How to Read More in 2021

Seven strategies to read 50+ books in just one year.

I have a confession to make: last year, I read embarrassingly few books for someone who calls herself a writer. Seriously, I tried to make a list of the books I read this year, and I could only count 10. I’m sure I read a few more, but honestly, much of this year has been a blur.

Some people found 2020 a triumphant year for their reading goals. Cooped up in their apartments with nowhere to go, they devoured book after book after book.

I, too, started the year with grand ambitions, but the pandemic quickly wrecked those. In a normal year, I would have read somewhere around 25 books. (Though 25 books is still, I feel, an abysmally low number for a writer). But a few things (beyond the deadly virus) really tripped me up this year.

For the past few years, I found most of my reading time on long subway rides between tutoring appointments. So, 2020 felt a bit like starting over when it came to finding a reading routine. Libraries, cafes, parks — some of my most dependable reading spots. Poof.

Not to mention that this year, I moved in with my boyfriend just before lockdown. Cooped up together for months, we’ve watched so much T.V. and played so many video games, when, had I been on my own, I probably would have been reading.

These are not excuses, by the way. Just a way of analyzing what’s not working, so that I can make my plan to improve.

There’s no doubt that my struggles to develop a consistent reading habit are affecting my writing. That’s why this year, I’ve decided to set an ambitious goal for reading and pursue it publicly, in the hopes that it will conjure a sense of accountability or, at least, that the possibility of being embarrassed online will be motivating. (How online am I really is only a question I have to answer if I don’t reach my goal, so I guess there’s another motivator.)

A Born-Again Reader

I used to be an avid reader. I didn't have high-speed internet or cable TV until I was a junior in high school, so the internet overtook my reading habits much later in life. When I was younger, I woke up early every Saturday morning to read a book. An entire book. I wouldn’t put ut down until either I finished or, stomach grumbling, lights flashing in front of my eyes, I had to stagger to the kitchen for nourishment.

Of course, that couldn’t last. In college and in my twenties, Friday nights bled into Saturday mornings. Sunday mornings were increasingly filled with “adult” responsibilities and weeks were filled with “required” reading.

Unfortunately, I never developed an alternate routine. I picked up many books, accumulated numerous library fines, finished one here and there, and kept promising myself to read more in the future. I had few streaks where I was reading one or two or more books a week, but those schemes all collapsed for one reason or another.

When I quit law, I knew I would need to read a lot to develop my writing chops. Yet, for years, I failed to work reading into my routine. I felt like every free moment I had was one I should spend getting words down on paper. I was distracted by side hustles and bouts of depression.

However, every time I managed to slip into a rigorous, consistent reading schedule — whether because I was sick, or traveling, or because freelance work was slow, or because my entire city shut down for months— I would remember just how much I enjoyed reading. Moreover, the writing bursts I accomplished after finishing a good book or two proved the value of reading value as a part of my work.

So this time, I’m making a real commitment to myself by publicly declaring my intention. It’s all out there now. I can’t fail, or I’ll embarrass myself online.

My Plan

This year I’m going to read 50 books. Am I setting myself up to fail? I could have set my goal at 25, the number of books I read before the pandemic. But, if I shoot for 50, and I only hit 40 or even 35, I’ll have done a heck of a lot more reading than I have in previous years.

Below, I’ve collected tips that are a mish-mash of things that have worked for me in the past, things experts seem to agree work well more generally, and tried and true methods for improving reading speed and frequency that I want to emphasize.

Tips I’ve Collected:

1. Make it a fun ritual

Despite the fundamental value of reading to my work, I have struggled to think of reading as work, in part, because that makes it a little less enjoyable. It also raises the stakes. Does a silly romance novel count? What about some catchy self-help book that tells you the same thing every other self-help book does, but in a pithy new way? Should I limit myself to science fiction, the genre of my current novel in progress?

I’ve decided to eschew all of these questions and, instead, focus on incorporating reading into my daily schedule.

I like to have a cup of piping hot mint tea and a glowing bedroom lamp beside me when I read before bed. Tucked under the covers, I like to feel like I’m sinking into a cocoon. I try to read until I can no longer keep my eyes open or I find a satisfying stopping point, whichever comes first. I’m going to keep this in mind as I schedule my reading for this year.

Rituals make everything easier. The brain sets an expectation. You spend less time and effort setting things up for yourself. It’s automatic, autopilot. A reading ritual will ensure a baseline of daily reading accomplishments. A college-level reader reads about 300 words a minute. That means in 30 minutes means theoretically, I should be able to read 9,000 words a night. That’s around seven days to finish an average-length book, just enough to achieve my goal.

2. Use my e-reader

Studies have shown that people who read on e-readers read 50% more than those who read exclusively paper books. It’s easy to see why (ignoring, of course, that propensity for reading might drive one’s decision to purchase an e-reader in the first place, these skewing the result.) However, from personal experience, I can tell you that e-books are more portable, they’re less intimidating, more customizable, and you never have to find the page you left off on. An e-reader’s best feature, though, is its ability to help track your progress by telling you what percentage of the book you have left and how much time it will take you to finish it.

I know, I know. Amazon evil; boycott Bezos, etc. But did you know that your local library might allow you to check out books straight to your e-reader? Yes, you, too, can get all of the benefits of an e-reader without supporting your friendly neighborhood monopoly (directly, at least).

3. Borrow books from the library

The best thing about borrowing books from the library is that there is a time limit on reading them and a penalty for not finishing on time. Studies have shown the positive effects of fines on motivating people to achieve their goals. The threat of being penalized can be a strong motivator. When it comes to e-books, there are no fines, but knowing the book will vanish from my library on a certain date and that I’ll be at the back of the line for checking it out again is just as motivating. I know that if I don’t finish a book I’ve started, I might have to wait a very long time to finish it at all.

Not to mention, they’re all free!

4. Increase my speed

I have no desire to be a speed reader. In fact, the world’s most famous speed reader, Howard Berg, argues that speed reading is of limited efficacy when you want to enjoy a book. Nevertheless, many of the speed reading tips he advocates are simply concentration techniques that may aid your speed and comprehension no matter what type of reading you’re doing.

Like most of my generation, I struggle to pay attention to anything for more than five seconds. (For those of you who have gotten this far, thanks for lavishing your limited attention on this article, by the way.) Any strategies that help me stay focused on the words in front of me will drastically improve my reading efficiency.

Howard Berg’s tips include:

  1. Follow your finger.
  2. Picture what you read as a movie.
  3. Silence your inner reading voice.

5. Track my reads

It is a truth universally acknowledged on Medium that “what gets measured, gets managed.” But it’s also true that what gets measured gets celebrated and what gets measured motivates you to improve.

In April of 2020, while I was quarantined in my apartment with COVID-19 symptoms, I read four books in one week. The Story of New Name, by Elena Ferrante, was very long. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson and Foundation by Isaac Asimov, were average length, and the fourth, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, was short, around 90 pages.

I think if I had tracked my progress then — if I had been tracking my progress all year up to that point — I might have developed some momentum and some perspective. Instead, four books a week turned out to be an unsustainable pace (go figure). As my reading dwindled week after week, I found myself despondent about my progress.

My anxiety often causes me to focus on what I haven't done and what I have yet to accomplish. But there is no denying cold, hard data. So instead of pace, I plan to focus on the total number of books read. I recognize that some weeks I might not get through even one book, and other weeks I might get through three or four. I might be in the process of reading a few short books, easy reads, while slowly making my way through a dense tome. Visualizing will help me see just how close I am to my goal rather than forcing me to focus on the mountain of books ahead of me.

I’m probably not going to start a Goodreads account, but I think a nice tracker in my Notion bullet journal will do the trick.

6. Read with friends

Friends can be great accountability partners: no one likes being the person who didn’t finish the book when the rest of the reading group did. I’ve traded some book recommendations with friends throughout the pandemic, and this has motivated me to read more, if only so that I can discuss it with them. Recently, I recommended a friend read a series, though I’d only read the first book. They, in turn, read the entire trilogy before I was even halfway through the second book. “Finish!” they texted me. They wanted someone to discuss it with. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but I’m already finished with the second book and well into the third. I feel even more pressure now to finish, not only because of the compelling plot but also because of the rare and lovely prospect of discussing a book I enjoyed with someone.

7. Re-read my favorites

I’ve decided to incorporate up to 10 re-reads into my 50-book goal. Reading a book once is a form of entertainment, but re-reading a book is a form of study. Re-reading allows you to see the most compelling elements of a book in new ways.

This year I re-read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, a book I read as a young teen obsessed with dystopian literature. It was good then, but now, when threats of climate change, increasing poverty and inequality, and political dysfunction seem to be driving us closer to a bleak future, it feels like an entirely different book, one with more warnings than bleak fantasies.

Re-reading books can also help you see how great authors put stories together. Foreshadowing, character building and other elements of the structure are often only apparent on a second read. Knowing the ending helps one better understand the structure behind such compelling stories.

It’s also nice to revisit the works that inspired me in the past. Some of the books are the very reason I decided to become a writer. It seems only natural to keep that inspiration circulating.

So, I’ve created a reading schedule and a running reading list, and now I have this to refer to whenever I want to evaluate how well my plan is going. I would like to have more concrete steps, but reading is one of the most straightforward tasks possible. My primary strategy, as a Nike-sponsored library might say, is to “just read.”

Freelance writer, editor, and tutor. I write about politics, health, NYC and other things

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