor of finishing Death Without Company, I would make sure I finished (or at least made good progress on) The Hobbit before I picked up another book.
This strategy also works well because it allows you to check easy reads off your list and feel a sense of accomplishment while still working through some of the more erudite or obtuse ones. Reading should be fun, not a chore! If it’s not fun, try reading something else for a bit!
Don’t Be Afraid to Quit a Book
I know this appears to contrast what I just wrote about not leaving a book behind, but if you pick up a book and you’re just not getting into it, don’t be afraid to put it down for good and move on to something else. As I just mentioned, reading should be fun, and if you’re not enjoying it, you need to change what you’re doing so that you can.
I’ll be honest and say that I don’t quit too many books. I like to think I have a pretty good sense of whether I’ll like a book before I even pick it up. (I judge a book by both covers!) James Joyce once said, “Life is too short to read a bad book,” and I take those words to heart.
The last book I remember quitting was The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. In a German literature class in college, we had just finished reading Goethe’s play Faust and our stand-in Professorin raved about how great The Master and Margarita was because it was so similar to Faust and took the story to a deeper level (or something like that). I bought the novel out of curiosity and worked my way through several chapters before thinking, “What the heck am I reading?” I put Bulgakov’s book on the shelf and there it sits today. I may give it another go this year, but if I can’t enjoy it enough to finish it, I’ll sell it and move on to something else.
You must do the same thing whenever you’re reading for pleasure. Just because a book comes highly-recommended doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy it, or even that it’s worth reading in the first place. If someone asks you what you thought about it, you can at least tell them, “I started it, but it just wasn’t working for me, so I stopped.” There’s no shame in that.
How to Maximize Your Reading Time
With any goal that anyone sets out to achieve, there is always the issue of time. “I don’t have enough time to exercise!” or “I just don’t have any time to read!” are common excuses for not moving towards a goal.
The thing about time is that we’re all blessed with the same amount of time each day. Rich or poor, wise or foolish, God gives us all the same number of minutes that we must spend. Sadly, many of us squander our time on frivolous things and then look back on the day (or month, or year) with regret that we didn’t spend our time more wisely.
I could write a whole essay on time (maybe I will, so stay tuned!), but suffice it to say that you do have the time to read, but more than likely you’ll need to sacrifice something else in order to get it. This is the economic principle of opportunity cost, or “the next best alternative.”
If you have to make the choice between spending fifteen minutes on Facebook or fifteen minutes in a real book, the opportunity cost is what you lose by choosing one over the other. (And to quote the great Neil Peart, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Remember that!) If you choose Facebook, the opportunity cost might be ten pages. If you choose the real book, the opportunity cost might be missing your friend’s engagement pictures (like I did… oops!).
While I certainly think that fifteen minutes spent reading pages is better than fifteen minutes spent reading statuses, you have to set your own priorities and determine for yourself how you’re going to manage your time if you want to meet your reading goals. You have to be somewhat ruthless: Find the little bits of extra time in nooks and crannies, store them up, and guard them like a mother bear guards her cubs! If you have a few minutes during your lunch break to read, find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed and escape into your book! If you have a half hour to yourself before your spouse or child gets home, seize it!
Environment also plays a role into your reading time. You might have a solid thirty minutes carved out just for reading, but you find yourself tempted to turn on the TV because you’re reading in your living room , or you start to get sleepy because you’re reading in bed. You may have the quantity of time, but you need to go someplace where you can focus and maximize the quality of your time.
I have to be someplace quiet and relatively isolated because, to me, other people are distractions when I’m reading. I can’t read in the den when my brother is playing video games or watching a movie. I also can’t read in a public place where people are constantly passing by. You might be the exact opposite and hate reading in quiet isolation, and that’s fine. You have to find an environment that works for you, and get your reading done there.
Finally, consider the handiness that an e-reader or an app like Kindle on your phone or tablet provides. You can read on-the-go without carrying a hard copy around (though there’s no replacement for physical pages).
I have several books loaded on my Kindle, which I carry with me almost wherever I go, and read when I have snatches of time. I don’t like to read on my phone, but I’ve found that it’s not too bad for reading non-fiction genres. (For fiction, I prefer a real book or the Kindle.)
A bonus of having a Kindle or the Kindle app is that there are many free or very inexpensive e-books available. Many older works (“the classics”) are in the public domain and can be downloaded for free from sites like Project Gutenberg, while many other great reads are available under $5. If you watch the deals and buy when e-books go on sale (BookBub is a great way to do this), you can build a pretty impressive digital library without breaking the bank at all!
What are you waiting for? Pick up that book you’ve been wanting to read and get started! Whether you take all the tips in this article or just a few (or none at all, and I’m not offended if that’s the case), just start reading. Read for pleasure and enlightenment, and figure out what works best for you.
That’s all for now. I’ve got a page-turner that’s calling my name.