I still haven’t done anything so far this January! I’m proud of this because sometimes it’s a difficult commitment to keep. It’s more important to me to work my goals ten months of the year than it is to try to maintain some kind of “””perfect””” “””streak””” starting on Day One. Because January is a basically impossible time of year to do anything, other than maybe sleep more or spend less money.
The one thing I have done is to reframe one habit by thinking of it as something else entirely. That’s where the News Machine comes in.
I have a terrible habit - actually many of them - and I also have a good habit, or at least one that I can invoke from time to time. This is part of my secret of habit change and personal transformation, the discovery that a good habit can be harnessed to flip over a bad one.
It’s called “anchoring.”
Peanut butter and... jelly.
Socks and... shoes.
Floss and... brush your teeth.
Trampolines and... ice cream cones. (Ooh, messy).
There is a reverse of this, as there is of most things, and that is when two bad habits are anchored together, or when a good habit triggers a bad one. If a pattern like this is recognized, then it’s time to brainstorm and figure out how to separate the two things. Like, every time I walk into the craft store I spend $40, or, every time I get a coffee I also get an ooey gooey pastry.
Usually the “bad” habit is the thing that we feel is an intrinsic part of our very personality. I quite literally AM an ooey gooey pastry! On the molecular level! I don’t ever want to be the kind of person who is not that!
This is why I usually refer to them as cute habits. Not “bad.” We weren’t born bad, we were born interesting!
Okay, so, confession: my cute habit is that I’d rather be reading than doing basically anything else. And the bad version of that habit is that the more I read, the more I bookmark, and the longer my “to read” list gets. The reason this is bad is that it interferes with my enjoyment. I start to think of my favorite thing as a must-do. Rather than having 100% fun, I start to feel like I “need” to get “caught up.”
Do you ever feel that way?
Crafty people often start to feel like they “need” to “finish” projects, like they’re “behind” on scrapbooking or “finishing” a quilt. What is supposed to be nothing at all other than a relaxing hobby somehow transmogrifies into a guilt machine. I promised! I owe! It’s late! Those emotions come from anchoring the hobby to something else, like giving gifts, showing affection to friends and family, trying to save money, or earning approval. The pressure also comes from shopping for materials, where the more focus there is on the hobby, the more accumulation of materials, and the more space they take up in the home. We think the only ways to relieve those practical and social pressures are to craft faster, rather than to stop buying supplies and stop trying to create 100% handmade gifts. Get back to making it about relaxation!
That’s turning into an entire separate piece, but I’m not going to claim that I’ll ever write it because I’m trying to reframe my personal concept of procrastination.
Why do I feel like I’m procrastinating on personal projects? Why do I sometimes feel this way even when there’s no deadline, nobody is asking for anything from me, and literally nobody cares but me?
Is this true for you, for anything in your life?
As with a lot of things, it’s easier to just go with it than it is to try to change the emotion. I recognize that I feel “behind” on my reading, and I figure out what I can do with that feeling that will lead directly to a positive action.
In my case, I use it to work out on the elliptical.
There! I said it!
I lied, I cheated! I’ve actually been crushing it this month down in the workout room!
I just didn’t want to admit it while talking about New Year’s Resolutions, because it makes other people feel bad. Like my weird little goals have anything to do with anyone but me...
I’ve found that I seem to read faster when I’m on the elliptical for some reason. It makes the time pass quickly.
I’ve tried other types of habits to keep me working out. I tried running on the treadmill, and it makes me feel like my brain is slowly dying. (Current gym does not have a treadmill). I tried the exercise bike but it makes me sore and I don’t think it gives me any results. I tried watching TV shows on the elliptical, but it makes me feel like every minute is really 18 minutes. The thing I’ve settled on is that I can read through news articles.
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you think in terms of “supposed to” and “because” and “everyone else” and “not doing it right” and “fail,” you’re stopping yourself before you start. Try thinking in terms of “works for me” and “not sure why, but” and “for some reason.” You like what you like and you’re allowed to like it.
This is why I’m not thinking about my workout as a workout. I’m thinking about it as the News Machine. When I change clothes, I’m thinking about how many articles I’m going to read, and *that* is my personal burn rate. My metric is that I started out with nearly 400 articles in my news queue, and now I’m down to 120. Yay!
After that, there’s my *other* news queue, and then my “read at leisure” email folder, and then my open tabs...
According to my phone, I’m burning 18% more calories per workout after only two weeks. That comes from the feeling that I call “getting the lead out.” Like I threw off some lead weights. If my starting goal had been to “burn calories” or “move faster” I’m sure I would have been discouraged and I would already be feeling like I aimed too high.
Instead, I’m really just excited about finally feeling that elusive satisfaction of being “all caught up.” I can see it, a month or two from now. If I can keep reading this fast, if I can keep getting a spot on the News Machine...
I’ll probably just keep adding more stuff and making my list longer. Because who would I be without a to-do list or a never-ending stack of things to read?
Apparently there is a feature on Goodreads that shows the most commonly abandoned books. I found out about it from a Boing Boing article. The graphic showed the first few titles on the list, which naturally caught my attention. I had read… all of them?
I had to see the rest of that list!
I clicked the link. It got even more interesting as I scanned the list. I didn’t hit one that I had not already read until #8, a book I had abandoned as COMPLETELY UNREADABLE after the second chapter even though I felt obligated to cover it on my book blog.
“I’d be better off going out to the garage and pounding nails through my hand,” I thought at the time, and it seemed fair that hundreds of other people had also quit on this one.
The rest, though? These were great books, fantastic books! In a few cases they were some of my personal favorite books of all time.
I read through the list, lost count, realized I would be better off subtracting the titles I hadn’t read rather than counting the ones I had, and came up with my total. Out of the top fifty most abandoned books on Goodreads, I had read forty-five. Two or three of those I could have skipped, but I still found them worth reading.
In my opinion that makes it a really excellent list of Fifty Best Contemporary Novels! (Plus a couple-few nonfiction titles).
What was it, though, that led so many people to abandon such excellent reads? Potboilers, page-turning thrillers even?
A lot of these books are quite long, and I think that plays into it. In my twenties I started seeking out what I call BFBs (Big Fat Books) because I “read too fast” and I wanted something that would last me the week. I looked for books that weighed in at least at 500 pages, hopefully 800 or more. My philosophy is that almost all books are 220 to 300 pages, so almost any title will make the cut, but for a publisher to put out a very long book, the author has to have made the case that it’s worth all that ink and paper.
This is part of why I finally caved and read the Harry Potter series. I figured if so many grade school children were reading and re-reading and re-re-reading these doorstoppers, they must be pretty good. Whatever people might think, any book that helps kids build their reading chops and extend their attention span is a worthy book.
I think another reason, probably the prime reason, that people abandon these great books is the reason they started reading them.
It’s easy and obvious to get ahold of a very popular book. Either someone hands it to you and commands you to read it, or you see it everywhere, or you throw it in your cart at Costco next to the bulk hand grenades and family-size sardines. There’s minimal selection effort.
What this means is that fewer readers need to put in their normal paces to choose something more their style.
True crime, for instance, is so on-point for me that I’ve only dropped two titles, one because I literally dropped it at the bus station and never managed to procure another copy. Out of print! Now I’ll never know why the Menendez Brothers did it! The other was after midterms and I ran out of steam.
(It would be intriguing if we could harvest data on when people tend to abandon books; are there trends here of seasonality, holidays, taxes, etc?)
On the other hand, I have a really hard time pushing myself to read series fantasy or sci-fi. I know that about myself, so when someone suggests that I read their favorite series, I tell them it’s probably never going to happen. Dude. You have to WANT to read thirty-five-hundred pages of a story. It don’t read itself!
I looked again at the list of abandoned titles, and particularly the five that I hadn’t read. One I never will. Life is too short. What about the other four, though?
One I was consciously “saving” because I’ve read a few short pieces by the author and I knew I would enjoy more. This showed my habit of hoarding what I think will be the very best books, because I don’t want them to be over, which is why I stopped reading The Lord of the Rings in middle school and didn’t finish until my late twenties. (To impress a boy)
Another I’d never heard of, which makes me go OOH! *takes notes*
Another was on my “saving it” list, literally on my library wish list, and come to think of it, so was that other one I’d been saving
And I’m 44 so when did I think I was going to read them?
The last of the five is on my phone actually at this moment. Got a good laugh out of that.
What all this shows about me is that:
I read a LOT
I have apparently very middlebrow, popular tastes
Or, more charitably, I’m good at trend analysis
I probably match with almost everyone on LibraryThing because I’ve probably read a large portion of their collection
I may one day run out of popular books to read, because every time I see one of these lists I am better able to narrow my focus and see what’s left.
Lists of popular books always make me wonder what’s so special about them. Why are they so popular? Sometimes I see it coming. I was an early reader of The Hunger Games because I was reading Publishers Weekly at the time, and before it even came out I knew it would be good. I reviewed it and ran around telling all my book friends about it. It was the first time in many, many years that I stayed up until 2 AM to finish a book, even though it was Friday night and I had nothing else planned all weekend.
That’s what I want for everyone. I want everyone to be so excited and captivated by books that we’re constantly grabbing at them, desperate to get through at least another few pages before life intervenes. Leisure time is so underrated these days. I think most of us lose at least an hour or two a day staring into the abyss of our phones, swiping endlessly away and not even remembering why, or what we saw, scrolling scrolling scrolling.
Think how many books we could be reading instead!
Start by consciously abandoning any books that simply aren’t for you. Be brave and admit it like all these fellow readers did. Go through your shelves and give back all the popular titles your friends foisted on you. Make room for something you actually want to read, something you’ve chosen for yourself. Maybe even one of the books off the list of abandoned titles!
Here is the list, for those who are curious. Most of them are amazing, at least worth the 40-page test.
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
*Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
*Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
*My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
1984 by George Orwell
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
*City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Quiet by Susan Cain
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
*A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Martian by Andy Weir
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
In forty years of regular library use, I continue to be amazed that I’ve been missing out on stuff. Every time I think I’ve finally hacked it, I stumble across yet another dimension of awesome and free library features. This has been another year of rediscovering how fabulous is Benjamin Franklin’s greatest contribution to civilization, the public library. Now I’m using it to plan a big ultralearning project for the New Year.
Here is a quick rundown of my favorite library hacks, before I show off my new finds:
I have five active library cards! A lot of people can access multiple libraries depending on where they live. For instance, both San Francisco and Los Angeles allow anyone who lives in California State to become a patron, and you don’t even have to show up in person. Other libraries will allow outsiders to buy in with an annual fee. I have a county card and four city cards, two of which give me access to regional library systems. On rare occasions, I request physical books or DVDs, where they show up on the hold shelf around the corner from my apartment. Mostly, I use electronic media.
I use four apps to get ebooks, audiobooks, and magazines. There is an exploit here, because I’ve discovered that all my holds are counted separately, on the four apps and the fifth way, through the physical collection. ALSO, for some mysterious reason, none of the resources in three of these apps show up on the library catalogue, only through the apps themselves, so there is virtually zero competition for those collections. About 80% of the time I can just check out a hot new book immediately, even when there are over 500 people waiting for it via normal means.
That’s the basic level. I can put somewhere around 90 books on hold at a time and I’m pretty sure I could check out over 100 if I really wanted. (This made me curious, and it turns out most of my resources don’t actually have a limit). (!)(!)(!)
Next I figured out that I could use an app to speed-read text. Simply copy and paste ebook text, one chapter at a time, into the Outread app. While you can listen to an audiobook at 2x speed through most apps, Hoopla can play them at 3x!
I was happily reading along, feeling awestruck and blessed by this abundance of books, when I realized that there was still more out there. Between my various libraries, I found out that I had access to The Great Courses AND Rosetta Stone. *thud*
Then I started poking around a bit more, partly because I am thinking about a foreign language for my ultralearning project. There are a bunch of different language learning materials...
And THEN I fell down a black hole. As I was writing this, it occurred to me that I almost never look at the main webpage of any of my libraries, and that I had never done a full overview of all their offerings. What else did they have?
Professional development courses
Practice exams for the GRE (and all the college-prep stuff)
Tons of genealogy material and historical archives
I even found out that there were yet more apps where I could have been checking out ebooks and audiobooks all this time. The reason most of them don’t have a wait list is that they have an unlimited amount of checkouts, so nobody has to wait!
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING
There’s a certain paradox with library holds. Classic books that are usually pre-copyright, like anything by Dickens or Jane Austen, will often have a months-long wait list. It never occurred to me to simply search for them elsewhere. The lesser-known apps have complete collections of all this stuff. For completists, your wait is over, and now you can read through your checklist as quickly as you like.
Something else that hadn’t occurred to me is that the library gives us access to entire collections in various languages. If I want to improve my skills in Spanish, for example, I’m not limited to textbooks or workbooks; I can try to read bestsellers or anything else that I would have read in English. This has just blown my mind because I was wondering what I would do if I ever managed to become fluent.
For language study, I have:
The Great Courses even has Latin and Ancient Greek!
At least one of my local branches has language clubs, where people meet to practice their skills on certain evenings of the week.
I’ve also been flirting with the idea of going back to school for a master’s degree (but in what?). I like to joke that it would be funny to have people introduce my husband and me as “Doctor and Mister” - which is only even remotely funny because he is an aerospace engineer with a master’s degree and multiple patents in process. He’s been far too busy for the past quarter century, so if one of us is getting a doctorate at some point it will most likely have to be me. Now that I know I have access to all these free math courses, and GRE practice materials, I can’t use either the academic calendar or money as an excuse.
For anyone thinking of their poky, musty little local library, don’t be sad. If you are reading this, then you are online, and you have free access to basically anything ever. Many universities, libraries, and museums around the world offer free access to their entire online collections. You could be browsing through those offerings right now instead of reading this.
The biggest hindrance that we have in learning new things, once we are no longer formally enrolled in a school, is that we have to choose our own materials and set our own schedules. All of us could find 10 or 15 minutes a day to learn something new, whether that’s a new recipe or a few words in sign language. We just have to decide to do it and move forward with something exciting.
My first step was to look at what materials are available to me. My second step will be to schedule when I’m going to work on my new ultralearning project. Over lunch? During my workout? My third step will be to start the new year with the hope that I’ll end it, in December, knowing something new.
How about you?
What to read next? This is a question that crosses my mind every day, yet not for long. That’s because I have a never-ending book list. This list is a key to my productivity, because I use my reading habit as a tool. Reading entertains me while I do boring drudgery, like housework and exercise, and it’s also my reward when I want to relax. More people should be spending more time relaxing, in my opinion, and what better way to do it than with a book?
We’re fortunate to live in a time when books are everywhere and you can even get them for free. A thousand years ago almost nobody was literate, and even two hundred years ago a lot of people couldn’t even sign their own name. Now you can trade books back and forth with your friends by the grocery sack load. You could probably go a year reading only books you got for free.
A lot of us could go a year reading only books we already have waiting on the shelf...
This is why I emphasize having a never-ending *list* rather than a never-ending *stack.* In my opinion, a stack of books is intimidating. It can’t help but look a little like homework. It’s that much worse when even one of them is a loaner book or a book club pick, when the pleasure of reading is tainted by social pressure.
This is why I haven’t finished reading the Game of Thrones series yet, although I’m sure I would have whipped through them in a couple of weeks if I felt like they were my little secret.
Being given books by other people is one of two pitfalls of being a constant reader. The other is having your books “borrowed” only to never see either the book or the borrower again. I have no idea why this is so hard to get right; it just is. Reading ebooks has mostly solved this problem for me, because I no longer have visible books in my living room to tempt my guests.
I still want to “help” my friends and family by curating book lists for them. This is one of my worst habits. I’m sure I’ll never stop, though. I convinced both of my parents to let me add books to their library wish lists, and honestly there are probably enough titles on there to keep them both busy for three years.
See, once you get into the habit of creating a never-ending (auto-correct just changed this to nerve-rending) book list, it’s easy to spawn more.
What goes into it, though?
It starts with knowing your own tastes. This is surprisingly uncommon. I am friends with a couple who are perpetually watching two-star movies and then being disappointed. Don’t you read the reviews? I ask. I could have told you from the description that you weren’t going to enjoy this. Chances are, I have a better handle on their viewing preferences than they do, which is bonkers. Recognizing genres and plot patterns can help here.
I personally find stories with a kidnapping theme to be totally uninteresting. Doesn’t matter what genre. This is a problem, because I’m drawn to thrillers, and they often revolve around kidnappings. I also can’t stand stories about extramarital affairs. Everyone has something - several people I know can’t handle ghost stories or anything spooky in any way - and the first step to building a book list is to make sure that nothing on it actively repels you.
The list itself, there’s a point. I am a big believer in using a list, rather than actively buying books more than a few days ahead. One of the reasons is that sometimes a new edition comes out before I manage to get to a title, and it will often include new material. Mainly, though, I find it oppressive to have an unread stack of books staring me down. It’s a distinction between feeling like there is a buffet of options, versus feeling like there is a syllabus.
I use my library apps as a working list. When I hear about a book that I want to read, I add it to the list. If it’s new and popular, I will put it on hold right away. This generates a steady feed of hot new titles, and probably 80% of my reading material is thus automatically queued up for me.
Once upon a time, I had a spiral notebook filled with titles I wanted to read. I had started it in ninth grade, so it was mostly of the college prep / “100 books to read before you die” variety. When I would read one, I would check it off the list. I threw it out a few years later, after my boyfriend found it and told me it was “crass.”
I wish I had it back. It’s one of the few things I’ve ever regretted downsizing. I no longer feel like it’s crass to want to track what I read, or to feel like I’m keeping up with a great conversation and staying involved with pop culture. Instead I feel like a dunce for letting some dumb pretentious boy influence my choices.
He did, though. That boy influenced what colors I wore, which cuisines I would eat, what music I listened to, what movies I watched, and indeed what I read. The stream did not flow in the opposite direction. I doubt he even knew what I would have chosen when I wasn’t actively trying to impress him.
My list is mine, and your list should be yours, something personal and private, a secret delight.
Where do the titles come from?
Those “most-loved books” lists
Books that I see other people carrying around
Newsletters from various bookstores, Goodreads, etc.
Reviews from selected sources (bloggers, podcasts, news articles), which I only read *after* I’ve finished the book because SPOILERS
‘Recommended’ placards at indie bookstores (which is why I go to them)
My favorite literary website, The Millions (themillions.com)
Have you ever found out, years later, that one of your favorite authors had a new book out? This doesn’t have to happen if you can find a way to stay in the loop. If you’re lucky, your favorite authors will each put out a new book at least once every few years, and your never-ending book list will continue on and on.
I’m closing in on 300 books read for 2019, not the most I’ve read in a year and not the first time I’ve done this, either. It’s not that I think everyone should aim for a book a day - although plenty of people read that much - it’s more that I feel bad for people who love reading and can’t seem to find the time.
If you love books, I’m telling you, you are missing out on reading opportunities.
I met a woman at a party, and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that we were both book nerds. Her husband popped up, wondering what we were so excited about, and it turned out that one of their favorite things to do is to listen to audio books together on road trips. Yay!
Then it turned out that they only used one smartphone app (the worst one) and they had been struggling to find books they both wanted to hear.
THIS is why it’s a good idea to go to parties even when you hate it and you really don’t want to. I proceeded to whip out my phone and blow both of their minds with all the portals they were missing out on.
Now, because I’m nice, I’m going to tell you as well.
If you only like print books, that’s fine, good for you, and you can skip the rest of this post, but you are probably still missing out. I’ll throw you a few ideas. One, I didn’t realize until I was thirty that I could put books on hold at my local library, and that’s why the books I found the most interesting never seemed to be on the shelf. Two, it’s also possible to put books on hold *before they are even in print* and that’s why there is always a line of 375 people already waiting on publication day. Three, most libraries take suggestions for purchases, and they will notify you if they buy your suggestion. They’ll usually put your name on the waiting list, too. Four, the Large Print section is likely to have popular books in stock when the regular scale is checked out, and they’re easier to read during your workout.
Okay, done with all that. Next point, anyone who buys most of their reading material off the bookstore remainder table probably has a house full of partially read books. Shopping is not reading! Just like shopping is not crafting. Look around and ask yourself if you are choosing books based on price rather than preference. Don’t feel beholden to books that couldn’t keep your interest past page 40. Free yourself of any feelings of obligation, give those books away, and try not to pre-commit to more than the next three books you plan to read.
Oh! And if you have books that you have borrowed from other people, there is probably a reading-related curse on your head, and you should give them back right away.
Back to the 21st century, where we have ebooks and audio books and futuristic speed-reading tools that would have been worth a king’s ransom a century ago. Imagine poor Abraham Lincoln reading on horseback, and then the rains came...
This is my secret: I can acquire and read any book while it is still red-hot, fresh, and desirable, then immediately move on to another.
The most interesting thing about ebooks to me is that you can boost a library’s circulation figures even if you’ve only walked in their door once. As a corollary to this, ebooks make it easy to be a member of multiple libraries. As I showed my new friends at the party, I have no fewer than four library apps on my phone, and I’m an active patron of five library systems.
I can theoretically check out 75 books at a time and have 70 on hold.
That’s only through one app (OverDrive), and it doesn’t include magazines.
My new book-loving friends had never heard of OverDrive, even though it’s the most popular library app with the biggest selection. The other three I use are Hoopla, cloudLibrary, and RBdigital. Some ebook editions can only be read through a web browser, and some are only available as Kindle Editions. (Note: using the Kindle app does not require using the Kindle device)
I seem to have discovered an exploit, because often books that are on hold for months through one app will be sitting there available for checkout through the same library on another app. I think almost all library users of digital materials download one app and use that as their portal, rather than going through the library catalog, where they might see more options.
Something about digital books seems to outrage many traditional readers. NO, they will tell me, I PREFER REAL BOOKS! Ebook readers still read print books, and we tend to read more than we did before because we always have our books with us. We increase library circulation numbers, which increases sales. I’ll tell you what else. I quit buying used books years ago - zero of that revenue goes to the author - and I’m much more likely to buy a new book in hardcover now.
Me: $120 on four new books in hardcover and a couple of digital downloads
Others: $10/month on used or remaindered books, stacked all over the house unread
= SAME PRICE
(But my way, at least the authors get paid)
My enthusiasm for reading is at least as strong as it ever was, when I was two years old and couldn’t read at all, when I was six and learning to sound things out, when I was seven and sprawled on the floor reading my first chapter book, when I was twelve and discovered an entire library shelf dedicated to Stephen King. So many people are like me, book people! Yet we deprive ourselves of our favorite activity because we don’t feel like we have any leisure time any more.
When you were in line at Costco, so was I, but I was reading
When you were washing dishes, so was I, but I was reading
When you were folding laundry, so was I, but I was reading
When you were playing Candy Crush, I wasn’t, I was busy reading; but I bet you could play an audio book in the background
When you were watching TV, I wasn’t, but I probably read the book when it came out
When you were cooking dinner, so was I, but I was blasting a Hoopla audio book at 3x
When you were at the bookstore, I was in the next aisle, playing one book while looking for another
Just writing this is making me want to quit and go back to my book. We’re both missing an opportunity here, because I’ve run out of room before I had time to talk about my secret speed-reading tricks for print books. Suffice to say that because I read so much and so fast, I feel like I have plenty of time to stay current on nonfiction, business books, pop culture, memoir, YA, and literally whatever else crosses my book radar.
The only reading opportunity I worry about missing now is what will happen if I ever run out of books.
When is that book going to get read?
I’d really rather ask WHAT is that book you’re reading? To me it’s a mark of courtesy to hold up my book in public areas, so those who are interested can at least see the title. My husband has even learned to do this for me. When he travels on business, if he sees a woman around my age who looks like one of my book group buddies, he’ll text me the title of whatever she’s reading.
The most interesting books are getting read. Right now, today.
If it is so good that someone is carrying it around town and actively reading it rather than stroking their phone, something is going on. I need to know, What is that book??
On the other hand, if a book is sitting around, midway through a stack, with a bookmark poking out, then something is not going on. For whatever reason, that book lacked the mysterious something, the je ne sais quoi that I can’t describe and my autocorrect can’t spell.
In those cases, the question is, WHEN is that book ever going to get read?
Chances are, never.
There is nothing quite so aspirational as a bookshelf full of unread books.
It’s October and I’ve just gone through a purge of my active reading stack. I like to dedicate the month to spooky stuff, and anything I didn't finish in September is therefore getting pushed off at least a month.
This policy gives me a moment to ask, Would I choose this book again?
Now that I’ve had it sitting around for a week or more, if I haven’t felt compelled to drop everything and read it right away, would I choose it again? Am I feeling any kind of pressure to read it just because:
Someone else wants me to read it
My book club is reading it
I paid for it
I already read at least one volume of the series
I met the author
I’m a completist
Books feel like homework to me
I’m working from a list
I’m emotionally invested in the Sunk Cost Fallacy
I simply can’t bear to let go of books, from tractor manuals to travel guides from 2008
As an example, I have a developing friendship with a woman I think is awesome and very interesting. She invited me to her book group (yay!). They’re reading a hit novel (good) that is historical fiction (ugh) and representative of kinda pedestrian picks. Am I really willing to start reading books that don’t appeal to me for the sake of a cool chick I’d like to see more often?
(Here I remind myself that the first book group I joined read a lot of books I had loved, but the members never finished any of them and also never liked them).
If you come over to my apartment, you will see two types of books. One, my husband’s aerospace and robotics textbooks, and two, my books. I keep books that aren’t available in ebook or audiobook format, because I can’t get them any other way. Then I never read them because I actively hate reading paperbacks. Quite the quandary. There are novels I’ve had since before we got married, and I still can’t bear either to get rid of them or to break their little spines.
Am I going to feel any more in the mood to read them ten years from now than I am today?
One of the things I have noticed is that my favorite authors keep on publishing new books. I can pretty much guarantee that there will be at least 500 new books every year that will catch my attention. I already know I can’t read that many books, especially not if I have to factor in the reading list I already have. Choices have to be made.
At a certain point, you’re either into a book, or you’re not.
Gone With the Wind was the first one that really got me. I stayed up all night, three nights in a row, trying to finish it the summer I turned thirteen. I melted my book light! I cried at a few points and couldn’t get over the ending. At that age I would start a book and it was like climbing inside to live among the characters.
That’s a pretty high standard to set, but an interesting one. Aside from not having much sense of whether a book was problematic for some reason, what qualities made books so much more immersive? Was it just youth? Or were we more likely to grab something, dive into it immediately, and read according to whim rather than some kind of task list?
This is the direction I’m moving toward. I want to feel like:
within a twenty-minute window.
My husband literally does this. We go to the bookstore, he buys something, I write down a list of two dozen new titles, and we’re off. He’s finished his choice a week later and my picks are still on hold from the library.
I’m sometimes reading something four months after it initially caught my attention.
What I’m doing when I write down a list that long is pre-committing Future Me to at least two weeks’ reading material. It seems that in practice, I really only get around to reading maybe 10-20% of these picks. What am I doing?
When is that book going to be read? In the afterlife? That’s assuming I get to go to the sort of afterlife where I have eternity to read random novels.
I advocate doing a clean sweep and starting over. I advocate avoiding the remainder table or otherwise discounted books. I advocate buying your most anticipated books by your favorite authors as soon as they hit the shelf and then reading them while you’re still walking out of the store, maybe even bumping into a pole along the way.
When is that book getting read? Why do you ask? I’m already a hundred pages in.
Free isn’t free. It’s better to understand that going in. Anything you take, any object that you handle, has strings attached.
One of the great paradoxes of clutter is that it’s usually harder to get rid of “free” stuff than things that we bought at retail price. Why? No idea, I just know that it’s true.
We had a give-away party after our last move, and one of the items in the pile was our last set of plastic shelving from when we had a garage. We were 100% sure the shelves would go, and we were astonished when they didn’t. The other half-dozen sets had so much traction on Craigslist that we probably should have sold them for cash.
We don’t look at it that way, because we don’t necessarily want to advertise our home as a place full of valuable stuff. (It isn’t). Giving something away attracts gratitude, while selling something seems to activate scarcity mindset in everyone involved. Do I really want to spend my free time dickering over $20? Do I really want a lot of random strangers driving to my specific home address, wondering what else I have?
The thing about shelves in particular is that they have no intrinsic value. They are not beautiful to look at, and their only use consists in storing and/or displaying other items. Nobody just wishes for a house full of empty shelves, and then leaves them that way.
I had a good laugh the other day because one of the apartment units in our building is visible from the pool. What we could see from our perspective was a wall of built-in shelving with about a dozen paperback books on it. There was room for several hundred and they looked a little lonely, all on their own.
This is dangerous, an attractive nuisance. Nature abhors a vacuum and for this reason, empty shelves attract clutter like nothing else.
Once clutter is stored or displayed on a shelf, it never leaves. It merges with the shelving unit and becomes an unremovable part of the whole. It becomes impossible to imagine the object and the shelves separately.
The strangest thing about shelves is that they tend to be inexpensive and easy to find. Yet the people who need them the most never seem to have any. I have a theory about this.
When my eldest nephew was a little boy, we had a conversation about money and stuff. He came running in breathlessly asking to get into his piggy bank because a neighbor kid was willing to sell him a plastic truck for ten dollars. What the heck?? [insert static noise] I told him that sounded way too expensive and that he’d have to ask his dad. Then I gave him a homily about how we save money so we can get something really cool later.
“I like to buy lots of small stuff and then I don’t have to wait,” he replied.
Yeah, you and all my hoarding clients, I thought.
My people, caught in scarcity mindset, all share a knee-jerk reaction that goes NO I CAN’T AFFORD THAT. They are unable to process the idea that a $40 set of shelves costs the same amount as ten $4 items or forty $1 items, which I can clearly see scattered, stacked and piled all over their home.
I “can afford” infinite amounts of $1 and $5 items. Never in life, in no alternative universe, could I even hypothetically afford any item over $X.
That’s the line. That’s how it works. In the scarcity paradigm, there is a permanent cutoff of any price tag over a certain amount, forever and always, for all time, the end.
The other issue with something like a set of shelves is that it needs to go somewhere. Any set of free shelving is virtually guaranteed not to match either the existing furniture or the dimensions of the room. In a cluttered room with a lot of big furniture, it’s never obvious where such a thing could go.
Our utilitarian beige plastic shelving wouldn’t look good anywhere except for a garage, and none of our friends has a garage, because few of the homes in our region do. We live in small apartments or condos because that’s mostly what is available. Who wants to live in a small place dominated by an ugly set of shelves? We all operate under the assumption that our homes should be comfortable and reasonably attractive.
My people, on the other hand, plan everything around THEIR STUFF, what they already have and whatever else they might carry in.
How could I set up these shelves? I’d have to move all these bags and boxes first.
The free shelves that are easy to get are only free because there’s something wrong with them. Either they are rickety or unappealing, or the original owner tried them and found that they didn’t do the job. They’re designed for a purpose. Our shelves are designed to hold medium-sized moving boxes or storage tubs. They work great for that, but they’re too tall for most stuff, either in the garage or indoors. Other “free” shelves might be designed specifically for DVDs or paperback books or some other standard size unit.
A standard shelf will either attract more items that fit it, because it feels right, or it will fill with random clutter that has nowhere else to go. It’s either manifest destiny or lebensraum.
Ideally, a shelf empties and refills. Clean dishes, clean towels, fresh groceries, they’re all supposed to come and go. It’s hard to tolerate clutter on shelves that are constantly in use, because anything that isn’t being used is always in the way. That’s what clutter IS, of course. So what is it that we think we’re doing with any shelf if it’s filled with stuff we don’t use?
The goal is always to be intentional. With something like shelving, it should be clear what is being stored, why, where, and for how long. Then it’s simple enough to find a set of shelving of the right size and dimensions. Maybe sell off some existing clutter to pay for them, thereby solving two problems: too much stuff, and nowhere to put what’s left. Good luck finding any free shelves that will magically do that job.
Secret confession time: I’ve been cheating. Blatantly. Right there in plain view, too big to miss. I have a bunch of review books to read, and instead I’ve been reading Neal Stephenson’s new book Fall. In hardcover. Over 800 pages of it.
It’s summer, and it’s hot, and I’ve been traveling and I had oral surgery, and, well, no book review.
Instead I’m just going to talk about how we choose what to read, and why, and when.
Books have always lit me up more than anything else. When I am invited to someone’s home, I’m going to read every title on their bookshelf to see what we have in common. If I see someone reading or carrying a book, whether on public transportation or at a cafe, I’m going to try to get a look at the cover to see what it is, even if I have to turn my head sideways.
Often it’s something I’ve already read, because when a book is very popular I have to find out why, even if it’ll terrible, with the exception of Fifty Shades of Grey which I couldn’t manage even on principle. Not sorry.
Like most readers, I have a list of books I plan to read one day. I also have a working stack of books I “am reading,” which means I started them and intend to finish, and another pile of books in the house that I haven’t started yet.
In my mind, this is enough reading for a few days. In reality, experience shows that it will take me longer than that.
How much longer?
This is an actual calculation that can be performed, just like the timeline of knitting up yarn or eating up cans of soup can be calculated.
Since it’s summer, we don’t have to, we can just do a freshness test like we would with some nice fruit.
Let’s say we can read a book a day. Most people are not reading that much, that fast, which is fine of course, though we can compare our reading habits to our propensity to binge-watch several television episodes and rate that against our reading quota.
(If we wish we had more time to read, the time may be there, that’s all. Everything is a tradeoff).
If I read a book a day, then I have enough books to keep me busy for over two weeks.
Wait, no, four weeks. I forgot to count audio.
In my imagination, that’s the fresh stuff. It’s the lettuce in my produce bin. In reality, sometimes that fresh lettuce is more like the limp white celery that’s been there since who knows how long.
On top of my active reading list, I have books on hold at the library. Well, libraries plural. That adds up to...
Almost seven weeks, that is if I actually read a book a day. Seven weeks plus the four I already have.
The good thing about having plenty of books piled up and in the pipeline is that I always have something to read. I can’t think of the last time I was stuck in a boring situation without a book at hand. I read more than most people because it’s something I love to do, I make time for it, I would miss it if I didn’t do it, and I wish I had more time for it than I do.
On the other hand, it seems that Past Me has been dictating a lot of my reading choices.
I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be “done” with a book and wander around looking for something new to read.
I think I may have been in that place during summer vacation between the ages of nine and twelve. We lived two blocks from the city library, which was housed in an old grocery store where I used to get a free cookie. I even had a “cookie card” with my name on it. The association between fresh hot sugar cookies and BOOKS is probably just a Me thing, but it’s there. I started with the Nancy Drew books. Then I would go in and read the jacket copy on every book in the young adult rack. Once I’d read my way through the children’s section, I realized that nothing was stopping me from crossing the building and looking at adult books. That’s when I discovered Ray Bradbury.
I used to come home with as many books as I could fit in my bag. I realized I could read a book a day, then two. My record was four, the month I was reading Lois Lowry.
That was discovery mode, walking in desperate for a book and walking out excited over my score.
Then I had the idea that I would be able to read “every book in the library” and I started at A. That was the beginning of feeling like I had a mission, the beginning of the feeling that I was not completely caught up. I’m afraid I became a completist.
Most readers believe in being surrounded by hundreds of books at home, even if they haven't read most of them. These books are aspirational even if they are not elitist choices. Much ink has been spilled in outrage over the concept of getting rid of books, any books, for any reason. Sure, fine, whatever. If having shelves full of books you haven't read genuinely gives you more passion and inspiration for reading the books you do choose, then great.
Me, I’m starting to wonder if maybe I should dial back. Start over. Dump my list. Venture forth with “nothing to read” at all.
What if I didn’t let Past Me choose the next seventy books I plan to read?
Or does having that list add some kind of illicit thrill to playing hooky and reading something just because I can’t wait, because I need to drop everything and read it right now?
That’s my suggestion. At least in your mind, if you love to read, or used to, play a little visioning exercise. In your imagination, picture that you don’t have a dusty stack of partial or unread books next to your bed. Imagine that you never made a mental or emotional commitment to read these books before you’re allowed to move on and read something else.
Play book hooky and see how you feel about picking something fresh and new.
This is a story about all the important things:
Showing up for things, even when you don’t feel like it
Talking to people, even when you feel awkward
Telling the truth about your life
Leaping before you feel ready
Doing the Obvious
We went to the opening party. I felt moody and cross and out of sorts, partly because of the weather and partly because I had made a dumb mistake and missed an event I had been really excited about.
Honestly I was being my Worst Self, not my Best Self. Judging myself for being sloppy and disorganized, which I’m not. Feeling shy and not wanting to approach people. Hiding out in a corner instead of going out and making friends.
Suddenly, there appeared a gentleman with a name tag bearing a fairly uncommon name. I asked him, “Are you related to Chris?”
“Chris who?” he said.
I won’t share all the details of my conversation with this fascinating and funny man, because it was personal and because I want to hog it all to myself. It was transformative for me, though. Not only did his kind attention completely turn around my mood, his advice definitely changed my event and may have changed my life.
I like asking other people about themselves. It’s usually an effective trick for avoiding talking about yourself. It’s a great way to get to know people, draw out fascinating stories, and also pick up book recommendations, travel tips, recipes, life hacks, etc. They win because they get an attentive listener and I win because I can keep it light.
There was no thought in my mind about my book proposal, because I’d scheduled it for July through December this year.
How did we even wind up talking about my book?
Oh, yes, probably because Mike Guilleabeau is an award-winning published author! Multiple awards, I might add. He has writer’s radar.
He drew me out about my potential book and told me I should develop it. Well, sure, yeah, that’s the plan, sometime a million years from now!
More specifically, I should sit up and write a logline, work it into a 30-second pitch, and deliver it to a specific person at a specific time slot.
The person: Literary agent David Fugate, who is attending WDS
The time slot: A “lunch and learn” at noon (15 hours away)
I should practice by approaching three people I don’t know and asking if they would critique my pitch.
This is smart advice, okay. I know this. It’s entirely actionable and NOT SCARY AT ALL, oh no, cough cough, and further, it will probably work.
I know how to give a brief pitch. That’s exactly why I joined Toastmasters 3 1/2 years ago. Evaluations are part of the package, something we’re trained to seek out and receive with keen interest. In fact I win ribbons for impromptu speaking and one-minute speeches all the time.
I know everything about my book, too. I’ve written 180 pages of it and spent years thinking and talking about the topic.
I even approached David Fugate last year and asked, heart in my throat, “Would you publish a book about minimalism?”
Sure, he said.
I know the drill. Write up a proposal and email it in. It will get looked at.
This isn’t a case of not knowing what to do. It isn’t a case of laziness or lack of organization. It’s a case of nerves. It’s a case of putting off for later what feels intimidating to do today.
How you do one thing is how you do everything. The reason you give for not doing something is the same thing that will hold you back everywhere. It’s mind-boggling how often that thing is talking yourself out of going for the thing you want the most.
Too old, too young
Not right now
Not until I can do it perfectly!
The focus and energy we give to eating a donut or a taco is available for planning and tackling a dream project, one bite at a time.
The trouble with my book proposal is that it’s one among many. Not other people’s book proposals - those are no threat to me, because what else would I read if other people quit publishing their books? My book is one of several that *I* plan to write. They exist in my mind as their own independent entities.
If I do one, won’t I then have to do them all? THEN WHAT?
What I have to tell myself, what you should tell yourself too, is that other people deserve a chance to appreciate your work. Why hold back? Someone out there is waiting on it. Waiting to be moved or entertained or challenged.
I think of my own reaction to other people’s work. I think of myself dancing around in the aisle at the bookstore or squealing with delight because one of my favorite authors has a new book coming out. I think of my friends who wait in line for hours to buy concert tickets or movie tickets or a new book or game. We’re hungry for fresh stories and talent in a way that we aren’t for anything else.
Who am I to deny this call?
I have no good reasons whatsoever to pass on Mike Guileabeau’s dare. The worst-case scenario is that I waste thirty seconds of four people’s time, and I can do that in so many other ways!
Just think of all the time in my life that I’ve wasted already, dithering and waffling and hemming and hawing.
I’m going to do it. I’m going to do this thing because if I don’t, I’m a welsher. I’m going to do it because I’ve made a public commitment. If I could finish the marathon by dragging my leg the last eight miles, certainly I can make a 30-second pitch to a man whose livelihood it is to evaluate this kind of pitch.
Okay, now your turn. I dare ya.
As a news junkie, I’ve noticed that news consumption increases to fill the time available. I would find myself reading the news over breakfast, over lunch, or even while brushing my teeth. The more I read, the more important it felt to read yet more. No matter how many sources I followed or how many versions of a story I read, I never felt like I knew enough about whatever it was. It never stopped, it never even slowed down. It took a week of vacation to step back and realize that this wasn’t a positive habit. What I needed was a news upgrade.
There are lots of approaches to upgrading a news habit. One is to replace it with something entirely different, like a cooking class or an extra hour of sleep. Another is to switch to books. Often reading a non-fiction book about a topic can bring clarity to a subject in a way that a dozen news articles never could. (A biography, the history of a particular country or region, an explanation of the stock market or self-driving cars, any number of topics could be an improvement over a news habit). One of the easiest ways is to upgrade the news itself.
What I did was to rearrange my news sources. I did this in several ways.
I have a side project, a tech newsletter that I put out on weekdays. This requires me to stay current in a few fields that are outside my area of expertise. The advantage of my layman’s perspective is that I bring in a broader range of material in adjacent subjects. I’m stronger in trend analysis than I am in STEM. Working in this field reminds me that ‘trend analysis’ is valuable and interesting in its own right, and it helps me to reinterpret what is meant by ‘current events.’
What do I cover? Robotics, astronomy, biomimicry, technology, and science news are my working categories. All of these fields are booming. Usually it feels like I can barely keep up, that there’s too much happening to fit within my remit. As with everything else, the more I know, the more I want to know, and the more I get out of what I read. Often, I’m reading about things that were pure science fiction in my childhood. I’ll think, “Wasn’t this a movie back in the Eighties, but now it’s real?”
Admittedly, science news is often over my head. That’s why I married an aerospace engineer, so he can interpret this stuff for me. (Joke). I can only handle so much in a day. That’s where the news aggregators come in.
A news aggregator pulls news on various topics from multiple sources. I simply made sure that mine included more non-current-events, non-political topics and more neutral sources.
Some of my topics? Dinosaurs, archaeology, ornithology, longevity, tiny houses, and Alzheimer’s research, among other things, fill out my news feed. For some reason, I also get quite a lot of articles about snakes and alligators.
Pulling news from international sources can be intriguing, especially when it’s health news. I’ve found that the British or Australian take on health research can be really punchy compared to the mainstream American perspective.
I read plenty of political news, and I certainly follow the headlines, but I’ve found that it isn’t productive to let this dominate my news consumption. I utterly refuse to discuss modern US politics. The reason is that it tends to destroy friendships. We have this absurd idea in our culture that “a debate” is the only appropriate format for a political conversation, and I can’t seem to dispel this notion. I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, from whether I have the right type of phone to whether tights qualify as pants. If I talk about politics with people who agree with me, it reinforces what I (and they) already think. If I talk about politics with people on “the other side” (as if there were only two sides, which is too silly for words), they always want to argue. I say, fine, I’ll talk pre-Industrial politics with you. Which do you prefer, antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Reformation? When someone asks which way I’m voting, I say I’m voting for myself as a write-in candidate. When in doubt, go with theater of the absurd.
What we do well to remember is that passive news consumption isn’t actually doing anything about anything. Arguing with our friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues doesn’t move the needle. Getting worked up about a topic and ranting about it all around the house doesn’t even qualify as a good workout. Staying informed is only useful if we do something with that information.
It also helps to remember that everything humans are doing, in every sphere of activity, qualifies as ‘current events.’ An invention that helps people with paralysis to walk, or congenitally deaf children to hear, is relevant. These advances are more likely to change the course of history than most election results. Every day I see news about archaeology or paleontology that claims to be one of the most important finds of the last hundred years, and that’s relevant too. I see news about space exploration and technological innovations that about blasts me out of my chair. The world is going to be nearly unrecognizable in twenty years once all these trends combine along their current arc. It’s relevant, it’s newsworthy, but are we noticing it? Or are the settings on our news feed causing us so much stress and distraction that we develop a misleading picture of the world? Upgrade your news habit and find out.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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