©2020 by Sarah Downey

  • Sarah

17 tips to crush your 2019 reading goal (which I used to read 100+ books this year)

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

I read 103 books in 2018. That was 30,851 pages across roughly 2 books a week, averaging 300 pages each.

You may be thinking that I loaf around doing nothing all day and that’s how I pulled this off. Sure, I have my occasional insanely lazy days like everyone else, but I have a demanding job where I’m basically “on” all the time, nights and weekends included. I crammed reading into every crack and gap in my schedule, from one minute waiting for the bathroom to cross-country flights without wifi, and I’ve summed up my strategy below.

You can read more than you think, and it’ll help you in all areas of your life. The books you read form a connective tissue that thread through your conversations, your imagination, and your relationships. Reading will make you a fuller person. It’s like giving the RPG version of yourself a ton of attribute points.

I realized in writing this that I rely a lot on the Amazon platform (both hardware and software) for reading, and that can get expensive. But physical books are cheap and people often give them away or are happy to let you borrow them. I have three bookshelves at home; you can borrow mine.

1. Read what you want; don’t pressure yourself

The fact that you’re reading at all is great. Reading anything uses your brain in positive, creative ways that more passive entertainment doesn’t. Feel good about that and don’t pressure yourself to read things that don’t genuinely excite you. You don’t need to be reading the latest overhyped business title or dry career skill textbook. If you push yourself to read things that are boring or painful to you, you won’t do it. So fire up those young adult dystopian novels or seedy celebrity autobiographies or erotica series or other guilty pleasures, and don’t feel bad about it. Once you get in the habit of reading, the mechanics of it will feel easier and you’ll be more likely to branch out to other genres.

2. Read multiple books at once

I averaged six books going at once throughout this year. If I hit a point in one where I got bored or wasn’t motivated to keep going, I’d take a break by switching to something that felt more compelling at that moment. Those six tended to be from different genres; each one satisfied some need that I had in real life at that moment. For example, if I was overwhelmed by work and needed a mental escape, I read science fiction. If I felt unprepared at work and need to bolster my skills, I read business books. If I was feeling curious about a person or an industry, I read biopics. If I was on a 7-hour flight unable to sleep and needing to be entertained, I read autobiographies by 80’s hair metal musicians. You get the gist. Having six books “open” at once isn’t actually tough; you generally remember where you were when you come back.

3. It’s okay not to finish

If you start a book and every page is torture and you simply can’t get anything out of it, stop. You’re doing this for yourself; there’s no rule that you have to soldier through books that you hate. I find that this happens most often when you’re reading something that lots of people claim to love and you can’t understand why. Not everything is universally loved, and that’s okay.

4. Limit TV/movies

You will have less time to watch TV and movies if you amp up the reading. That’s unavoidable. I only saw maybe two movies in theaters this year, and virtually all the rest were either on the treadmill (as an incentive to work out) or on planes (when I’m trapped and braindead). You may have to retrain yourself to interpret reading as a relaxing activity, given that so many of us associate it with the stress of school or work. Sit down with a book with dinner or a beer. Read in bed first thing in the morning to ease yourself into being fully awake and functional. The average American watched an average 3.8 hours of TV a day in 2018, so if this stat reflects you, imagine how many books you could read if you took even half of this TV time and converted it to reading.

5. Libby

The Libby app lets you take out e-books and audiobooks from your local library for free. All you need is a library card. The downside is that it treats digital books like physical ones, in that they’ll only have one or a few arbitrary copies due to licensing restrictions. Thus you often have to go on a waiting list for the most popular books. But you can run searches for what’s immediately available and find something if you’re flexible.

6. Goodreads

You can enter your reading goal in Goodreads and track your progress as you go, including pages read/percentages complete and full book completions. I put my 100-book goal in Goodreads, and it was satisfying to add books to the“finished” pile and see how far along I was. It’s also cool to see what your friends are reading and what they like and dislike. Lastly, it’s the best system I’ve found to gauge if a book is actually good in advance of reading it: the reviews seem less biased and more informational than anywhere else.

I’m also a heavy user of the “to-read” shelf in Goodreads where I keep track of what I want to check out and the “read” shelf where I reference what I finished. You can filter both by rating to prioritize titles that rank highly, or remind yourself of the things you read that you loved. Bonus: since Amazon acquired Goodreads, the linkage between the two gives you perks if you use both. E.g., Goodreads will email you e-book discounts if anything on your to-read list goes on sale on Amazon. That adds up when you’re reading a ton.

7. Kindle (the app)

Here I’m referring to Kindle as a software platform for e-books, including the iOS and Android app. Kindle is life-changing for readers. Even though it’s existed for years, it’s still amazingly satisfying to find a book you want to read, buy it on Amazon, and see it materialize on your phone in seconds. Plus the ability to move between devices on the same book is awesome. Which leads me to the next point:

8. Kindle Paperwhite (the device)

You don’t need the Kindle hardware to read, but reading on a reflective, eye-straining mobile screen versus on a device specially designed for it is like night and day. The Paperwhite is particularly great. It’s no-frills but does everything you want: crisp, high-contrast display that’s easy on the eyes and simple to adjust, tons of book storage, quick to turn pages (swipe across the screen versus pressing a button), seemingly impervious to destruction, and intuitive to make highlights.

I bought the wifi version with ads. Cellular is more expensive and I’ve never felt like I needed it. You just have to remember to download books when you’re in a wifi-enabled area. The ads only display on the screen while the device is turned off, so it’s an aesthetic-only difference that saves you some money.

9. Audible

Audible has a bunch of different plans, but the basic is $14.95 for one credit per month. One credit gets you most books. Some of the super long ones are more than one credit. I found that one monthly credit was enough when combined with all the other book formats I was reading, especially Libby because it has audiobooks as well. I had periods where I was less into audiobooks and ended up accruing a few credits, which I then used on road trips or when I was running a lot for marathon training. Books really helped me zone into a story and fend off the boredom.

Both Audible and Libby let you vary narration speed. I normally listen at ~1.75x speed, depending on how challenging the material is and how distracted I am with other tasks I may be doing. If you’re reading 100 books, getting through a couple easy audiobooks at 2x speed saves you lots of time.

10. Amazon Echo

Because I have a standard Echo or a Dot in every room in my house, I could have book narration follow me around as I do housework. Just say “Alexa, continue my audiobook” and it picks up where you left off. But there are two annoying issues with Audible on Echo:

1, you can’t currently have multiple Echos playing a book throughout the house, despite being able to do that with music. It’d be nice to walk through the house hearing narration rather than having to be tethered to one room.

2, you can’t change the narration speed on Echo. 1x feels brutally slow for many books.

The Echo will both play both Audible books (which have a human actor narrating) and Kindle books (which have a computerized voice reading). The computerized voice takes some getting used to but it’s decent, it works, and you’re only paying once for an e-book rather than twice to get additional human narration.

11. BookBub

BookBub sends you personalized deals on e-books. I signed up later in the year but wish I’d found them sooner because the savings are significant (like $2 for a book that’s normally $12). I found it helps to go into BookBub and really personalize your genres and favorite books and authors so the recommendations are on point. Then you can opt into a daily or weekly email with e-book deals. I skim it and buy the ones that are on my Goodreads “to read” list.

12. Comics count

Particularly graphic novels for adult audiences. Some of them have just as many pages as typical books (especially the omnibus collections of finished books), but the visuals give your brain a nice change. Just don’t overdo it. Otherwise, you’re only cheating yourself. My personal rule is to count only an omnibus — the collected issues of an entire run of a series — as a single book. E.g., I included the Rachel Rising Omnibus (900 pages) and The Boys Omnibus Volume One (508 pages) in my books this year.

13. Only non-stressful genres before bed

Many people find that the few minutes they have before bed is the only consistent time they can read. If that’s the case, non-stressful genres work better. If I read something work-related before bed — even if it’s only tangential to work — I end up getting psyched up or worried about ideas and having streams of thoughts that lead into projects I need to do or meetings I have coming up, and it makes falling asleep tough. But I’ve found that fantasy novels, in contrast, are perfect.

14. Get a good physical reading setup, especially lighting

Not having a physically comfortable and sufficiently well-lit setup at night will unconsciously drive you away from reading in bed. I noticed I’d carry a print book to my nightstand and hardly ever read it because it was annoying to use clip-on reading lights that don’t fully illuminate pages and I’d have to get out of bed to turn off an overhead light when I’m about to pass out. My solution ended up being a set of Nanoleaf panels that I installed on the wall behind my bed. You can toggle them up and down in brightness and change light hues to a “reading” setting with red undertones (experts say that red, rather than blue, undertones better prepare you for sleep). There’s also an optional Alexa integration that lets you dim/brighten the lights and turn on and off with your voice, which is great for that moment when you realize you’re falling asleep reading the same paragraph over and over and need to crash.

15. Embrace multiple book formats to fit your life

You’ll need to be able to read wherever you go. That means a combination of physical and e-books, text and audio. Embrace multiple book formats. I always take a physical book in my bag, especially when I expect to get stuck on planes or in doctors’ offices. You can pull out your phone and read a few pages in your Kindle app while you wait in line. You can play audiobooks over your car speakers during your commute, through your Echo while you’re doing the dishes, and over your Airpods while stretching before a workout. I listen to books while going on epic Pokemon Go quests. ABR (“Always Be Reading”).

One of my favorite quotes about ABR comes from Stephen King in his book On Writing:

“Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books — of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. Of the books I read each year, anywhere from six to a dozen are on tape.”

16. Take people’s book recommendations seriously

If someone loves a book and raves about it to you (or even goes as far as buying it for you), reading that book is one of the most dedicated gestures that you can make for that person. It shows that you care about their tastes and you’re willing to spend the time, often significant amounts of it, to embark on a journey that they’ve taken. Books give us a shared consciousness; it’s like we have experienced the same things. But unlike movies and TV, which also connect fandoms and people around common interests, books involve more of your own imaginative spin on what took place. It’s like you both went to the same vacation spot, but not together and at different time periods. There’s more room for interpretation and thus more to talk about. Knowing that someone’s out there waiting for you to finish a book and hear your thoughts is good motivation to keep reading.

Not all styles and tastes are for everyone, though, so see tip #3 above around not having to finish a book. Merely trying counts for something. And if you’re the recommender, realize that pushing a book on someone could be viewed as an imposition, especially if it’s really long or it’s more about you than them. E.g., I love scifi but I’m not going to insist that everyone read Frank Herbert’s Dune when I should have the EQ to detect that certain friends or coworkers just wouldn’t dig it. Or if you have really strong political or religious views, I’d stay away from forcing those on people via books.

As I mentioned earlier, I use Goodreads and the “to-read” shelf to keep track of people’s recommendations. Shoutout to Matt Burke, one of the best book-gifters ever.

17. Have friends who read

It helps to have friends who are also readers so you don’t feel like an antisocial piece of garbage when you want to — and do — whip out a book in the middle of a hangout. Thanks to Tyler Zink for the always on-point graphic novel recommendations, and to Isabella Patton, Marcus Way, and Mia Sierra Patton for those brunches at Angela’s in East Boston where all of us are on our Kindles and it’s introvert magic.

Good luck on your reading quest. I’ll leave you with the ten best books I read this year, in no particular order: