15 Jan How I read 100 books in 2017 - and what I learned in doing so
Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash
The greatest gift my parents gave me was a love of reading. Our house was always filled with books and my parents read to me and my brothers every evening when we were small.
Two of my most vivid childhood memories are linked to books: my dad reading The Jungle Book to us by candlelight every evening after the power went off, and my seventh Christmas, finding the first and second books in Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series in my Christmas pillow case – IN HARDBACK. I had never owned a hardback book before and for years these were among my most treasured possessions.
According to my mum, once I learned to read for myself, bedtime was never an issue. Apparently, as soon as teatime and bath time were over I would solemnly announce to my family that I was ‘off to bed for a good read’. I was, and am, the very definition of a bookworm.
That said, I have not always read purposefully.
In 2016 I came across two writers, Shane Parish, and Ryan Holiday, who challenged both my views on reading in general, and the way in which I was consuming the books I read. Both, in their separate ways, introduced me to the concept of deliberate reading. Of reading to challenge my mental models, my knowledge of the world around me, and my views of that world. To read not just for pleasure, but for personal development.
So, at the end of 2016 I set myself a goal – to read 100 books in 2017. But not just any books – I wanted to concentrate on reading non-fiction. I didn’t plan to abandon fiction altogether, but I wanted to expand the breadth of my reading.
I didn’t tell anyone about this goal. I had no idea how realistic it was, but I had read Shane’s post about how he manages to read so much, and his related post about ‘eating the broccoli’, and there it was:-
For example, we heard from many people after we wrote a piece late last year on Reading 25 Pages a Day, a little practice that we think would benefit almost anyone in creating a very desirable reading habit.
What we suspect, though, is that even of the subset of people who felt so strongly about the idea that they contacted us, only a minority of them followed through and maintained the habit to this day, ten months later.
Well, I don’t know about you, but to me that was the sound of the gauntlet being thrown down .
One year on, and 100 books later, I admit to feeling quite proud of having accomplished my goal. However that sense of self-satisfaction pales into insignificance compared to what I learned and how I changed during those 12 months. Apart from the new knowledge I acquired from the many wonderful books that I read, I learned a lot more – about myself – from which I know I will continue to benefit in the years to come.
Given Shane’s comment above, here’s how I ‘followed through’, the unexpected positive experiences which came out of that and a few of the things I learned along the way.
Forming the habit – and the unexpected outcomes
I started the year with a small reading list, which I intended to add to throughout the year, and this is what happened. It helped always having at least half a dozen books at the ready, and each month I was able to plan which books I would read. The books I read averaged about 350 pages – although some were longer and a few were shorter.
To read two books a week – from a starting point of reading perhaps one every month to six weeks – I knew that I was going to need to drastically alter my daily routine and possibly do less of something to be able to do more reading. I’m an average speed reader and I didn’t want to have to speed read. The point was to gain as much as I could from the books and whizzing through them wasn’t going to help with that.
After some consideration, I decided that I would do the bulk of my reading first thing in the morning. ‘First thing’ though had to shift a bit. I am not a naturally early riser, especially in the depths of winter, so I made the change gradually over a few weeks, just getting up 15 minutes earlier every few days until I had gained an extra hour and a half.
To help with the transition I created a ritual to make the time ‘special’ and something to look forward to. Each day started the same way, throughout those early winter months: fire up the woodburner, brew myself a pot of good coffee and then disappear into another world.
It really didn’t take long for this to become a habit, and I can now confidently say that this is, hands down, my favourite time of the day. It’s MY time. Total peace and quiet, absorbed in the thoughts of such wonderful writers. Over the course of the year I have stretched this time out to two hours, which now enables me to spend some of that time journaling as well as reading – another habit which I never expected to result from this, but which again has been so rewarding.
Whilst this was my main reading time, I also started to allocate an hour for reading as soon as I finished work each day. Not only did this help in achieving my goal, but provided the added benefit of forcing me to finish work by 6pm, which in turn forced me to schedule my time more effectively so that it was possible to do that.
It didn’t work 100% of the time (and still doesn’t) but I have definitely formed the additional habit of ensuring that I spend the majority of my time doing the things which only I can do (and should be doing) and delegating everything else I shouldn’t be doing to those who should, so that I can get my ‘shutdown complete’ routine done and dusted by 6pm.
I manage to combine this hour of reading with preparing an evening meal – a little chopping, some stirring of pots and pans, or putting things in and taking them out of the oven can easily be managed alongside reading.
Something I had never anticipated by making these changes to my daily routine was that getting up before dawn each day would provide some special moments that I would have missed if I hadn’t set myself this reading goal.
On crisp winter mornings, I would often look out the window at sunrise and just watch the peaks of the Pyrenees change from fiery orange, to rose pink, to dazzling white. A breathtaking sight.
I’ve watched our horses and sheep (often with thick frost on their woolly backs) slowly make their way up to the barns each morning – their internal time clocks unerringly bringing them home in time for breakfast.
As winter turned to spring, I was privileged to watch a deer and her two babies pick their way across the garden at dawn each day on their way back to the safety of our hay field where the youngsters could stay safe hidden in the long grass during daylight hours.
If I hadn’t developed this reading habit I would have missed all of this. Now, I can no longer imagine not starting my day like this.
What I learned from reading 100 books
It would have been a waste of time not to have learned a lot from the books I read during the year, so taking that as a given, here are a few things I learned over and above the new knowledge I gained from the books themselves.
It’s OK to write in books* – My reading is fairly evenly split between reading physical books and books on my Kindle app. As a child, writing in a book was considered a cardinal sin, and it’s been a surprisingly hard habit to break, but I now highlight passages and scribble notes with abandon. The more highlights and notes, the better the book was. (*When Robert proof read this post for me he added the comment ‘in pencil only’ )
Never be without a book – Whilst the bulk of my reading was done first thing in the morning, I began to take my book with me whenever there was a chance I might have a few minutes to read. I had surgery on my wrist in February so spent quite a lot of time in consultants’ waiting rooms. I also spend a fair amount of time in airports and on aeroplanes so gained a lot of reading time there as well.
It’s OK not to finish a book – I had very few ‘DNFs’ from the books I chose to read but I was ruthless about not finishing a book if I wasn’t enjoying it. There are too many wonderful books waiting to be read and I’ll only have the opportunity to read a small fraction of them.
Take the time to reflect on what you have read – I found it important to let a book ‘stew’ for a while after finishing it and then going back over it after a week or two. There would have been little point in powering through 100 books if I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on what I had gained from each one. I also found my monthly reviews on this blog of my favourite reads each month provided a good opportunity to consolidate my thoughts.
This is not a goal I feel the need to repeat – this was perhaps the most surprising, and important, lesson learned from the last 12 months. Whilst the journey has been amazing, and an overwhelmingly positive one, there were some downsides. The biggest of these was the books I didn’t read. To achieve my goal, I had to limit the number of very long books that I read. I did read a few which clocked in at over 600 pages, but there were several I set aside because I couldn’t ‘afford’ the time to read them. That’s just plain daft, so this year my plan is to read exactly what I want to read. I’ll be concentrating just that bit more on the books I most want to read as opposed to how many I read.
For anyone who yearns to read more I would urge you to give it a go. The benefits go way beyond what you receive from the reading of the books themselves.
As with many things in life, reading more is simple, but not easy. But if I can do it, so can you.