How I went from barely reading to reading 40 books per year

Everyone has their own special relationship with books. Some people listen to two audiobooks in a week, and others can’t be bothered to read two books in a year. People vary not only in their pace, but in the kinds of things they like to read — I have friends who are bored by fiction and only read business and self-help books, and others who love fiction and absolutely hate business and self-help.

My own relationship with books changed pretty dramatically this year, to the point where I now read a greater number and variety of books than I ever have. I went from reading no more than a handful of books in a year to being on track to finish dozens. And it kind of happened by accident.

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash. Source

Background

Many people tell you about how they were a total bookworm as a child, and they only stopped reading in high school or college when they no longer had the time. That was not me. I didn’t read a lot as a kid; I never read Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or any of the other stuff my friends never stop talking about. I sort of have the excuse that I immigrated halfway across the world to North America at age seven, but that still left me many years to learn English and read a ton, which I just didn’t do. My favorite book from childhood was The Giver, but I didn’t read it per se…it was read aloud by my fourth-grade teacher Ms. Barbieri.

Then in high school and most of college, my relationship with books was ambivalent at best. There were definitely a few that left a strong impression on me — V for Vendetta and Orwell’s Animal Farm; Design of Everyday Things and Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. While I was riveted by these books, they were the exception. Most of what I read was assigned for school and not very engaging.

I especially remember developing a distaste towards fiction as I got older. So many of the novels I read were just boring. Why bother to read all these stories if they’re just made up? I want to learn stuff about the actual world. This made me lean towards nonfiction, but I didn’t read much of that either.

So throughout high school and college, I never read more than 5–6 books in a year, and in childhood I pretty much never read unless I had to. Combine this with the fact that I was — and still am — a much slower reader than most of my friends, and I was left with a sense of myself as someone who just doesn’t read a lot. To be clear, I was fairly studious — I did my class readings, and I sometimes browsed wikipedia for fun — but I wasn’t a reader.

Today, I start and finish each day with a combined hour of reading, and am in the middle of my 28th and 29th book for the year. I feel overjoyed at the thought of getting through the hundreds of books I’ve added to my booklist and the many I haven’t even heard about yet. I consider reading a central part of who I am and who I try to be.

So what changed?

A spark

One of the groups I joined in college formed a book club after we graduated in 2019, as a way to keep in touch and continue to learn outside of school. Every time we’d select a book for the month, I’d get all excited, order the book on Amazon or find it online, and either not start it or never finish it. After one or two rounds of this I stopped trying.

Then at the start of 2020, after having taken more than six months to finally finish Sapiens, I saw that the book club had decided to read this murder mystery called Where the Crawdads Sing. At first I didn’t give it a second thought — just another fiction book I’ll probably get bored by — but quite a few of my friends were raving about it. I remember looking at it online and thinking, there is no way I’ll be able to read 300+ pages in the two weeks I have before the book club meets.

Crawdads was a turning point. It was the first time in years that I was reading a story and genuinely felt like I had to keep reading. Can you imagine? This literally hadn’t happened in years. With the exception of a tiny minority of books, almost every fiction book I’d ever read had felt like a chore. I always felt like I had to work myself up towards reading. With Crawdads, I was literally excited to get out of bed and continue following Kya’s journey through life. A fire was re-ignited.

A slow evolution

So did this one book make me realize I loved reading after all and I must read 40 books this year? Not quite. But it started a snowball effect. Once I remembered the power of fiction — once I relearned that you can literally be transformed into another world for a few hours in your day with nothing but words on a page — I began to pursue books with a little bit more zeal. I added more books to my list, I began to delve into different sub-genres, and reading became more and more something I consider crucial for a good day.

The specific goal of reading 40 books was never an arbitrary prescription I came up with. It developed as an organic result of what I was already finding fun. I was sandwiching my day with a quick read before and after bed, and I thought I could just make it a little more systematic, all the while keeping in mind that the point is mostly just to read and to enjoy.

Onward

In case you need a little bit of selling on what’s nice about books, here are some of my favorite things about reading as a hobby:

  • It requires minimal resources and setup: literally just a book and a light source. It’s also a stable cost — unlike other hobbies or interests that may require increased spending as you get more specialized (e.g. producing music), you will spend about the same on books no matter how far you go with them.
  • It never ends. Not even close. There are always way too many books to read.
  • It leaves you feeling refreshed, energized, curious. Any good book leaves me feeling this way.
  • Reading books is a great way to leverage hedonic adaptation. With material goods, the story goes like this: you consume a good; well-being improves; then you stabilize and want more. This can quickly become unsustainable (see: species called homo sapiens on planet earth). You can think of the knowledge and stories you obtain from books as a “cognitive good”: you absorb ideas/stories, it feels great, then your well-being stabilizes, and now you want more ideas/stories. But then you can just consume more — there is virtually no physical limit!
  • Relative to short-form content (news, opinion pieces), the nature of the medium leaves much more room for in-depth exploration of a topic and less room for noise and distraction.

These points are compelling to me, but really they’re a rationalized explanation for something I happen to enjoy. You should read if you enjoy it, and do other things if you don’t. Just don’t conclude too early that you’re simply not a reader. While me developing a passion for books isn’t at the top of the list of surprising world events for 2020, it was not something I ever expected. And it does take plenty of time — time that I could be spending on other things.

If there’s one personal value that this hobby has reinforced for me, it’s that just being present — doing what you find most enjoyable in this moment, without so much planning and calculating and scheming — can lead to plenty of good in your life, sometimes in surprising ways.

If you’d like to get my thoughts on the books I’ve been reading, see my list here.