One weird trick to read a %&$#ing book
TV producers hate him
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Do you want to read more?
I mean, do you really want to read more? I’m asking sincerely, because every once in a while I see something like this paragraph, which I came across at author Jake Seliger’s blog:
I’ve been annoying friends and acquittances by asking, “How many books did you read in the last year?” Usually this is greeted with some suspicion or surprise. Why am I being ambushed? Then there are qualifications: “I’ve been really busy,” “It’s hard to find time to read,” “I used to read a lot.” I say I’m not judging them—this is true, I will emphasize—and am looking for an integer answer. Most often it’s something like one or two, followed by declamations of plans to Read More In the Future.
My guess is that we’ve all encountered this phenomenon, the professional-class type who is convinced reading is Good For You,1 but also convinced that he or she Just Can’t Find Time To Read. And my inner cynic says that this is often more about status, more about wanting to be perceived as The Sort Of Person Who Reads than about actually wanting to read, but I’m writing this article for the people who mean this sincerely—the people who really wish they could read more.
You want to read. That’s good! So how can we make it happen?
The first step is to acknowledge reality: Yeah, it’s hard to find time to read, even if you have considerable free time. There are a thousand other forms of entertainment screaming for your attention, and most of them have been micro-engineered to grab that attention and hold it in a vise grip for hours, even when you’re getting nothing out of them (looking at you, TikTok). The entire world is conspiring against you in this—so if you want to read, you’ll have to conspire against it.
In short, you have to have a system in place that nudges you toward reading. I’m not talking about a mountain of ironclad rules that pile on the guilt—just a framework for life that makes reading a natural part of your day. And it doesn’t even really matter what your system is, as long as it gets you to read. But I can tell you mine, if you want.
Here it is. It seems to work okay, seeing as I read about five dozen books last year. Take whichever ideas work for you, and toss out whichever ones don’t.
1. I read ten books at a time.
I try to keep my reading stack—technically a virtual stack, which I’ll get to in a minute—about ten books deep. I’ll drift from book to book, depending on what I’m in the mood for. The benefit of this approach is that, most of the time, I’ll always have a book to fit the moment. (Shakespeare might be a genius, but I’m not always in the mood for the guy.)
Now—usually, I’ll eventually get sucked into one particular book (y’know, like you do), and then I’ll end up reading it exclusively till I get to the end. Which is great! Who doesn’t love the feeling of getting sucked into a book? But when that isn’t happening, it’s nice to be able to keep reading anyway—and having options really helps with that.
2. I read ebooks.
I know this will be blasphemy to some, but my guess is that most of the people out there with emotional attachments to paper books don’t need help with reading more.
Here’s the main advantage of ebooks: I can carry all ten of the books in my reading pile with me at once. My Kindle slides into my back pocket easily2, so whenever I have some downtime, I can pull it out and start reading.
Just as importantly, though, I also have the Kindle app on my phone (and tablet, and computer, etc.), so even when I don’t have the e-reader with me, I still have all my books with me. The Amazon cloud keeps track of where I last left off, which is probably some creepy Big Brother stuff, but is also nicely convenient. I spend less time wishing I had a book with me and more time reading. It’s great.
3. I’ll give a book sixteen weeks and no more.
Because, look: It’s not inherently virtuous to finish a book. A lot of books suck, and even a great book won’t be for everyone.
I think there can be value in finishing a book you’re not enjoying—maybe to try to understand what other people liked about it, or to get useful info out of it, or just as a cautionary tale of how not to write a book—but there are also a lot of obvious benefits to casting aside a book that’s making you miserable. So I try to split the difference.
A book sits on my reading stack for sixteen weeks. If I feel like giving it a second, third, or ninety-eighth chance during that time, it’s always an option, but after sixteen weeks, it’s gone. This forces me to make a choice when that sixteen-week mark is coming up: rush to finish it, or give up on it. But either way, I win, because that book won’t be hanging around my neck forever like an albatross or a Flava Flav clock.
4. Every four weeks, I have a “New Book Day 🎉” party.
I should probably come up with a better name than New Book Day 🎉, but whatever. This is the equivalent of a trip to the library or the bookstore, except, since I read ebooks, I just do it from home.
On New Book Day 🎉 (yes, the party cone is important), I rotate out the books I’ve finished and books that are sixteen weeks old. Then I rotate in new books! How do I know what to read next? Well:
Usually I’ve got a couple in mind—something I’ve heard of or been thinking about recently.
I also keep a to-read list on my phone—more about that in a sec.
I look at lists of new releases.
I look to see what’s out there on topics I’m interested in and by authors I enjoy. I mean, duh.
I try to keep a balance between genres. I like variety.3
Between all that, I’m usually able to fill out the list.
5. I maintain a to-read list.
I keep a list on my phone (I find an app called Paperless useful for list-keeping, hashtag-not-an-ad) of all the books I’ve heard of that I think might be worth reading. I’m constantly rearranging it, trying to keep it roughly in my order of interest.
I don’t follow it slavishly—I’m not going down it in exact order or anything—but it’s a useful “slush pile” to draw from when I’m wondering what to read next.
6. I read thirty pages a day.
Thirty probably doesn’t sound like a lot (or maybe it does! I have no idea! you’re obviously free to read less!), but it’s an arbitrary number, and it’s intended as a minimum—the point is, I specifically carve out time in my day to read. If I make sure I’m reading at least a little each day, that’s usually enough to let a book set its hooks in me—and then I’ll start making time to read without even thinking about it.
7. I make reading my go-to time-waster.
There’s an obvious reason so many of us default to switching on the TV or scrolling Instagram when we have time to kill: It’s easy. It takes next to zero effort.
There’s also a less obvious reason, though, and that’s the one we need to talk about: habits are a thing. If watching TV seems easier than reading a book, that’s at least partly because your brain is just more used to watching TV. If you start consistently picking up a book instead of the remote, eventually reading will feel like the easy, natural thing to do.
I try to consciously make reading my default for downtime. If I’ve got some time to kill, and I don’t know what to do with it, I just assume I feel like reading until proven otherwise. It’s not that I never watch TV or browse the internet or play videogames; I just put them lower on the list. If they’re actually worthwhile, I’ll get to them eventually.
And y’know what? It’s been great for my mental health. Try it for a week: Fall asleep reading a book instead of falling a sleep reading the ravings of morons on Twitter or watching people scream at each other on cable news. It’s a solid bet you’ll sleep better and feel better. And also, you’ll be reading books. Which is what this article was about.
So there it is. I’m not saying this system will work for everyone—or even that it will work for me forever (I’ve actually modified these “rules” countless times over the years)—but hopefully it gives you somewhere to start. And if you try this system and bits of it don’t work for you, change them! The point is to have a system that nudges you toward reading.
And now you do! So go forth and read!
(You friggin’ nerd.) 🕹🌙🧸
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Substack Notes is apparently now a thing
I almost wrote a whole article about how nonplussed I am by Substack Notes, but it turns out that articles about how bored you are tend to be boring.
Anyway, Substack just launched a new thing called Notes, which is basically their own version of Twitter. And I originally came to Substack partly to get away from Twitter, so you can imagine how ambivalent about it I feel, buuuuuuut…
I’m on Notes, at least by default, at least for the moment. I probably won’t use it much, since I got over my pathological need to vomit my every thought into the world a long time ago, but who knows. It could potentially turn into something interesting. Maybe. Find my Notes here. 🕹🌙🧸
Stuff I’ve been enjoying lately
I guess I’m lucky that I’m straight and male, so no one judges me for being years behind on Broadway musicals.
To be clear: I honestly love musicals, but since I don’t live anywhere near New York, I’ve never been in a hurry to care about the latest ones. When they’re brand-new, all I can do is listen to the cast recordings and be sad that I can’t see them, so I’ve never put much effort into being up-to-the-moment on the Great White Way’s latest hits.
That’s probably the best excuse I can come up with for just-now learning that folksinger Anaïs Mitchell’s magnum opus Hadestown is…really freaking good? Most people probably already knew that, since this show has been around in one form or another forever (it was first produced in Vermont in 2006, released as a concept album in 2010, debuted off-Broadway in 2016, and won seven Tonys when it finally hit Broadway in 2019), but I was only vaguely aware it existed till Spotify shuffled one of its songs into my mix a few weeks ago. Now I can’t stop listening and re-listening to the original cast recording.
The show’s slightly dorky title belies what a delicate poem of a tale this is—a retelling of the Greek myths of Orpheus, Eurydice, Persephone, and Hades, set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, where the underworld becomes a metaphor for the rot wrought by industrialization, and the songs meander from jazz to blues to folk to scat poetry.
I’m currently scheming to catch a performance of this thing (the tour hits Chicago in June…), but for now I’ll have to content myself with replaying the soundtrack over and over. I don’t expect to tire of it soon. 🕹🌙🧸
It’s not hard to find scientific studies claiming to prove that reading is good for you, but I can’t personally vouch for their validity
I just want to take a moment to acknowledge my privilege here. Ladies, I know how much you suffer from your lack of pockets. I see you. But also, I’m kind of jealous you all get to carry massive purses around without getting side-eyed? That doesn’t seem fair, either. Check your purse privilege or something
I’m actually pretty specific about the genres I read these days, but that’s mainly because I’m ✨in the industry✨ (in the same sense that William Shatner is in the music industry). If you really want to know, my ten books always break down as follows:
two horror novels (or short story collections, or whatever)
two “genre” novels
two “literary” novels
two nonfiction books
This is mainly because I’m writing horror these days, but I also feel like I need to keep up with broader genre fic, and I also want to read stuff that will inform me and hopefully make me a better writer.
I also try to make sure at least one book from categories 1–4 (not 5, for obvious reasons) is a recent release. Gotta keep up with market trends (not that I could ever actually make myself care about market trends, but I think I’m supposed to, or something).