An author should be more well-read than George W. Bush, Jr. That’s the simple premise behind #95books.
Why 95 Books?
On Dec. 26, 2008, Karl Rove published an article titled “Bush is a Book Lover” in The Wall Street Journal. Furious on a good day, I read this and became enraged — at myself.
I was sure Bush was out-reading me. What was my excuse? I wasn’t president. I was a writer, and completing a PhD in literature! I was supposed to be more well-read than a warlord.
So in 2009, I enlisted my friend Ryan Fitzpatrick in what we called “the 95-book challenge.” We’d resolve to read 95 books that year, and like Rove and Bush, we’d make it a competition. The winner would buy the loser sushi.
In 2009, I barely won, reading 119 to Ryan’s 110. We kept it up, and in 2010 I won again, reading 128 to Ryan’s 105. In 2011, I hit a personal best, reading 140 to Ryan’s measly 84. In 2012, the tide turned as Ryan made a major comeback. He walloped me, reading 182 to my 112. This past year, things were even worse. Ryan read 181 and I read 107. Still, that sits me comfortably above my goal.
In 2014, I’ll be reading 95 books again. So can you — even if you’re starting late. Here are seven tips to help you, followed by my 2013 reading list.
TIP #1: START YOUR LIST
If you’re the kind of person that’s still reading this, then you probably read more than you think. Start a numbered list. Add all the books you already read this year.
I keep my list on my iPad/iPhone cloud in the Notes app, so that it syncs and is easily accessible. When I finish a book, I grab the closest device and add it to the list.
You’ll be surprised how often you add things to the list. You’ll see that you’re making regular progress. It’ll feel good. If you need motivation, add a line at the top of the list that just summarizes why you want to read more books. I don’t do this, but I’ve heard that it has helped some people.
TIP #2: DON’T DO THE MATH
Avoid the temptation to do the math and see if you are where you think you should be, and on or off track, etc. It sounds counter-intuitive, right? You should be keeping tabs to see if you need to pick up the pace, shouldn’t you? No. Don’t. It’s a trap.
The math is intimidating. And it’s wrong. You have to estimate an average book length, and the time you think it should take to read an average book … All of your estimates will be wrong. The books are different lengths, and you’ll read them at different paces. Forget about it. It’s not important. It’s just a distraction, and it will sap your strength.
The secret is that it doesn’t matter if you read 95 books or not. You’re going to be reading more, and your goal is clearly to read more if you’re considering something like this. 95 is just a number to shoot for that is high but not unrealistic. Every year I pass the number without doing the math or doing anything more complicated than simply making a bit of extra time to read, and making use of a few tips. Don’t turn the number into a weight you carry.
(Ryan disagrees on this point. He says to do the math. Since he won the last two years, I can’t say he’s wrong. If doing the math energizes you, rather than overwhelming you, then go ahead and math your heart out. An easy way to do this is using GoodReads, which allows you to set a goal and keeps you updated on whether you are keeping pace. I don’t use GoodReads much since Amazon bought it, but I tried it in the past and this function works well.)
TIP #3: CARRY YOUR BOOK
The single biggest way to read more is to carry a book with you. It sounds stupid and obvious. But let me ask you a question: do you have a book with you right now? Is it in your hand? Carry the book in your hand.
If you want to put it down put it down in front of you. If it’s in your bag, you won’t read it. If it’s in another room, you won’t read it. You might need to take a break sometimes — you can really annoy some people/spouses if you take this too far — but the point is that you need to become comfortable dipping into the book now and again, to read a paragraph or a page. I do almost all of my reading on the bus and whenever I have to wait for something. Instead of doing nothing, or checking my phone, I read. It’s easy — because I have a book in my hand. (I keep one on the phone too.)
TIP #4: READ WHATEVER YOU WANT
When I see people fail at this, they fail because they start to strategize. They decide they will read short books. They decide they will read so many books per week. They make this part of a self-improvement plan that includes reading certain types of books. They plan their reading in some way that they think is going to help them in the challenge and in their lives.
They should just read whatever they want. You can be strategic — as long as you are still doing whatever you want. I write a poetry column every month, where I review four books. So I have a deadline — I have to read at least four books each month (at minimum, then, 48 books a year) and poetry books are short. But I won’t let my editor assign me books. He can suggest them, but he doesn’t dictate them. I read the books I want. And I often stop reading books I don’t love.
A lot of people complain that they HAVE to read certain books. I hear this complaint a lot from graduate students. If you are reading books you HAVE to read, instead of books you WANT to read, then guess what? You need to make serious life changes. You need to fundamentally rethink how you are proceeding. During my degree, I often signed up for classes that I dropped once I saw the booklist. I quickly learned to get ahold of the reading list before deciding to join a class. Life’s too short to read books you don’t love.
TIP #5: DON’T BE AFRAID TO STOP READING A BOOK
I made this mistake the first year I did this. I felt that if I had read so far into a book, and it didn’t really grab me, I had to finish it in order to add it to my list. It’s a trap! You’ll avoid reading the book, which will slow you down in a best-case scenario, and might fully stall you. It’ll certainly stress you out. You didn’t decide to read 95 books so you could spend more time reading books you don’t love, that aren’t interesting. So stop. Put the book down. Back away from the book.
Your time spent with that book is a sunk cost. You can’t get it back. Abandon it (literally — leave it somewhere for someone else to pick up and enjoy) and you will re-energize yourself. Otherwise, you’ll either trudge through it slowly, or keep putting it aside to read something else instead. Either you’ll still never finish it (but you’ll feel bad because it still sits there, accusing you) or you’ll waste your time finishing it.
I still read books I dislike — if I dislike them in some sort of active way, that means I’m still engaged in them, and find wrestling with them productive somehow. But I don’t finish a lot of books — sometimes I’ll get near the end, and then quit. I don’t get to add it to my list, but so what? I’m still reading 95 books a year, easy, because I don’t feel like reading is a chore.
Along different lines, don’t be afraid to read part of a book. Not many academic books show up on my list, because with many of them I just read a few chapters or the introduction — whatever I really want to read, or have determined will be most useful. I don’t stress out and force myself to finish reading them just to add them to the list. The list doesn’t reflect all my reading. It won’t reflect yours. Make your peace with that now before you drive yourself insane and turn this into a part-time job you begin to loathe.
TIP #6: READ ONE BOOK AT A TIME
I’m not great at this. But when I do it, it works. I’m trying to be more disciplined about it. But if you’re a reader, you probably dip into multiple books. You read one for a while, then you skip out to another. Stop. Stay focused on a single book. Not only will you deepen your relationship with that book, by focusing on it, but you’ll read it more quickly, and you’ll see your count going up. Which will energize you to keep going. Right now, my one book (that I carry in my hand) is The Last Novel by David Markson.
If you skip around, you’ll be making progress — but you won’t see it, so you won’t get the psychological benefit of seeing it. And you won’t make as much progress, because instead of abandoning a book (you’re abandoning books now, remember?) you’ll just set it aside for a while. It’s another trap! If you don’t want to read the book you’re reading anymore, then quit it forever. Otherwise, take it to the finish line, then move on.
My exception to the rule is this: if you own a smartphone or a tablet, keep a second book on that. I have three eReader apps on my iPad and iPhone: iBooks, Kindle, and Sony eReader. Right now, iBooks and Sony eReader are empty. Not a single book. Kindle has ONE book in it: The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror by Thomas Ligotti. When I finish that, I will take my notes and then delete it, and add a new book.
A second book on your tech is great, because you’ll find yourself in situations where you don’t want to read (or just aren’t carrying) your paper book, but you could (and should) read from your phone for a bit. I read from my phone a lot when I have to stand on the bus, because I only need one hand to do it easily and comfortably.
TIP #7: WRITE ABOUT IT
Writing makes everything more clear — or at least confuses things in productive ways. Whether you’re journaling, jotting random thoughts, blogging, or book reviewing, it helps to write about what you read. It makes the whole process of going through a challenge like this more tangible (and, if you write publicly, turns the challenge into fodder for your writing). Writing about what you read is a way of holding yourself to account while also confirming, by making concrete, the importance of what you’re doing. It’s a way to engage with the books you’re reading, and in that sense a part of reading.
Maybe you’d rather talk about your reading than write about it. That’s fine, if that’s more appealing to you, but my guess is that you read so much because you want to engage with books, not with people. I like to call books “anti-social media” — not because readers are necessarily anti-social, but because reading is a specific way of attempting to disengage from the social, if only as precursor to deeper engagement. In any case, writing about your reading will help. It’ll make it more important to you, and more beneficial to you, because it’ll create a record of your reading that augments the experience.
A LAST NOTE: WHAT CONSTITUTES A BOOK?
Whenever I talk about this challenge, people always get hung up on what constitutes a book. This is a flexible thing that you’ll have to make a personal choice about, especially as digital media evolves. Ryan and I decided to go with the UNESCO definition of a book, which is anything over 48 pages in length.
So, I count a 50-page poetry collection as 1 book, and an 800-page novel as 1 book. If I read a children’s picture book that is 24 pages, it doesn’t count. If it’s 49 pages, it does. Sometimes I have to make a call. I have a hardcover collection of Cormac McCarthy’s three “Border Trilogy” books — if I read it, I’ll count it as 3 books, because originally this was three books. I’ve counted picture books with no words: I’ll count the Codex Seraphinianus this year, which contains no readable text (just asemic writing) as a book.
I consider a book to be a conceptual unit, not a technological unit. So, if I read the Humument app this year, I’ll count it as 1 book. You might count various other things as books. It’s up to you. Do what feels right. Just do it 95 times!
BOOKS I READ IN 2013
- Redshirts (John Scalzi)
- The Screenwriter’s Workbook (Syd Field)
- Screenplay (Syd Field)
- All Souls’ (Rhea Tregebov)
- The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist (Orhan Pamuk)
- Enter the Raccoon (Beatriz Hausner)
- How to Write (derek beaulieu)
- Notebook M (Gillian Savigny)
- Hallelujah: Haiku, Senryu, Tanka (Terry Ann Carter)
- I Can Say Interpellation (Stephen Cain)
- Lynch on Lynch (Chris Rodley)
- I Don’t Feel So Good (Elizabeth Bachinsky)
- Charms Against Lightning (James Arthur)
- Write. (Guardian Books)
- Alien vs. Predator (Michael Robbins)
16a. Form (Mark Truscott)
16b. The Discourse of the Slave (Vanessa Place)
- Writing 21st Century Fiction (Donald Maass)
- The Demonologist (Andrew Pyper)
- In Praise of Reading and Fiction (Mario Vargas Llosa)
- The Lease (Mathew Henderson)
- Antigone (Sophocles)
- Take Control of Scrivener 2 (Kirk McElhearn)
- Please, No More Poetry (derek beaulieu, ed. Kit Dobson)
- Red Doc> (Anne Carson)
- RUSH: what fuckan theory; a study uv language (bill bissett, eds. derek beaulieu and Gregory Betts)
- Writing Surfaces (John Riddell, eds. derek beaulieu and Lori Emerson)
- Booklife (Jeff Vandermeer)
- Deluded Your Sailors (Michelle Butler Hallett)
- Glossolalia (Marita Dachsel)
- Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times: Selected Haiku of Basho (ed. and trans. David Young)
- 6 (Maurice Mierau) — unpublished
- The Zero (Jess Walter)
- Archive of the Undressed (Jeanette Lynes)
- How Poetry Saved My Life (Amber Dawn)
- Yarrick: Chains of Golgotha (David Annandale)
- Water Damage (Peter Norman)
- In Calamity’s Wake (Natalee Caple)
- N0S4A2 (Joe Hill)
- Horns (Joe Hill)
- The Ecstasy of Communication (Jean Baudrillard)
- from Tumultétudes: The Chips & Ties Study (Margaret Christakos)
- The Saddest Place on Earth (Kathryn Mockler)
- The Hottest Summer in Recorded History (Elizabeth Bachinsky)
- Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations (Gregory Betts)
- The Wizard of Oz (Salman Rushdie)
- Above Palm Canyon and Other Places in the Mind (Per K. Brask)
- The Hellmouths of Bewdley (Tony Burgess)
- Webcomics 2.0 (Steve Horton & Sam Romero)
- Massacre Street (Paul Zits)
- Forge (Kevin McPherson Eckhoff)
- Supernatural Horror in Literature (H. P. Lovecraft)
- Hooking (Mary Dalton)
- A Spectator: Ekphrastic Poetry (Per Brask)
- The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury)
- Moments Notice (Nico Vassilakis)
- 1996 (Sara Peters)
- Unknown Actor (Jason Christie)
- i-Robot Poetry by Jason Christie (Jason Christie)
- The Grey Tote (Deena Kara Shaffer)
- The Last Temptation of Bond (Kimmy Beach)
- Coping with Emotions and Otters (Dina Del Bucchia)
- Needs Improvement (Jon Paul Fiorentino)
- The Island of Doctor Moreau (H. G. Wells)
- The Reinvention of the Human Hand (Paul Vermeersch)
- Seven American Deaths and Disasters (Kenneth Goldsmith)
- Producing Canadian Literature (eds. Kit Dobson and Smaro Kamboureli)
- Wordpharmacy (Morten Søndergaard)
- Poor Yorick (Ryan North, William Shakespeare, and You)
- The Sisters Brothers (Patrick DeWitt)
- Savage Love (Douglas Glover)
- Cottonopolis (Rachel Lebowitz)
- The Family China (Ann Shin)
- North End Love Songs (Katherena Vermette)
- Arguing with the Lake (Tanis Rideout)
- Auxiliary Skins (Christine Miscione)
- William Shakespeare’s Star Wars (Ian Doescher)
- At the limit of breath: Poems on the films of Jean-Luc Godard (Stephen Scobie)
- The Way of the Screenwriter (Amnon Buchbinder)
- Multitudes (Margaret Christakos)
- The Counting House (Sandra Ridley)
- Letters of Intent (Nico Vassilakis)
- Joseph Anton (Salman Rushdie)
- The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting (Darren Wershler-Henry)
- The Stones (Dennis Cooley)
- Ed the Happy Clown (Chester Brown)
- Flesh and Bone (Julia Gfrörer)
- The Extended Dream of Mr. D (Max)
- Fear Not (Maurice Mierau)
- This is Importance (Gregory Betts)
- Raygun Gothic (GMB Chomichuk)
- The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Slavoj Zizek)
- Correspondences (Anne Michaels & Bernice Eisenstein)
- Pneumatic Antiphonal (Sylvia Legris)
- Conflict (Christine McNair)
- Decomp (Stephen Collis & Jordan Scott)
- Kiss List (buhbuhbuhbuhbuh)
- Timely Irreverence (Jay MillAr)
- of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon: a book of failures (Jenny Boully)
- The Writing Life (Annie Dillard)
- The Polymers (Adam Dickinson)
- How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Mohsin Hamid)
- Knife Throwing through Self-Hypnosis (Robin Richardson)
- White Piano (Nicole Brossard, trans. Robert Majzels & Erin Moure)
- Paperless (David Sparks)
- Metaphysical Dog (Frank Bidart)
- The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry (eds. Valerie Mason-John and Kevan Anthony Cameron)*
- Animal Husbandry Today (Jamie Sharpe)*
*(I read these last two earlier, but forgot to include them on my list, and I don’t want to renumber the whole thing)