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Why I’ll Be Reading Fewer Books in 2014


In 2014, I’m going to read as few books as possible.

I know, it’s an unusual goal. Who resolves to read less? Isn’t reading good for you? Every single list of advice for aspiring writers says, “Read a lot. Read as much as you can.”

And since books are like oxygen to me, reading less is a scary prospect. Last year I read 100 books. The year before that, 63 books. This year I’m asking myself to keep the total to 36. Three books a month.

Why the change? Well, in the fall I noticed that Margaret has been in charge of my reading habits for quite a while. She loves tracking the books I finish, and she loves seeing the numbers add up ~ they give a nice boost to the ego.

Mireille does get involved, insisting that I read the best books I can find, the ones that fill me up with truth and beauty. She has me copy down particularly good quotations for future use.

(Don’t know who Margaret and Mireille are? Read this post.)

But Margaret’s emphasis on volume naturally leads to speed, more short books (graphic novels and children’s books), and adult books that are quick and easy to read (meaning more genre or plot-driven books). I always have a steady stream of new material coming in through holds placed at the library, and the due dates force me to finish books quickly and return them.

Mireille often feels bloated on this reading diet. She hardly has a chance to process one book before we’re on to the next. Instead of talking or writing about the book, or letting the stories and ideas sink in, she just gorges herself and moves on.

Margaret would never permit me to re-read a book because it wouldn’t contribute to progress on my goal. She encourages audiobooks over podcasts. She even has me ploughing through books I don’t particularly like just so they will “count.”

Performance-based reading isn’t a new thing for me.

Many years ago, I was told that the definition of an “avid reader” was someone who read at least one book a week. I was already tracking my reading in the Book Lover’s Diary that Shawn gave me for Christmas 1997 (inscribed from “a Book Lover lover”), so of course I made a spreadsheet to see how well I was performing. I had read quite a bit in grad school, both the assigned volumes (30 linked short story collections as background for my thesis project) and the guilty pleasure stuff like James Herriot and Edith Nesbitt.

Counting the books I read using this measuring stick of 52 books a year for an avid reader set me on the course of “more is better.”

Then I came upon the Goodreads Reading Challenge in 2012, which turbo-charged the whole venture. Now I could see the goals that my friends set, and congratulate or chastise myself depending on how I compared. I got that hit of satisfaction when I finished a book and logged it on Goodreads, watching my total inch up.

Last December 2012, just when I was setting my new Reading Challenge goal, I read a Slate article that only fed my obsession with more. In 366 Days, 366 Books, Jeff Ryan describes how he read a book a day for a year, and I adopted many of his strategies to meet what was for me an ambitious target: 100 books. I fell behind a little in the spring but picked up over the summer and then crammed 15 short books in the last weeks of December to meet the goal. But the victory felt a little hollow.

And I had a flashback to Grade Five. Mrs. Taylor was hosting a reading contest for the class, and first prize was a new book. I remember that we got bonus points for reading Canadian authors, so I raided the library for Jean Little and Janet Lunn. By the end of term, I was solidly in the lead, but I needed just one more book to reach a total of 100,000 points.

446678The trouble was that the contest ended the next day, and I had read everything on my shelf. The library had closed for the evening. So I begged my parents to let me finish The Christmas Stories of George MacDonald, the special book that we’d been reading aloud as a family.

Can I just emphasize? Reading this book would not help me win the contest ~ I had already won. Reading this book would only help me reach a meaningless milestone with lots of zeroes.

Bless my parents’ hearts, they said yes. They let me carry the book off alone and dash through the remaining pages, treating it like a commodity instead of a sacred ritual. And I’d like to officially apologize to them: Sorry, Mom and Dad and Melody. Sorry for putting my focus on numbers ahead of our shared reading experience.

(By the way, I chose a copy of Bel Ria: Dog of War by Sheila Burnford as my contest prize. Thanks, Mrs. Taylor!)

Penelope Trunk says that the things we measure are really important. And I realized that the way I tracked the books I read significantly affected the way I read.

So in 2014, I’m trying a different tack.

Fewer books. More short stories and literary fiction. Fewer library books and more purchases (because I can choose more carefully, slow down, and savour books I own). More discussion, online and at book club. More memorizing poetry. More re-reading books. Maybe even less reading, more writing. (Find me on Goodreads to follow my book consumption delectation.)

Once I started questioning “more and faster is better” in my reading life, that led to examining other patterns and habits too. Which eventually led me to my word of the year for 2014. But that is for another post . . .

Speaking of books, I’ll be posting an update soon about my own progress with Pilgrimage of Desire. I’m also reading an advance copy of Notes from a Blue Bike by Tsh Oxenreider, so I’ll be writing about that. And later this week I have an interview with Niya Christine, who is running a Kickstarter campaign for a gorgeous book about her 365 Paintings project.

God, I love books. This year I’m going to love them differently, but my love will never die.

Photo Credit: eflon via Compfight cc

{ 12 comments… add one }

  • Jennifer Louden January 20, 2014, 9:08 am

    another reason I like you – you just read my mind. This could be a post written by me (but far better writing). I am at such a similiar juncture including cutting back on the library hold rush to read thing. Less gluttony, more savoring. Thanks for helping me feel less alone.

    • Alison January 20, 2014, 5:34 pm

      You’re welcome, Jennifer! I’m glad to know you’re here with me too. You came to mind a few times as I was writing this piece, because of the word “savour,” and also the Conditions of Enoughness. Once I noticed that feeling of “I’m hungry again, what’s next?” immediately after I logged a book on Goodreads, I knew this was something to pay attention to.

  • lisa neutel January 21, 2014, 5:52 am

    So how do you count the books you read to your kids? 😉

    • Alison January 21, 2014, 10:16 am

      Good question, Lisa! I don’t log picture books on Goodreads, but I do log short chapter books like “Anna Hibiscus” and “My Father’s Dragon.” I do love reading to the kids and I won’t let my new resolution put a damper on that! We’re currently enjoying “Dragon Rider” by Cornelia Funke.

  • Janice Falls January 21, 2014, 6:16 am

    Ah Alison, this struck a chord with me. I have taken to skim reading many of the library books I bring home, particularly the non-fiction, to ‘try them out’. I get a thin sense of the topic but retain very little. Even the fiction I love, I seem to read fast, gobbling the words like so much chocolate. As I am noticing this, I am making more conscious choices about what to read and learning to savour the words, the story. Poetry is my first love and that slows me down when I really let a poem into my heart. And haiku, well…
    So thank you my dear for your wise words. I haven’t been counting my books, though I do keep track because otherwise I have a difficult time remembering what I just read. Not sure if I can manage a three/month diet but I will be thinking of you as I pick up the next volume.

    • Alison January 21, 2014, 10:20 am

      Oh, Janice, I really relate to that skimming and trying things out. So many good books come across my radar and the library (or Kindle) makes it easy to sample and discard. Here’s to more conscious choices!

  • Rachel January 21, 2014, 7:48 pm

    Reading your post took me back a few years to when I was going through the Artists Way by Julie Cameron. One of the weeks you had to stop reading all together. When I heard that I almost dropped out of the group! But it truly changed my life. I know my creative focus is more visual rather than literary so it may be different. I started sleeping better (in part because I wasn’t playing the ‘just one more chapter’ game until 2am!) and became more prolific. I’ve never gotten back to reading in the same way. I was a voracious reader, did a lot of skimming, and rarely fell asleep without a book on my lap. Now I’m much more discriminating and put something down faster if I just don’t feel it needs to be in my head.

  • Eleanor O'Rourke January 22, 2014, 4:15 am

    Thank you for this timely reminder! I so relate to this and frequently talk about my Amazon addiction because now that books are so easy to buy and the fly leaf/synopsis is SO well written, it’s easy to become trapped on the hamster wheel of ‘More’. I’m a slow reader so when I look around at the number of books I have already bought and haven’t read I know I must stop, yet still I get seduced and order more.
    A friend of mine was going on a silent retreat and my first thought was ‘how amazing, a chance to catch up on all that reading.’ When she said there was NO reading allowed I could almost feel the cold turkey shakes.
    Writers need a two way process – input (extensive reading is great) – output (getting our own words on the page). If we get too obsessed with breathing in, it’s sometimes hard to breathe out. And holding our breath for too long can have painful consequences!

  • Cecilia January 23, 2014, 2:14 pm

    This is a great post, thanks Alison. I’ve never been one to count my books, but when I enjoy one I do tend to read it as fast as I can which often leaves me wishing I could go back to the time before I read it.

    It’s interesting to note the different ways to read. The gobbling that Janice refers to IS more like eating chocolate. I’m working through the Grief Process with a group this winter and we’ve just learned about STERBs (Short Term Energy Relieving Behaviors) which are used to avoid feeling grief in the short term and this gobbling type of reading is definitely on the list as a way to escape.

    It will be interesting to see what opens up for you in this project of reading less.


  • Kif January 24, 2014, 7:07 am

    savour, savour, savour. what a great goal. good tip on buying (or maybe borrowing from friends) so that there is no pressure of the Due Date.

    especially in the winter, curling up with a good book and enjoying it at your own pace, is such a joy.

    thanks for the reminder!

  • Lori-Ann March 25, 2014, 4:51 pm

    Ahh, Alison. What a relief! After a lifetime of constantly having a fiction book on the go, I went through a stretch last year where it was so hard for me to read. First, fiction dropped off, then non-fiction, and I was left with Pinterest. 🙂 Happily, that’s over, and I’m really sinking into how I feel. If I feel like reading “junk books” (the slang in our house for non-literary fiction), I read them. If I feel like reading only a chapter of a non-fiction book, I do it. Letting the rules relax is so liberating. Thank you for writing this! I feel in good company here.

  • Shawna March 31, 2014, 10:43 am

    When I finished grad school in the late 1990s and moved home to Ottawa I made a vow to read less. People didn’t understand – wasn’t reading ALWAYS good? In the years that followed I joined a gym and became passionate about fitness (I’m still a fitness instructor to this day), I wrote more, I designed a house and had it built, I started a fine-art photography business, I met, married and started a family with a wonderful partner.

    When I was in grad school almost all I did was academics and reading, and I would read a full fiction book every day or two.

    So my conclusion is: reading is good, but living is better. And I still let myself read on the bus and sometimes a bit before bed, so it’s not like I’ve quit entirely.

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