On Trying to Read 100 Books a Year

Here’s some advice from The Observer [a British weekly newspaper] about How to Read 100 Books a Year.

Long ago on this blog, or its precursor, I mentioned something about how I would describe the kinds of lists and statistics I keep about my reading. (Despite my recently compiled tables of contents, here and and here, I haven’t found that mention, but it must be there somewhere. I haven’t forgotten my promise to do so.)

I am the kind of person who keeps lists, in Excel spreadsheets and Access databases, of my reading, of my daily acitivities, of my purchases, of movies I’ve seen, and so on and so on. [Not to mention the comprehensive databases of books and magazines and stories that support Locus Online and sfadb.com] I’ve kept lists of books read (and books and magazine purchase) since 1970, when I was a wee 15 years old — those lists were hand-written on paper and in logbooks for many years, and eventually transferred to an Access database, and then into Excel spreadsheets, which made it easy to calculate books read per year, pages read per day, and so on.

I am not a fast reader; I’m a slow, painstaking reader, and a reader who does not have a long memory. [I’m flabbergasted by readers like John Clute and Gary Wolfe and Paul Di Filippo, who can summon memories of books they’ve read long ago enough to write about them years later.] And so for the past 30 years — beginning, actually, when I was reading and reviewing short fiction for Locus — I read with a notepad at hand, to take notes, which I would then sit down at my computer to type up, and which I would then use to write reviews for Locus, or for summaries on this blog.

So, about the lists and statistics: In my golden age, my college years, I read upwards of 100 books every year. 153 books in 1976; 136 in 1977. I was attending UCLA, as a full-time student; but my summers were mostly free, and I would spend those summers at my family’s house in Apple Valley CA, sitting for three months in the hot desert summer afternoons, reading almost a short paperback a day.

Books are longer these days, and life takes more time. But I’m acutely aware of how the idea of keeping lists, and statistics, drives behavior: when I’m obsessed about statistics of books read per year, or pages read per day, I’m more inclined to read short books or trivial books just to keep up the stats. I’m so aware of that psychological bias that I’m conscious about resisting those tendencies, and try to keep the statistics as a sideshow. It’s more important to read important books…

I still maintain an Excel spreadsheet where I log in books read, with page counts, with fields that automatically calculate pages read per day over the month and year. My gold standard is 100 books a year; or, 100 pages per day, which translates roughly to 120 books a year, given average length of books. As I’ve said, it’s been a long while since I’ve achieved either of those goals… though this year, 2016, now settled into our Oakland house, I think I might actually achieve both of those standards this year.

Psychology: I think keeping such lists actually encourages performance. When I was working out at the gym with a trainer, he ridiculed me for keeping a notebook where I would record every exercise and how many sets and how much weight I did on those sets — I couldn’t convince him that keeping those records, being able to look back at them, helped enforce my future performance. (My trainer back in LA long gone, I still keep my notebook, and use it.)

Which is to say, my keeping of lists and statistics of books read actually helps me to read more. I think there might be something along the autistic spectrum that might illuminate this. I could give other examples.

The lists are only a mechanism. It’s only the results that count. And I’m working on those results every day.

Specifically about that article:

I am not obsessive about reading everywhere. I do, more and more, try to focus on relevant books, and avoid attractive trivia. I do read several books simultaneously — I find it helps to read ‘foundational’ books — heavyweight tomes, that I take detailed upon and blog about — over a period of time when I might read several relatively lightweight ‘occasional’ books, those I can read while exercycling at the gym, and don’t need to take notes on, but which are still informative and influential.

Despite the article’s advice, I cannot write in books. I can never write in books; it’s sacrilege. And I don’t fold the corners of pages I want to remember. But I do, as it says, write down my own words, and copy quotes. With results on this blog.

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