September! I’m always going to associate the month of September with going back to school and hitting the books. It occurred to me the other day that reading is one of my favorite things, and that maybe with a little planning I can find more time for it. There’s something about that feeling of a fresh start, of a brand-new month, that always seems to have a little extra momentum. Starting on the first, I’m going to treat myself to more reading time.
For the last decade or so, I’ve been recording everything I read. Looking through Goodreads, it appears that I only read five novels in August, two in July, two in June, and two in May. This is the least amount of fiction I’ve read, like, ever. I can’t even explain how it happened. I literally read more fiction than this in grade school, when we still called them chapter books. My favorite thing to do to relax is to kick back with a book, so why am I not doing it?
A few years ago, I started dedicating the month of October to my favorite genre, horror. I always used to watch a horror movie on Halloween, and I had a list of highly rated classics that I would save for my first viewing. I would also read a classic horror novel. Gradually my list got too long, too fast, and I started extending Halloween a few extra days, then a week. When it occurred to me to just make it THE ENTIRE MONTH, I felt absolute delight. Even better than a bag of free candy! I did it, too, and October 2017 was a blast.
Out of nowhere, I suddenly had the idea that I could set aside September and November for special reading projects as well. Immediately I started to think about what these projects would be, and whether it might eventually make sense to do something like that for each month or season of the year. For instance, I usually save dark and dramatic books for January, because why mess up beautiful sunny weather with sad topics?
One of my thoughts is to set aside one month of the year for finishing off any books I had stalled out on. That’s most likely going to be December this year, and probably every year of my life until I learn to quit over...BOOKING myself. No I will not apologize for that pun so don’t ask. I love starting out on New Year’s Day with a fresh slate, and I usually rush around in December trying to close all my open loops, read through my news queue, purge my closet(s) and cabinets, clear out my desk, and not have any unfinished business. Perpetually, my “to be read” pile is the most behind-hand of these areas.
The worst of my “why am I not reading this” categories are fiction and fitness. I tend to buy exercise books that are about three years beyond my current ability, and then just... gaze at them from time to time. I recall a book I bought in college about yoga poses you could do in your pajamas without getting out of bed. Like that. I tend to let my fiction picks stack up, because as it turns out, I hate reading paperback books, but it also drives me crazy to want to read something that hasn’t been released as an ebook yet. It’s a FoMO thing.
Isn’t that the deal with reading plans? With buying books in advance? With having a news queue or a playlist or a bunch of open tabs or a movie queue? We like making all sorts of media choices for Future Self, thinking we know better today what we’re going to want to do for fun someday in the future. Then Today Me is looking at all these stacks and lists and feeling totally overwhelmed. What we do for entertainment shouldn’t feel like homework!
Back to my idea of having a seasonal reading plan. At least right now, this feels refreshing. It feels like something fun, rather than having to industriously read through my TBR list in order. My October “all horror, all day, every day” plan is one of my favorite times of the year, even though it spooks my husband. There’s that sense of getting away with something, of having a secret thrill.
You know what I think I’m going to do? I think I’m going to make September about classic novels that I always wanted to get around to one day. I keep looking at these “100 best books of all time” lists with a wistful feeling. Every time I do, I think, “Oh, I’ll just read one of those every week” or “every month” or “I guess never.”
Right at this moment, I’m also thinking that November could be about memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies. I LOVE that stuff. I often find myself reading a memoir when I’m procrastinating on something else. I particularly like the idea of listening to audiobooks when they are narrated by the author. Maybe there are also some documentaries to add in, since I sometimes watch stuff while I’m on the elliptical.
This is how I do my reading:
Audiobooks for errands, chores, cooking, walking my dog, and otherwise doing boring stuff
The occasional hard copy of a book, if I must, either on my porch or on the elliptical with two giant rubber bands holding it in place
Ebooks for long bus rides, the elliptical, or reading in bed in dark mode
What am I planning to read?
SEPTEMBER - CLASSIC FICTION
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
The Adventures of Augie March - Saul Bellow
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
Wise Blood - Flannery O’Connor
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
NOVEMBER - MEMOIR, BIOGRAPHY, AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Life in Motion - Misty Copeland
Bicycle Diaries - David Byrne
Leap of Faith - Queen Noor
West With the Night - Beryl Markham
Oh the Glory of It All - Sean Wilsey
Choose Your Own Autobiography - Neil Patrick Harris
When I was seven, I tried to learn to read two books simultaneously. I was lying on my stomach on the living room floor, reading Alice in Wonderland, when it struck me how much more fun it would be if I could read faster. I figured I could just read one book with each eye. I jumped up and got a second book and started to experiment.
One on the left, one on the right. That’s how it’s done, right? Wrong. Dang.
One above the other? Hmm, no, either they’re too big or I’m too little.
What if I... overlap them? This felt crazy and very sophisticated. I set the right-hand side of Alice on top of the left-hand side of the other book. I could then read a line and jump over the edge of the page onto the other book’s page. This actually worked, except that the sentences ran together. Unexpected complication!
My best idea was to interleave the pages and hold them up to the light so that I could see the text of the second book between the lines of text of the first book. Like a scrim, or a palimpsest. Unfortunately this also resulted in merged storylines and some mirror-image text.
At that point, I realized that this was probably just too hard for little kids. I resolved to try again when I was bigger. After all, I was only just learning how to read chapter books.
Naturally, some naysayer or other in my family looked over to see what I was doing and explained that it wasn’t possible. Scoff! Scoff! Maybe for you! Tell me that something won’t work, that it’s unrealistic or dumb or technologically unfeasible or that it violates the laws of physics. Go ahead, try it. It won’t get you far. I’m not even annoyed by that sort of thinking, much less discouraged. I was stone-cold certain that I would have more fun if I could read faster, I knew there was a way, and I was NOT WRONG.
I read pretty darn fast. One year, 2009, I read 500 books just to see if I could. That was before I learned how to listen to audiobooks on 2x.
Let me briefly outline the ways I reliably read faster, and then let me tell you about my white whale, my obsessive search.
There are a lot of valid criticisms of speed-reading. Fine. Great. I will never be satisfied with the amount of content that I can mull over deeply and ponderously. I love reading the slow way as well. I read poetry, I read literary fiction, in high school I read Don Quixote in the tub until my bathwater was cold. I also happen to want to slurp up vast amounts of trivia. I want to stay current on a bunch of topics from multiple sources. I want to read my second tier and skim my third tier while still immersing myself in my first. Why choose?
I like a certain amount of true crime, thrillers, best-sellers, popular psychology, memoirs, business books, and other pop culture ephemera. I like following current events while still having time for lengthy investigative pieces. I want to keep up on the transitory while setting aside time for the evergreen.
Hence, my obsessive quest for a way to speed-read library ebooks. The white whale!
I have tried EVERYTHING. It’s maddening. I believe that it constitutes fair use for me to read a library book in whatever format I please. As long as I’m not hacking anything, using it for personal profit, or keeping it past the due date, why does it matter what font or format I use? I can read upside down at a fairly brisk pace, and that doesn’t seem to bother the public library when I bring home a physical copy of a book. Why can’t I read an ebook in a speed-reading app?
Why do I want this feature? I want to be able to whip through a book hands-free. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be fast; I’d like to be able to read while I eat or work out and not have to touch the screen. Or the, book, I guess you would call it. That wood thing.
There are two methods that would satisfy me. 1. Auto-scroll, like the text at the beginning of the Star Wars movie. I used to have a PDA app that did this. Why was it possible 20 years ago, but not now? Kindle doesn’t have scrolling, iBooks has scroll format but no auto-scroll, Adobe Digital Editions doesn’t scroll, OverDrive doesn’t scroll... Y U NO SCROLL?!? 2. Spritz. This is the gold standard speed-reading format. It highlights a couple of words at a time, and you can keep your eyes stationary while the text moves rapidly off to the left. There is also no reason why Spritz couldn’t be an option in OverDrive, Kindle, iBooks, etc. It just isn’t. Bah!
Okay, so it isn’t built in. Surely there’s a way that I could simply read my library ebooks in an alternate app within the 21-day limit?
I tried several elaborate methods of transferring an ebook file into a speed-reading app. Using my laptop, download the file into Adobe Digital Editions, transfer it into Dropbox, and then try to open it in Gerty, in Outread, in anything I could find. That’s a no-can-do’er. Open the book in OverDrive Read and try to use various speed-reading browser extensions. Nope. They don’t work because a book in OverDrive Read is really an image, not text.
The only thing that does seem to work is that I can get my iPad accessibility text-to-speech to speed-read a book to me in OverDrive Read. I just haven’t figured out how to get it to start from any point other than the beginning.
Apparently a lot of people strip the DRM from their library ebooks. I don’t want to mess around with that, partly because it would mean futzing around with each book, and partly because I believe piracy exposes me to undesirable things like viruses and worms. Besides, what I’m trying to do shouldn’t BE piracy. I don’t want to keep these books; I just want to speed-read them. I would in fact be returning them more quickly!
One day, every single book ever published will be available digitally, to read in any way we please. That day is not yet here. Right now, not even all the digital books are available on audio. I mean, I ask of you. Am I honestly to be expected to track down paper copies of things that I want to read? What am I supposed to do with them after I’m done? Stack them in my house? Perhaps one day in the distant future, you’ll find me lying on the floor of my living room, wearing a cranial electrotherapy stimulation helmet, happily buzzing through two books at one time. Until then, I guess I’ll take what I can get.
I’m about to mess with your head in a big way. What would happen if you *gasp* *clutch the pearls* considered getting rid of a bookcase?
Okay, okay, I get it. Being a reader and book lover is a huge part of your identity. Mine, too. I read over three hundred books last year. I like hiding in the aisle of a bookstore and sniffing pages just like anyone else. I’ve gone on many trips where my carry-on was heavier than my suitcase because I brought more books than clothes. Just because my entire life is built around books does not mean that I need to demonstrate that by showcasing a bunch of them in my home.
Yes, and you’re going to continue to do that at your place. Granted. I hear you! Nobody is going to come and make you give up your books. Just hear me out for a minute.
What would you do with the space where your books are now, if you could put them somewhere else? Hypothetically speaking... what if you pushed on your bookcase, and it suddenly swung aside and there was a secret room or tunnel back there? Then what would you do?
What I literally did was to get rid of a bookcase and use the space to put a desk. You have already cleverly grasped this from the title of this post, of course, so let me elaborate.
My apartment is small. Not the smallest space I’ve ever lived in, no, but 680 square feet for two adults, a dog, and a parrot is pretty modest. We had to get rid of a bunch of furniture and other stuff when we moved in, because even though we wanted to keep it, there simply wasn’t a way to make it fit. My husband is an engineer and we literally drew schematics of alternative floor plans. Having a bookcase was a firm tradeoff for other uses of the same space.
Why not keep it? You can put almost anything in a bookcase, right?
First of all, I don’t have a lot of other stuff. I’m not a keeper of tchotchkes or collectibles. My life is my husband, my electronics, and my little parrot whose beakie I kiss throughout the day. Also the dog, who needs enough space in our living room to chase his tail in both directions.
I was annoyed with this particular bookcase. The Roomba won’t fit under it and Spike keeps throwing his ball under it. One day, a lizard got in and hid out back there, much to the consternation of the dog... It’s old and scuffed up, and it comes from my bachelorette days, when all my furniture matched. Over the years of marriage, merging households, relocations, and furniture upgrades, it is now the lowest-quality, oldest, and most worn out furnishing we own. Since we’ve downsized, it also has to be in the same room as our couch and dining table, when in the past it could be in a room where it didn’t clash. In short, the bookcase I assembled myself with so much excitement has now become an eyesore.
But the BOOKS!!!!!!!!
Look, I read constantly. Like most people, what is in my bookcase is not actually representative of what I actually read. Most people use their bookcases to display books they read IN THE PAST. The active reading is usually on the nightstand, the coffee table, or perhaps the top of the toilet tank. My grandma buys purses based on whether they’ll fit a thick paperback. My dad keeps his daily read in the cargo pocket of his pants. Me? Almost all of my reading is either digital, or it’s a library copy. The books I have in my bookcase are books I bought and put away without reading them. It’s an anomalous and foolish habit. I hang onto them, moving them from house to house, packing and unpacking them, because they’re not available as digital copies, the library doesn’t stock them, and I can’t bring myself to give them up.
Can’t seem to bring myself to read them, either.
This is a project I’ve been working on for the past five years.
What finally happened was that the desk I’ve had my eye on since last August went back on sale, after a price increase of $70. I bought it and called a Lyft to bring it home, even though I knew I wasn’t done with the bookcase downsizing project yet. My mounting frustration with my lack of a desk led me to the breaking point. Time to find a way. I want a desk more than I want two feet of unread paperback books.
My husband thoughtfully dropped everything and helped me. When he came home, he culled his own bookcase, freeing up a full quarter of the available space so I could have my own shelf. He also assembled the desk and helped me rearrange all this heavy stuff. His bookcase went two feet further along the wall, and the new desk sits exactly where my old bookcase used to sit.
That very evening, I pulled up a chair and set to work. Almost immediately, it became my favorite spot in our apartment. While my husband sits at his desk, a combination of soldering station, robotics workshop, and auxiliary workstation, I have somewhere to sit and work on my own projects. We both got a massive lifestyle upgrade.
What would be different for you if you did something similar?
What this is about is a focus on creation instead of consumption, making a work space for something you do rather than a storage and display area for things that you have. (Don’t argue with me; when they’re on a shelf you are not interacting with them or reading them, unless you have laser eyes). This is about stasis versus motion, your home as wallpaper and decoration rather than your home as a place where you live, work, create, and do things. Does your space serve you and your interests, or is your stuff physically blocking and preventing you from doing that?
Could you really use a space to spread out and make things? A work table? What would you do there? I can think of quite a list:
Making armor for your cat
Finishing your thesis
Writing a book
Playing a keyboard, piano, or organ
Labeling and shipping products for a side hustle
A lot of people have garage space that they have theoretically dedicated to a craft. This works better for a lot of projects that involve grease, wood dust, metal shavings, loud noise, fumes, shop tools, or special power outlets. In practice, garage workspaces usually have poor lighting and they’re either too cold in winter or too hot in summer, so they wouldn’t get used even if they were empty. The sad reality is that nearly all would-be project spaces are packed full of boxes or sporting equipment, mostly belonging to the kids or the romantic partner. The space can never be used because it’s being bogarted by someone else, and that’s a conversation/confrontation that will never happen.
Now hold that example in your mind: the would-be workspace that is unusable because there’s stuff in the way. Do you see how that can apply to having a bookcase where a desk or art space could be instead?
Most desks, in practice, aren’t functional desks either. The desk itself is there because it was inherited, because of inertia, or because it suits the decorating style of the owner. The reality is that its style doesn’t suit its supposed function. The knee well is too narrow or shallow. The drawers are heavy and they stick, and they’re the wrong dimension for what would logically go in them. They face a wall in an isolated room where the owner does not like to work alone. The lighting is, again, not good enough. Mostly, the desk is buried under depressing stacks and piles of papers and other objects. It’s not a functional workspace, it’s a storage area for stuff that has nowhere else to go. It’s like a kitchen for cooking boring things that taste bad. Making a desk into an art space would seem to require many hours of hard focus and concentration.
At my home, I no longer had a desk at all. This is why my battle was not between the desk-that-was and the art-that-could-be. It was a battle between the books-I’m-not-reading and the writing-I-do-every-day.
You can, as usual, do whatever you want. I encourage it. Do what you want! While you’re busy doing what you want, also pause for a moment and consider whether you are also getting what you want. Do you have adequate space to actively work on all your favorite hobbies? Are you getting to do what you want to do in the space that you have?
I’m lying. I have no plans to stop at 329 books this year. I’m also not counting books I began but haven’t finished yet, articles read, or podcasts played. My problem is much worse than reading 329 books.
This is me being vulnerable. I am not proud of how much I read. I know better than to try to impress anyone, because I’ve been down this road before. I read 500 books in 2009, just to see if I could. That was back when I kept a book blog, with a whopping 38 regular readers. When you admit that you read an absurd volume of books, questions start popping up.
What were you reading? Comic books? (Yeah, sometimes)
Did you speed-read? (No, although I know how)
Did you actually finish all of those books or are you making it up?
I have nothing to prove. If anything, my life would have gone much easier if I had found a way to look like a normal person, someone whose life was not dominated by books. I’d also have more friends if I drank coffee and beer, ate bacon, and had a tattoo. I am who I am, and that’s an unstylish, sort of freaky loner who strongly prefers reading to almost every other activity.
I don’t think other people should try to read as much as I do. It’s actually a really, really bad idea. Okay, it’s probably a bad idea. Okay, if you’re willing to make radical changes and you have a bias toward action, it might possibly be a fabulous idea, but only if you don’t do it the way most pernicious readers do.
Pernicious reading! That’s reading that keeps you sedentary and preoccupied, distant, disengaged, chronically stuck and surrounded with a backlog of basic life tasks.
What I do differently is that almost all my reading is coupled with positive action.
My secret is that reading is the reason I do most other stuff. If I have a good relationship with my husband, a respectable level of productivity, visibly competent physical fitness, and an orderly house, then nobody can fault me for kicking back with a book. In other words: LEAVE ME ALONE, I’M READING.
I read 85% of the time while I work out. (The rest of the time is doing standing-desk work on the treadmill, or exchanging brief chitchat with my husband before he turns on his headphones).
I read 100% of the time while I clean house, and about 90% of the time while I prepare meals. I also read through breakfast and lunch.
Reading is the way I reward myself for getting my daily checklist checked off. Reading is the way I occupy myself while my husband is reading textbooks or designing a new arduino project or making robots or whatever the heck he’s doing. Reading is the way I manage my travel anxiety while I’m on a plane. Reading is my pacifier.
If I read less (in English), I could use some of that time to practice my listening skills in one of the other languages I’d supposedly love to learn.
If I read less, I could be learning to play classical guitar like my childhood idol, Charo.
If I read less, I could be writing more, although, to be fair, I’ve published 258,471 words so far in 2017 on this blog alone. That’s equivalent to 1,034 pages. *THUD*
I’ll never quit. I tried once. I made a resolution not to read any books for a month, and it was awful. It was AWFUL! I was so depressed. I cheated by reading the newspaper at lunch and by listening to audio books while I did stuff around my apartment. That was back in the days of 1x speed, too. I did get more done around the place, like cleaning out closets, but once that was finished I couldn’t point to a single benefit of quitting my lifelong habit. What did I think I was going to do, start watching TV? Go to a bar?
Reading is the best thing there is. It’s the most efficient way to extract thoughts from bright, creative people all around the world, even people who died centuries ago. Pick up a book and you get the filtered, refined, polished, edited, best thoughts from people who thought of things you never could. I can thank novels for turning me into a civilized, urbane person. I shudder to think of the barbarian I might have been.
About 40% of my reading is non-fiction. This is the stuff that tends to change my life in more immediately obvious ways. At least once a month I stumble across a totally new way of looking at a situation, a better way of doing things, or a piece of information that stops me in my tracks. It’s reading non-fiction that has enabled me to fix my parasomnia problem and become a marathon runner.
I read a lot of books. I’m also sort of a jock, and that never would have happened if I’d had to spend all my workout time concentrating on my breathing and my muscle soreness. Give me a break. Exercise is excruciatingly boring. With books, though, I can do it and enjoy it. I’d never be able to hold a sixty-second plank if I didn’t have a book or magazine on the floor under my nose.
So how do I do it? Let me remind you again that I said not to, that trying to read 300 books a year is a bad idea unless you use it to improve your life in at least one other routine way.
I scored a 790 out of 800 on the verbal portion of the SAT. This is completely due to my early, addictive reading habits. Reading has made me a patient, disciplined person. It’s probably kept me out of a certain amount of trouble, since I have generally preferred to go home and read rather than go out and party. There’s a lot to recommend it. Of course, reading has also made me a huge dork.
Can you read 300 books in 2018? Gosh, I hope not. If you do, though, use it as your tool to a stronger, more active body, a cleaner, more organized home, a romantic partner who has more personal time to relax, and better dinners. Or just do it because it’s better than what’s on TV.
Ermagerd. That’s 2,765 books in ten years.
Books are my life. Actually what I typed there was ‘books ate my life,’ which was a typo but may be more accurate. I have fallen up a flight of stairs because I was reading a book while walking. I read while I brush my teeth. I’m not going to apologize for my reading habits. On the contrary! Reading so much has helped me bridge my way into other positive habits. If you love to read, you can use it as a tool to reward yourself and keep yourself company while getting other things done.
Audio books were the big revolution for me. Well, not exactly. Back in the bad old days, when they came on cassette tapes or CDs, they were pretty annoying and high maintenance. Library audio CDs especially would tend to skip and stall due to their many scratches. Digital audio solved those problems. Digital audio plus headphones! No longer would I draw curious stares and commentary when reading while walking; nobody would have to know. I haven’t fallen up a flight of stairs in years now.
There are three major things I do while listening to audio books:
Basically every aversive task can be improved with the addition of a book.
Let’s face it. The real reason most people don’t reach goals is that they involve boring, tedious, repetitious tasks, self-discipline, and time robbed from leisure pursuits. The most boring thing I can think of is running on a treadmill with no entertainment or distractions. On the other hand, I’ll run for miles in the rain and snow if I can do it outdoors while listening to a good book. It’s the same with housework. Ten minutes of folding and putting away laundry is, to me, like forty minutes getting my teeth drilled (except without the comfy reclining dental chair). With audio, folding laundry is just one ten-minute activity I do while blasting through a new chapter on 2x speed.
There are other mindless tasks I do while listening to a book. I skim through email, remove my name from mailing lists, categorize receipts, save news articles to Pocket, format my website, make illustrations, maybe fill out web forms or window-shop online.
The one thing I don’t generally do is to sit still and just listen to a book at natural speed. I’m so conditioned to be up and moving around while the book plays that my dog even jumps off the couch when he hears a narrator start talking.
It’s not all about the audio, either. I still read text books, as opposed to textbooks. That’s my husband over there reading another robotics textbook. I read hardcover library books and ebooks. Don’t care much for the paperback format. I’m still reading my way through the backlog of books I had bought and stuffed into my bookcase “for later.” I like library hardcovers for reading on the elliptical, because they have a plastic jacket and because they stay open. The pages don’t have to be turned as often as an ebook, due to the form factor of my tablet. I’ll also grab a hardcover if I see it sitting on the shelf at the library and the waiting list is too long for the ebook.
These are things you can do with a serious reading habit:
Clean your house
Cook healthy meals
Mend and iron your clothes
Sort and shred piles of junk mail
Give yourself a manicure
Experiment with cosmetics or hairstyles
Finish all your craft projects
Wash your windows
Clean your oven
Distract yourself from pain or illness
Clean out your fridge
Wipe down your cabinets
Groom your pets
Weed the yard
Dust chair rails and other fussy details
Start a review blog and get Advance Reader Copies for free
My husband and I sold our car last spring, so we walk or take the bus almost everywhere. My daily mileage has gone from three to over seven miles on average. I walk to the grocery store, the library, the coffee shop where I sometimes write, and of course all the bus stops. My shoes are my car. Naturally a book accompanies me with every step.
Most audio books are under eleven hours. On 2x speed, that’s 5.5 hours. Spend forty minutes a day doing housework, half an hour cooking dinner, and an hour exercising, and that’s over two hours of reading time. Add in another hour of miscellaneous activities like getting dressed and fixing lunch, and you can blast through a book in two days.
When I was young, I could thank my obsessive reading habit for a lot of negativity. I always had a book in my lap or my hand. It reinforced my tendency to procrastinate. I was almost completely sedentary, which exacerbated my problems with chronic pain and fatigue. I felt chilly all the time. My apartment was a cluttered mess and I was a terrible cook. Sure, I’d read everything, which makes me fascinating (mmhmm) and gives me an ever-expanding vocabulary. I didn’t have much else to show for my vast erudition, though.
Now that I’m almost constantly listening to a book, I can look around and see the magical effects of literature. My apartment is clean and tidy. I’m fit. I’m always on the move instead of huddled in a blanket. I don’t have a backlog of unfinished craft projects. I enjoy cooking, partly because it means I can sneak in another chapter even when my husband is home. “It’s not you, darling, it’s Chapter Five.” All the stuff I never wanted to do before is now done, and it feels like nothing more than a way to pass the time while listening to talented voice actors.
If you love to read, you can use it to improve your life in additional ways. Whether you want to transform your house, your paper piles, your craft basket, your kitchen, or your body, you can read your way to it. What are you going to read first?
Plastic bags breed in the dark. They do! That’s the only possible explanation. Plastic bags, paper sacks, wire hangers, and junk mail are running a breeding farm and they’re using stray socks for food. Clutter attracts more clutter. On the path toward minimalism, we can turn this around, recognizing and removing entire categories of clutter all at once.
My husband and I made a radical lifestyle change in spring of 2017. We sold our car and downsized into a tiny seaside apartment. Not only that: we did it all in eleven days! An unbelievably cool job offer and the chance to live at the beach made the transition irresistible. At the same time, dropping half our living space (again) in such a short time period made for some tough choices.
No garage = no garage stuff, no extra storage, no “indecision zone”
No car = nothing that requires a car to carry it around
No yard = no gardening tools, mower, etc.
We didn’t have to decide on individual items like, say, an empty plastic herb pot from planting basil starts. Everything from Category: Gardening went to a charity rummage sale.
Policies, not decisions!
One way to start a clutter chain reaction is to look at categories of items, like we did. Here are some examples:
All clothes that require dry cleaning
All plastic kitchen items
All kitchen items that are not dishwasher-safe
Anything stored in a cardboard box
All magazines older than three months
All clothes that don’t fit today
Anything that is cracked, stained, or broken
All expired foods and pharmaceuticals
Anything being stored on a countertop due to lack of space
Another way to start a clutter chain reaction is to work in the time dimension. WHEN are you using this stuff? If it isn’t an item of daily use, like your keys, it’s up for legitimate scrutiny.
Anything you used in the past but haven’t touched in a year
Anything you have never used but are convinced you might, possibly, one day, maybe
Anything linked to a past event that is only saved as memorabilia
Anything that only gets used in rare circumstances, such as holidays
Yet another way to start a clutter chain reaction is to evaluate based on storage. Where are these things being stored? Would the space be used more effectively to store something else? Could the space be used for an activity that can’t be done while it’s currently full of clutter? Would the space look more attractive and satisfying if it was simply kept clear?
Tops of appliances
The front of the refrigerator
A clutter chain reaction based on storage can continue on and on for quite a while. For instance, when I gave away all my crafting stuff, it freed up the giant plastic tubs I had been storing it in. Those tubs were then available for other stuff. I bought two plastic tubs sometime around 1995, and I can’t remember how many times I reused them over twenty years. I don’t have them anymore; they were too big to fit anywhere in our one closet, and there’s nothing left that I would have stored in them anyway.
The clutter chain reaction I’m working on right now involves an old bookcase. I’ve been annoyed with it since the day I bought it home from IKEA, because apparently the outer surfaces rubbed together during transport and abraded away the finish. It was clearly my fault, so I kept it, but that bookcase is a clutter magnet and it clashes with every other piece of furniture we own.
I can hear the anguished cries now: “Wait. HOW can you get rid of a BOOKCASE? Can I have it???”
I’ve been working on releasing hard copies of books, and I’ve downsized about 80% of my collection over the past five years. We move quite a lot, and I’m tired of packing, hauling, and unpacking so many heavy boxes. Also, I have a dumb tendency to buy books and then not read them because I’m busy reading library books I checked out for free. Once I read a book, I’m done with it. The exception is reference books such as cookbooks, and I’ve been digitizing those, scanning the few relevant pages or replacing them with e-books. I’m not obligated to keep a two-pound book that I bought just because I like three recipes in it. The author already has my money. Obviously, when I finish downsizing all of my books, I will no longer need the bookcase.
What happens when the bookcase goes out the door? I have a free space in the room. There is no longer a misfit, different in style and color from our other stuff. The other furniture looks more coordinated. There’s one less thing to dust, or, rather, one less large thing that contained a hundred smaller things. Most importantly, there’s no longer a clutter magnet in the form of shelf space, a series of flat surfaces that tends to magnetically attract mail, receipts, and random objects.
Thinking of clutter in terms of categories is an almost mystical secret tool for getting rid of it. Clutter doesn’t even have to be evaluated in terms of dozens of small categories. We can ask ourselves much simpler questions. The best question of all is, In the category of Items That Improve My Life Experience Every Single Day, does this thing fit?
It’s possible I have a problem. A little one. I’m getting ready to upgrade my electronics, and in the process, I’m realizing that there’s an awful lot to migrate between devices.
...sorry, where was I? I just stopped to download another ebook I had on hold. Oh, yes! Information hoarding! Let’s see some metrics.
6,152 photos and 56 videos at 5.81 GB
14 ebooks checked out and 42 on hold
A wish list of 1,693 books between five libraries
20 audio books at 12.16 GB
795 podcast episodes at 35.89 GB (I played through an entire episode while counting)
574 bookmarked articles
69 open tabs
The most interesting thing about this list is that it’s all basically imaginary. Well, everything we think we have to do, use, consume, read, or otherwise perform is imaginary. It’s in our heads. I’m not going to cease to exist if I skip a podcast episode. The point is that my information hoarding does not take up any more physical space than the confines of my phone. It doesn’t weigh any more just because I’m using over 100 GB of data. It doesn’t cost any more, either. As far as indulgences go, it’s pretty tame.
Information hoarding usually does take up space, and quite a significant amount. I started realizing this when I started digitizing everything. It occurred to me that almost everything I own can be digitized:
Movies, TV shows, and workout programs
Business cards and address books
Check registers, bank statements, receipts, all other financial info
Keepsakes and mementos in photographic form
Almost all office supplies
All I really need is basic furniture, clothing, housewares, cleansers, and a week’s worth of groceries. Oh, and some power outlets, of course.
My chronically disorganized clients struggle with information management more than anything else. It starts with the junk mail. My clients “scoop and stuff” on a regular basis. They’ll have boxes full of plastic grocery bags, and at least 80% of the contents of the bags will be junk mail and those stupid coupon newspapers. This wouldn’t really be a problem, except that about 20% of the contents of those bags consists of truly important, urgent mail and papers. It’s hard to find the important stuff when it’s surrounded by junk that should never have been brought through the door. The junk mail is disinformation, actively detracting from the value of the good stuff.
Indecision is a huge part of chronic disorganization and hoarding. My people have a lot of trouble deciding whether or not to go to social functions or accept invitations. Due to this, they’ll keep all the invitations, calendars, flyers, and other papers on their bulletin boards, or scattered on the countertops, until the date has passed. They won’t realize that these notifications can be discarded once they’re obsolete, because those papers will have already been buried under a snowdrift of new paper.
The junk mail and pending invitations are unintentional information hoarding. It’s the intentional stuff that’s particularly stubborn.
Magazines. If you carry all your old magazines out to the recycling bin and dump them tonight, PM me and I’ll feature you in an article. Photos please! My people refuse to get rid of old magazines, whether they’ve read them or not. For some random reason, old magazines are perceived to be the most valuable type of object. They’re heavy, they’re half-full of advertisements, nobody ever reads them, and they smell like mildew. WHY do you people love them so much?? You can get them at the library or online anyway! That’s especially true of that particular yellow geography magazine, the complete archives of which are available in full color on their website.
Books. Lord love a duck. I read at least as much as the next person, but I don’t see why we need to keep so many physical books around. If you haven’t read it, then you don’t get any credit for owning it. If you have read it, then you don’t need it anymore. I say this just to taunt people, because I know how sacrosanct the books are. You don’t have any free shelf space, there are probably books piled all over your bedside table, and yet you’ll never be satisfied and you’ll always think you can fit another sack of books into your house. Have it your way.
Old notebooks. People freak out about their old school notes, even if they haven’t touched them since graduation and they’ll never read through them again. I just scanned all mine and recycled them years ago. On the rare occasions when I feel inspired to pop open one of those files, I’m mostly embarrassed at my relative ignorance and poor writing skills. I got my degree in history, and I’ve read far more about history since graduation than I ever did beforehand. Education is the beginning, not the end. It’s just supposed to be training for a life of learning. I think most of us keep our school notes because that’s our identity. When we’re not challenged in our jobs, when we’re not satisfied in our careers, we cling to that time when we felt supported in our intellectual self-image. It’s easy to figure out how to get good grades, but not so easy to figure out how to take initiative and shape a professional career.
Recipes. I’m worse about this than most people and I’ll freely admit it. I’ve been digitizing my recipe collection for five years. I just checked, and I have... over 18,000 recipes in my collection. There are still half a dozen cookbooks to go, too. Am I ever going to feel like I have enough? No, I’m sure I won’t. This is true even though I have enough recipes to cook three new meals a day for 92 years. I’ll just clone myself 91 times, and then each of us can cook three new meals a day for a year. How many more recipes will we have collected by the end of the year, if each clone also likes to save recipes?
To-do lists. List makers! Why do we add stuff to our lists just to cross it off? If we love crossing things off of lists so much, why do we always wind up with old lists with incomplete tasks on them?
Little notes. Buying a smartphone changed my life. I started recording all my random little notes into my phone instead of writing them on paper. Gradually, as I started to trust the system, I started recording more of my old notes and digitizing them, too. My desk used to be constantly covered with stacks of notes, plus several inboxes and sorting mechanisms. Now I don’t have a desk at all; it all lives in my pocket.
There’s a manuscript in our fireproof safe. It’s an obsolete version of my novel-in-progress. I think I’ve gone through at least three major plot shakeups since then. I don’t even work on paper anymore! It’s only still in there through entropy.
I have over 100 GBs of information hoarded on my phone. If this existed in physical form, I’d be in trouble. Fortunately, through consistent effort, I’ve managed to keep it all down to one file box that measures 11”x15” and three shelves of books measuring 55 inches.
I’m trying to reframe my information hoarding in two ways. One: How likely am I to need this information? Do I want it for active reference, for future entertainment, or am I keeping it due to inertia, FoMO, or pure anxiety? Two: How long will it take to consume this information? How many hours of podcasts are these? If I read fifty pages an hour on average, how long will it take me to read through this stack of books? What’s my track record of actually reading through these queues? Does the list stay about the same, or has it consistently been growing longer?
The thing about information is that it doesn’t exist until we have it processed into our brains. I mean, just because I have internet access doesn’t mean I’ve memorized the entire internet. It was already humanly impossible to look at every photograph ever taken or click through every page of every website twenty years ago. More is uploaded in a single day than we could ever hope to skim in a lifetime. We have to let go of the idea that we can somehow “keep up” with everything. We can’t watch every video, listen to every song, read every article and every book, or watch every movie. We can’t even do it if we cut out all the other categories completely and focus on just one.
Far better would be to see it all as a massive buffet. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more. I’LL NEVER BE BORED! Pay attention now, Future Me, because we’re going to have to chillax about all of this. It’s okay not to read every single thing. It’s okay because every time we finish reading something, there’s something else waiting. Our favorite artists will put out more books and albums and shows in more formats. If we aren’t ever going to get through this playlist or all of these bookmarks, we can at least slow down the rate at which we add more.
Ryan Holiday has done it again. The title of Perennial Seller is almost meta, almost a joke, because this book is guaranteed to be, indeed, a perennial seller. Holiday is an accomplished prose stylist, and this book ranks right up there with classic writing manuals such as How Fiction Works. It’s also a good idea to listen to anything the author has to say about marketing, considering that he has had several best-sellers with hundreds of thousands of copies sold.
The main premise of Perennial Seller is that if a work is well-crafted and aimed at a specific audience, it has the potential to sell even better in following years than it did when it was first released. Creatives who begin with the intention of making something that will still be relevant ten years from now will be more successful than those who want instant fame and fortune.
Half of the book focuses on what goes into producing a perennial seller; the other half focuses on the importance of marketing. Holiday emphasizes that this does not mean one should spend half of one’s time on marketing. Rather, many authors and other artists want to wave away the necessity of marketing. Isn’t it unfair to your potential audience to deprive them of a chance to hear about your work? Think of your lonely fans, staring at the ceiling and sighing, wishing they had something as cool as your book/album/comic/whatever to entertain them. You can delegate if you don’t want to do it yourself, but you can’t get out of the necessity of marketing, no matter your opinion of that trade. Holiday himself began as a marketing phenom, and this book will educate you and most likely change your mind.
Perennial Seller has a broad range of examples of talented people whose works became perennial sellers. This includes everyone from the band Iron Maiden to the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Considering Holiday’s published work on Stoicism, one might almost expect the list to include more of the classics (by which I mean, Classics), so it’s fascinating to see how many obscure corners of pop culture are hiding perennially successful artists. This is a great read, suitable for long-term study, and essential for those who want to produce an artistic legacy.
Guess what? I made a workbook! For today only, I’m doing a special promotion. You can get the workbook and a little something extra, something that will not be available to future purchasers. At the end of this post, I’m also making an announcement.
Here are the details:
The workbook includes over fifty pages of text, quizzes, and exercises about space clearing, minimalism, and getting organized. It comes as a PDF.
As a bonus, I’ll include five coloring book pages, hand-drawn by me. If this goes well, I’ll consider putting out an actual coloring book at a later date.
What’s the catch?
The catch is that I’m trying to reach a fundraising goal for my charity: water campaign and it’s about to expire.
If you would like to order my Curate Your Stuff workbook and get the today-only bonus coloring book pages, please donate $25 through my charity:water page. Then go to my Contact page and send me an email, and I’ll reply with the PDFs attached. They’ll go out on Saturday. (If you have already been so kind as to support my campaign, ping me and I’ll send you your copies).
If you donate $50 or more, I will give you, in addition to the workbook and the coloring book pages, a free photo consult on any one room of your home. (You send me photos of a problem area and I send back my written recommendations). This is not a service that I offer to the general public, and the offer will not be repeated.
100% of donations to charity: water go to actual clean water projects. Funds for administration are raised through another branch. Note that this means I am donating my work today and I won’t receive a penny, because that’s how I roll.
Now, it’s time for the announcement!
If we reach my charity: water goal before the campaign expires, I will commit to launch my new podcast in October 2017. Otherwise I’ll be all sad and stuff, and it probably won’t happen until next year.
The other thing is that the workbook won’t be available for download for a while after today. I have to set up the website to support file downloads and accept payments, which is part of my plans for a general overhaul of the blog. That will happen at some point before the end of the year.
Thank you for hearing me out. Also, thank you, Dear Reader, for visiting me today.
I need something to read and I need it immediately. I’m wandering around the aisles of Barnes & Noble, our closest physical bookstore, and I’m desperate. We’re going camping for a week. I love camping, but I’m feeling really emotional about not having backup ebooks, electrical power, or wifi. Anything I’m going to read is going to have to be on paper. Paper! I ask of you! Bulky, heavy, and incapable of being reloaded. The only thing a physical book does better than an electronic book is insect control. There’s another problem: I’ve basically read everything already.
What I’m looking for is what I call a BFB, or Big Fat Book. I can generally read a 250- or 300-page book in a day. I want something in the 600- to 800-page range that a) has a great reputation and b) has not already been feverishly consumed by Past Me. Past Me is extremely selfish about hogging all the good books.
I look at a table, thoughtfully labeled “Must-Reads.” I have read all but two books on the table, both of which are in the 180- to 200-page range. I’d stand here and read them right now, but I’m still in search of something for our trip.
I go to my husband, who is carrying a fantastic large book that I have, um, already read. He can tell I’m panicking. “What do I do after I’ve read ALL THE BOOKS?”
“That won’t happen.”
“I kind of think it already HAS happened!”
I start methodically winding through the aisles of Fiction/Literature, looking at everything thick, and big, and complicated like trig. Several of these books I read as ebooks, and I was a bit staggered to see how long they are. You could build a nice little igloo out of these things. There are some sentimental moments, moments when I see something I loved reading, and I want to shake Past Me for not waiting just a little longer. I’m promising Future Me that I won’t read any more BFB’s during daily life; I’ll save them for times when I need to read something in-tents.
I wind up with a copy of The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. This cheeses me off a little, because I know it’s available as an ebook. I somehow restrain myself from opening it on the bus ride home.
There is nowhere to put this one-pound, inch-thick paperback book when we get home to our 680-square-foot apartment. Well, technically there are several very inconvenient places to put it, such as on the bed, on the kitchen counter, or on the dining table. That would last for possibly as long as two hours. Why not put it on a bookshelf?
Well, um, you see, about that…
I’ve been consciously trying to divest myself of books for the past four years of our marriage. We move a lot, we’ve been downsizing, and books are really inconvenient (autocorrect suggests ‘inconsiderate’ and ‘inconsistent,’ the latter of which is demonstrably false because I have consistently always had too many books). I’ve sold some and donated some and given some away. They just keep getting in!
There are two types of book hoarders: the type who keep everything after they read it, and the type who accumulate unread books, often on the bedside table. I have no bedside table, so my unread books are in the bookshelves. Once I’ve read something, it goes into a box, to be evacuated as soon as possible. Right now, I’ve got this double-parking situation going on. It looks terrible and it’s driving me crazy. I’d get rid of them right now, except for the sad fact that these books aren’t available digitally. Can someone explain to me how this is even possible? With all of the spam email in the world, there is obviously plenty of text available.
The question being raised here is, if my house is so full of unread books, why can’t I simply bring one of them on our camping trip?
What are you implying? That I can just grab any old book that happens to be there, and just… just start reading it? Right now? Pfffft.
By number and mass, most of “our” books are my husband’s aerospace and robotics engineering textbooks. If you think I’m bad, look at him. I can’t even understand the titles of most of his books; I thought “Theory of Wing Sections” was an ornithology book, and by gum, it should be.
My books almost entirely consist of cookbooks; fitness reference manuals; business reference books; foreign language dictionaries; birding guides; and, yes, two novels I haven’t read yet, one in the 1000-page range and the other in two volumes at 2500+ pages. I can almost hear them chanting “NERDS! NERDS! NERDS!”
I had this idea of printing classic, pre-copyright books in tiny font on biodegradable toilet paper. Then you could take it backpacking, read it, and use it (AS KINDLING, OF COURSE) bit by bit. It is stunning to me that nobody is doing this, but possibly because someone typed Moby-Dick onto TP and it took four rolls. If someone could please take this on, I will be your first customer.
Most book lovers want to be surrounded by books at all times. We like to look at them and carry them around and surreptitiously smell them. Books are how we recognize one another. Although, how can I be friends with someone who is reading on the bus and refusing to hold the book at such an angle that I can clearly read the spine or cover? Come on! Inquiring minds want to know! We go to each other’s homes and turn our heads sideways, looking at each other’s shelves and noting which books we have in common. This doesn’t really work at my house. I’ve moved 28 times since 1993 and I’ve read over 4500 books in my life so far. If you want to know what I read, follow me on Goodreads or LibraryThing because I ain’t carrying those cartons up and down stairs just to satisfy your curiosity. This is my other invention: a custom poster with thumbnail icons of my top 500 favorite books. I can tape it to my wall, like, THERE! I just saved 300 pounds and half a moving van, while avoiding a herniated disc, and you can still find out that we both like Harry Potter. Like that was ever a question. You won’t even have to turn your head sideways.
One day there will be some kind of tiny device that stores books in a skin patch or something. It will run on body heat or the kinetic power generated by my pacing back and forth in a bookstore, assuming they still exist. I’ll be able to read just by staring at the palm of my hand and watching the text projected out of a ring or watch. And I won’t be able to use it because I will already have read everything.
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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.