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.
The movers showed up early and got straight to work. I had “a couple of last things” and they were done before I was, our entire studio apartment unloaded in two hours.
Everything in our studio apartment fit in fifty boxes.
I’m surprised and embarrassed about this, but what can I say. At least six of those boxes were just our bedding and pillows!
We managed to pull up to the special “only available between 11:30 am and 3:00 pm on Fridays” loading zone at 11:32, and the movers were done at 2:30.
It took longer to unload the truck than it did to load it, because they had to wheel everything down a ramp, through the basement garage, to the elevator, and up to the fifth floor.
Due to that long lag time, I was able to unpack quite a lot of stuff between loads. It wasn’t like I could leave, or take a nap, when I needed to answer questions about where things went and what direction the furniture should face. I felt like I was racing against time, that the more boxes I unpacked, the more cardboard the movers would cart away for me.
Get food into fridge and freezer
Set up the bed
Set up the shower
Set up the pet bowls
Unpack enough in the kitchen to be able to microwave something or cook breakfast
By 5:00 pm I had done all of these things - and a few more - and I am feeling pretty impressed with myself.
I have this special moving inventory system, and this time it really saved the day. I realized when the movers were bringing up our massive California King mattress that I should probably get the little floor protector coasters under the wheels of the bed frame first. I whipped out my phone, skimmed through the inventory note to find the right box, located that box (behind and under as many boxes as possible, of course), moved the other boxes out of the way, opened the correct one, dug out the appropriate container, found the coasters, flipped up the box springs, and was putting the coasters under the wheels when the movers came in.
A non-trivial task, to find four 2”-square flat objects in the midst of fifty boxes in five minutes.
That bit of effort will save the nice dark wooden floors from any further scarring - it’s quite obvious the previous tenants didn’t think of this kind of nicety - and potentially save us from having to pay for repair work when we move. Probably more to the point, it will save my husband and me from either feeling like we’ve procrastinated on a honeydo task, or having to move the mattress and box springs in the midst of unpacking.
Done and dusted!
This is how we organized the one-day move.
As of dinnertime, we can sit on the couch, feed the dog, charge our devices, shower and brush our teeth, sleep in our bed, and even find our clothes.
I’ve unpacked fifteen boxes, most of them the large size. I’ve unpacked about a quarter of my clothes and set up my desk. One kitchen cabinet is set up. All our plates, bowls, and glasses are in the new dishwasher. There is a path through the living room.
Probably the most important thing that we’ve done was to plan a housewarming party. We always used to love having an open house every week, and now there are interns in our life instead of college students. Having a social date on the calendar gives us a deadline and a sense of excitement.
It was really sweet to hear how excited these kids are about the open house theory!
Now, I can’t claim that we moved “in one day.” The old apartment still needs to be cleaned, and all our cleaning apparatus is still over there, every single thing from the dish gloves to the steam mop. We still have almost three dozen boxes to unpack and we don’t even have internet.
It is fair to say, though, that all our furniture went from OVER THERE to OVER HERE in one day, and that we can sleep here and start living a fairly normal life from tonight on. As normal as it gets for us, anyway.
Ironically, our place is more functional in the midst of a move than what most of my clients experience on an ordinary day. We have more freedom of movement from room to room, even with the boxes. We can find more stuff. We can cook and bathe. If someone needed to make a repair tonight or tomorrow, we wouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to let them in. This is partly because we are very organized, partly because we don’t have that much stuff, and mostly because we hold ourselves to a certain level of expectations.
Alas, now I’ve set the bar and all our further moves are going to have to meet those expectations! A one-day move on Friday and back to business on Monday?
My husband is an aerospace engineer, and I’ve been interviewing him about his school days. This was spurred by his recent intervention in the educational trajectory of one of our young baristas. He started tutoring her in calculus, and she brought her grade up from a D to an A. Never having made it to calculus myself, I had a lot of questions. Is he just smarter than the average bear, or does he know something that the rest of us don’t know?
I hated study groups in school. I hated them because I was always the one who wound up doing all the work while everyone else got credit for it. This might have been awesome and lovely if anyone had thanked me for it, but, well, I was a nerd. I made the Dean’s List in college all on my own.
What would have been different about my academic career if I hadn’t had this distaste for group work?
Heck, what would have been different about my work career??
I knew about my hubby’s study group because he had briefly mentioned it back when we were still getting to know each other. Suddenly, after fourteen years, it struck me that this was no average study group. I needed to know more.
How did this group form?
What were the rules?
Who was in it, and how did they meet?
Where are they now?
The first thing to know is that aerospace engineering is not like most fields. Over 80% of the students wash out. It takes five years of hard work to get through the requirements, and there’s no time for electives. This is not a career that people stumble into by accident.
Compare and contrast: History degree
I knew that my husband moved to the opposite end of the state to go to school. Therefore, he had no classmates, friends, family, or colleagues nearby for social support. How did he meet people?
Crucial to the formation of the high-powered study group was a natural social hub, M. M was a member of several clubs and an active student group. He was bilingual, which is intriguing and seems relevant. (I grew up in a neighborhood composed of about 1/3 immigrant families representing at least five languages, and my classmates were generally top students). M went around getting to know people and introducing them to each other, and that’s how the members of the high-powered study group met.
The group originally consisted of four Upholders and one Questioner. The Questioner lost interest in engineering over the summer and never came back.
One member was second in the class and top in the group. The other three, including my husband, competed for second in the group. A certain amount of smack talk and teasing arose from this, driving competition.
(This would not have worked on me)
Other students tried to get into the group. While the group would help them if they showed up, they would not be invited back. The group changed locations between study sessions, essentially to protect their small size and remain exclusive. The rationale here was: if you want to sit at our table, you’d better add value.
There was another high-powered study group. Its membership and size fluctuated. Then there was another study group that consisted of C students. Studying together did nothing to improve their grades, and this is why the nature of the high-powered study group is so interesting.
Most of the C students did graduate and become engineers. Studying together probably helped them quite a bit. They weren’t accepted in the high-powered group because they couldn’t keep up. What they really wanted was the opportunity for tutoring. That’s a big ask. It’s really asking for free labor from other busy people without offering anything in exchange.
I think that’s fair. I’ve helped other students in school, just as I’ve helped people with their resumes in the working world. There’s only so much you can do for them, for one thing. I helped another student in my dorm by editing her papers, and I did it gladly because she helped me quite a bit in non-academic ways. Did I have time to edit papers for any and all comers? Nope, I did not.
Most people don’t ask. Most people don’t ask for help because they know it’s their responsibility to do it on their own. Most people also understand the concepts of win-win and fair exchange, that you give and then you receive and then you give again.
What happened with the high-powered study group? What were its impressive powers?
The faculty became aware of the high-powered study group, because they always worked together on group assignments. They took on more complicated projects than the other groups. They stood out for their test scores. They could also be found using various empty classrooms for studying. This is how they built their reputation.
The school decided to close their aerospace program when this particular high-powered study group was one year from graduating.
The members of the high-powered study group marched into the dean’s office. They advocated for themselves and insisted that the program remain open until they graduated. The dean agreed and the program continued for an additional year.
Note that this was a win for all the students in their program that year, about fifty people.
The tradition continues. My hubby just did something similar, thirty years later. A group of interns who all went to school together were going to be relocated to various desks around the facility. My hubby thought they worked much better when the five of them sat together. He went up the chain of command - unbeknownst to the interns - and pushed back. The five interns continue to sit together and work together. Maybe they’ll go on to get patents together, maybe they’ll publish academic papers together, maybe they’ll leave and start their own company. Maybe they’ll just continue to turn out above-average work, because their group makes them more powerful than they were alone.
The Procrastination Equation is a curious artifact, the product of a former extreme procrastinator who became an academic researcher and actually completed and published a book on procrastination. Piers Steel, PhD in your face! Something like 90% of doctoral candidates never complete their thesis, so this is a pretty big deal. If a procrastinator can get a PhD, then maybe anyone can do anything?
I keep reading and reviewing procrastination research books because guess why.
About 95% of people admit to procrastination and about a quarter consider it one of their defining personality traits. I’m in that quarter, although I have worked so hard at it for so long that when I try to cop to it, people will laugh. You?? Yup, me. I want to be in that magical 5% elite group that never puts anything off, never feels guilty or distracted, gets to wear a diamond tiara that spells out IN THE NOW.
While this book includes targeted behavioral suggestions, it revolves around research, including quizzes which are always a great way to be entertained while procrastinating. It’s pretty funny, for instance when Steel includes a footnote as a supposed reference to an astrology factoid.
One of the most interesting ideas I picked up was the link between impulsivity and procrastination. There is probably a strong link here with hoarding and chronic disorganization as well, because my people tend to be big-time guilty procrastinators as well. The impulsive streak tends to make them fun to be around, ready to try out mental exercises and games as we clear. It’s the same trait that makes them want to bring home random bargains and anything shiny, patterned, or brightly colored. It’s also what makes it hard for them to stay on task.
Procrastination Polka is one section of The Procrastination Equation that is particularly telling. Maybe flip to that section first and see if it catches your attention. I felt smug about several items but there were three out of thirteen that applied to me. Ouch.
Procrastination is as old as agriculture, extending at least to the dawn of written history. There’s a term for it in every culture and language. This makes me feel better. Then I learn that procrastinators get lower grades, have less money, are less healthy, and also less happy, and it gets harder to pretend that my cute little personality trait derives from perfectionism. When Steel calculates it as a trillion-dollar problem and points out how little Congress gets done, procrastination starts to look like a bigger deal than just whether I personally keep up on my email.
I enjoyed The Procrastination Equation, and it actually changed my perspective. Viewing my petty to-do list in a broader historical, anthropological, and economic context gave me a new perspective. I’d rather see myself as different type of animal, like a crow maybe, than a typical procrastinating ordinary human. I read this book and then I did the first next thing on my list, which was to review it.
Now, how about you? What are you going to do next?
By your own standards, if you thought delay was a good idea in the first place, you wouldn’t be procrastinating.
“...the only thing I really ever finish is dessert.”
Those bizarre outfits that languish in your closet were likely purchased toward the end of a shopping trip.
I will never not be tired. That was a realization I had, or at least a passing thought that feels true while dealing with jet lag. Then I had an interesting conversation with one of our favorite baristas.
He related that he had been talking to my husband earlier about what their generation’s version of smoking is. Cigarettes had been on our mind, since very few Californians smoke tobacco and they are rather more common in Britain. It didn’t surprise me that the topic had come up.
(It’s also fairly common for us to have these sorts of extended relay conversations by means of the tea counter).
The topic of warfare in antiquity had come up in my Classics program. We were wondering what it must be like to run into battle with nothing but sandals, shield, and spear, knowing you might die any minute. Did we have anything that scary in modern life? The answer everyone came up with was driving on the freeway. Almost every day we might see cars piled up, and everyone knows someone who was killed in a traffic collision, but we shrug and keep doing it. I didn’t have a license yet and this conversation put me in no great hurry to learn to drive; indeed I quit and I don’t think I’ve been behind the wheel in at least two years.
What this is saying is that our social norms can change, they can and they do. Sometimes they change quite suddenly and other times it creeps up on us slowly, almost unnoticeably.
What they decided is that our generation’s version of smoking is: not sleeping.
“Our generation” in this case meant Millennials. My hubby and I are both Generation X, from opposite ends of the age bracket. Our tattooed, pierced, beanie-wearing bearded barista made this observation, and it instantly snapped something into place for me.
It didn’t use to be this way.
I honestly don’t remember everyone going around talking about how tired they are all the time back in the Eighties or Nineties.
When did it start? When did it change?
It used to be “how are you?” “Fine, how are you?”
Then it was “how are you?” “Busy!”
Then “Crazy busy!”
Now it’s perpetually “tired.”
I shared that people weren’t talking about how tired they were all the time, now that he mentioned it. An observation like this from a young man who wakes up at 3:00 AM to serve coffee all day might be somewhat suspect, but then consider that our neighborhood asks this of him. Nobody is asking bookstore clerks to wake up at 3 AM to sell books, am I right?
I said I thought it probably changed with the advent of the internet.
It was cable TV that had everyone gradually quit hanging out in each other’s living rooms, I’m pretty sure of that. In the Seventies and Eighties it was pretty common, even if we were just talking or playing cards. Even our less-favorite neighbors would still drop by and vice versa, maybe just to watch Knight Rider.
Back in those days, you had to watch stuff at a specific time. Videos were expensive to rent, let alone buy, and getting a movie and pizza was a big enough deal for people to put their shoes on and actually leave their apartment.
Then we all got cable.
It was a few years after that before the “Information Superhighway” and the “World Wide Web” started to take off. Years after that before we all got smartphones.
I remember all of this point by point, when I look back, because I grew up with a rotary phone and a little black and white television with an antenna on top. I remember that when we met, my ex-husband had a pager. I remember how incredibly excited I was to have a new flip phone with a clock on it.
It crept up on us.
When I went to get my tea today, I was feeling really sorry for myself about how tired I have been and how hard it’s been to get a decent night’s sleep.
Then I had this conversation with a Millennial who says his wife only sleeps five hours a night, and he needs “at least six.”
I feel like a total wreck on six hours. I’m a nine-hour person. Our barista’s wife is routinely sleeping a little over half what I consider the “correct” amount.
It was spontaneously mentioned that this poor sleepless gal spends an hour in bed on her phone before going to sleep.
“In my day,” she creaked querulously, “‘on the phone’ meant talking to someone.”
Now we’re scrolling, scrolling, endlessly scrolling. Looking at what?
As far as our quantity and quality of sleep is concerned, it doesn’t matter.
It is probably true that lack of sleep is the new smoking. It’s also pretty indisputable that if we’re lying there in the dark, scrolling on our phones, then the phones have something to do with it. It is certainly true that if everyone is doing it, it feels “normal” even when it also feels terrible.
It feels terrible and it might be killing us, in a way we won’t realize for decades.
Almost everyone smoked back in the Seventies and Eighties. Everyone had at least one ashtray, sometimes several. You could buy cigarettes from vending machines in restaurants and at gas stations. It was rare to go to someone’s house or ride in their car without at least one person smoking a cigarette the whole time. Then it hit the media that there were people out there smoking out of a hole in their throat. It started to be less and less common, until now smoking means you do it next to a dumpster in the rain.
Eventually, just like with smoking, it will start to be more obvious how devastating a health impact comes from never getting enough sleep. Constant sleep deprivation will stop making any kind of sense. It will gradually start to become unfashionable to be tired all the time, when it’s so obvious that something can be done about it.
Back in the day, there was room for boredom, for staring at the ceiling, for hanging out and doing nothing, and maybe that’s why we slept more. Maybe we won’t go back to that, but surely there’s something more interesting than being Tired, So Tired every day.
Maybe it will only happen when we replace it with something like spacesuit chafing or the health effects of faster-than-light travel.
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.
I never thought I could “afford” to travel. Then I thought I was “too old.” In my mind, only people in their early twenties got to go anywhere. This is completely weird, because I started flying alone at the age of seven and in some ways I grew up at the airport. Scarcity mindset is powerful.
CAN’T AFFORD end of story!
The biggest problem with scarcity mindset is that we are so locked down, we don’t even bother to find out exactly how much something costs.
I went through this earlier this year. I had been wanting a new desktop computer, and I sat on my wallet forever and ever, a couple years past the point when my old laptop was even usable anymore. Finally I felt like I had “enough” saved up. I went down in trepidation, very nervous about spending “that kind of money.” (Same kind of flat green American dollars I spend on anything else?)
It turned out to cost less than half of what I had estimated, even after accessories and tax.
Travel can very much be that way. If you save $25 a week for a year, you can basically buy a round-trip airline ticket to anywhere in the world.
(Not, like, Antarctica or Area 51 or inside Fort Knox, but you know what I mean).
Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to travel right at this very minute, for various reasons. For instance, if a friend is coming to town and we haven’t seen him in several years, we’d probably rather stay home and visit with him than go somewhere else. Maybe someone is finishing school, or it’s monsoon season, or we’re waiting for the cherry blossoms. There are all sorts of reasons why it might be better to wait a bit before going on that dream trip.
In the meantime, you can start planning and preparing, for real, right this minute, as soon as you finish reading this.
There are two things that it is very smart to do if you want to travel, and they don’t cost anything.
The first is learning to ride various kinds of public transit. You don’t actually have to pay to get on the bus or the tram or the water taxi or the funicular or whatever to do this, if you’re geographically isolated or you believe you are too broke for bus fare. You can look at maps and timetables and watch instructional videos. There are zero good reasons to skip this part, if you’re serious about your trip. It’s part of fine-tuning your vision and clarifying what you want.
The second thing that is very smart to do is to walk a lot, especially uphill and especially up long flights of stairs.
Not everyone can walk, true. If there are mobility issues then it’s even more valuable to practice ahead of time. Just how are you going to get around?
One of the saddest things I ever saw was a woman struggling to keep up with her friends at a historic site in Spain. We were coming down the (uneven, primitive) stone steps after looking at some incredible cave paintings. The woman was recovering from knee surgery. Her party wanted to know how many more steps there were and what the terrain was like. The sad but true answer was that there was no way she would enjoy the tour, and maybe a 5% chance she could actually do it, given the nature of the site. She was going to wind up sitting outside in the rain and cold for an hour, all because nobody thought to do the research. A quarter mile of slippery stone steps up a steep hill! What were they thinking, putting her in that position?
Maybe they could have waited a year, and done a different trip during her recovery?
It’s not about limitations, it’s about making life as interesting as possible within the constraints that we have at this moment.
There is a third thing that we can do to prepare for a dream trip, and that is to study the local language. It is SO helpful, especially when reading signs. On that same trip to see the cave paintings, we would have missed out except that we were willing to go along with a Spanish-language tour. We probably got 50-80% of the information, enough to feel like we understood what we were looking at.
The thing about travel is that it is extremely specific, moment to moment. That’s what makes it interesting. You’re standing on one specific square foot of the world at one specific moment in time. At that moment, either the restaurant or attraction that you wanted to visit is open for business, or it is not. Either you have the correct currency or form of payment, or you do not. Either you have read the map correctly, or you have not. Does this make sense?
You’re not “in England,” you’re in the Underground station in a hot and stuffy hallway, trying to figure out which of two tunnels to enter. You’re not “in Iceland,” you’re standing in front of a gravel parking lot, realizing that the museum you wanted to visit is not only closed but completely demolished. Travel means RESEARCH and lots of it, every day, every time you transition between one activity or location and another.
Part of what makes travel cool is that it magically transmogrifies you into “a traveler.” What does that is the process of figuring out how things work. That develops a mindset that is distinctly flexible and robust. You learn how to deal with confusion and disappointment and unexpected problems, such as getting stopped in security because one of your plane tickets matches your maiden name and the other matches your new married name. You learn perspective about what kinds of problems are worth getting upset about and which are just part of the game.
Eventually you learn to anticipate most situations ahead of time and just avoid those types of problems entirely. Like the overpacking problem and the “late to the airport” problem and the “quarrel over which restaurants to go to” problem.
Travel is just you in a different place for a while. That means you can solve for many of your travel problems in advance, while you are still the at-home you. Then when it’s time to leave, your trip will be a dream come true.
I was just thinking how long it had been since I participated in the 24-Hour Readathon, when I had a surprise occasion to be up for 24 hours. This should have occurred to me sooner, or in other words it should not have come as a surprise at all, because it was built into our trip to the UK. Would I have used the time differently?
More importantly, is a 24-hour sprint a useful tool for other situations?
Whether being awake for 24 hours feels interesting, fun, or terrible depends entirely on the reason and your attitude going in.
After 35 years of chronic insomnia and parasomnia issues, I’m trying to decondition myself from the thoughts that I AM TIRED and I’M BAD AT SLEEPING. What if occasionally being tired was not a problem, but rather a neutral, useful, or interesting experience?
The readathon was something that I used to find thrilling, and something that my now-husband and his grade-school-aged daughter looked on with bemusement. I would spend weeks deciding what to read and planning my snacks, my outfit, where I would sit, etc. Then my record was crushed by an adult who read a big stack of YA and kids’ books. Grr! I bowed out after reading all of The Recognitions in 24 hours - finishing just before the clock was up - and retiring on a high note.
It’s different when you’re in your early thirties. You’re still used to waking up rung-out after late nights having fun, going to concerts or parties or simply staying up playing cards until all hours. A day of physical exhaustion may be a regular part of your week.
All-nighters in college are a mark of grit, and turning in a paper before the deadline or doing well on a test after a cram session are the rewards. Everyone is doing it and it has its bragging rights. If you’ve done it once, then you know you have the capacity to do it again.
Lying awake and not sleeping due to mysterious insomnia problems feels bad. It can approach the level of an existential crisis. WHY? Sleep Y U hate me? Yet it’s the same 24 hours that anyone else has, and not every sleepless person is having the same emotions or the same thoughts.
What if we approach sleeplessness with curiosity?
I might do it in solidarity with someone. Say if my niece or one of my nephews was up studying, although they undoubtedly have study partners for that. If a friend was running a relay race, I might go out and support. The same sleeplessness I can experience on a hot pillowcase at home could feel like an act of friendship or compassion or service.
On rare occasions, when I’ve been writing at night or my sleep schedule has been bonkers, I’ve done what I call a “reset.” Stay up, go out into natural daylight, walk all over town, eat an early dinner, and force myself to remain awake until 9:00 PM, when I am then able to fall fast asleep. It’s possible then to sleep for as much as 12 hours, if you can, and be back on a more-or-less normal schedule.
In this sense, being awake for 24 hours can be a useful tool.
What happened in this most recent case is that I went to bed a little early in Edinburgh, knowing we had to get up and leave for the airport. I woke up an hour before the alarm. What followed was twenty hours of moving through three airports, two sets of security, customs, and a rideshare, bookended by getting ready and bag-wrangling. Much of the time vanished while shuffling through mild chaos or eating meals on a tiny plastic shingle. Close to fifteen hours, though, involved sitting quietly still in a confined space and trying not to bother the eight other people sitting within three feet.
Through experience I know when it’s better to stay awake to fight jet lag. I understand that the payoff is a quick and relatively painless adjustment, rather than up to three weeks of brain miasma. There was a ten-minute period when I caved, but after putting my head down on my lap tray I was delivered from temptation by sheer discomfort.
What did I do with the “bonus time” of being in jet lag limbo?
I caught up on my travel journal, which I’ve never successfully done before. I took notes about our trip and added items to our travel checklist while they were fresh in my mind. I discovered that I was unable to work offline on email, which was Plan A. Having no keyboard, I didn’t plan to do any extensive writing. I read a non-fiction book. I planned out an online workshop. Almost the entire trip, I read through my perpetually out-of-control news queue, which now feels totally manageable.
There are so many things that we never feel we have “enough time” to do. Culturally, we all tend to be exhausted and over-scheduled. Thus it says a lot when we’re trapped in a situation when there are very few options for activities. What do you do when you can’t sleep, can’t exercise, can’t call a friend, can’t check social media, can’t clean your house or run errands?
Now I have my own personal image of what it looks and feels like to actually read all the articles I have bookmarked. When I inevitably start getting all crazy and saving dozens more, I can ask myself, when do I think I am going to have fifteen hours to read all this?
Am I afraid I’m going to run out?
When we came home, our apartment was clean, the way I left it. There were clean sheets on the bed. Our only problems would be washing the two loads of laundry we brought home from our trip and stocking our now-empty fridge with groceries. Another person might use a 24-hour reset experiment to clear out closets and do chores, and manifest the same all-caught-up, nothing-left-to-do feeling that I have now.
The real question is, how long can it last before we mess it all up again? What do we do with the very next 24 hours, and the next?
There must be people cooking out there, but who, and where are they? Everyone I know seems to be scrambling between protein bars and stale sandwiches. Who is going to cook a nice dinner when it’s often nearly 8 PM before they get in the door?
This is where I advocate for Dinner One and Dinner Two.
It’s true that nobody has the time for anything. Actually it totally isn’t. Everyone gets the same 24 hours. Good person, bad person, busy, not busy, nobody gets any more time and nobody gets any less. We just use it up while we try to pour it from one bucket into another.
I started to realize how much time I could reclaim when my husband I were first dating. He preferred, over what I always saw as the enticing reward of weekend brunch, actually cooking a hot breakfast at home? Why? Who on earth doesn’t like to go to brunch? He pointed out that it involved driving across town, putting your name on a list, standing around for an hour waiting for a table, finally getting seated, waiting twenty minutes to order, waiting half an hour or more for the food, and then waiting another twenty minutes to get the check.
If he made the breakfast, we could eat, clean up, and take a nap in the same amount of time.
He sealed the deal and proved his point by making massive hubcap-sized waffles.
I started cooking dinners from scratch around the same time. I had grown bored of the selection of frozen dinners available to me, and I also realized that I really wanted two of them. I would always be hungry afterward and round out my meal with a large bowl of cereal. If I started buying double meals, I’d double my grocery bill, and also my trash. What if I tried cooking, making some soup or something?
It took so long, though! I didn’t like having to go directly to the kitchen when I got home from work, and then, because I was new to cooking, have to work for ninety minutes before I could eat.
That was the beginning of Dinner One, Dinner Two.
I would come home and cook something quick and easy, one of the microwave meals on which I had been subsisting. I would eat it, and only then would I get started on the real meal, Dinner Two.
Dinner Two was fancy. Dinner Two would be something I really wanted to try, something I’d look forward to. Since I had already eaten, I could take my time and enjoy myself. I found that I liked cooking for myself as long as I wasn’t hangry!
When you’re only cooking for yourself and yourself alone, it can be miserable or it can be fantastic. The misery is when you just aren’t motivated and you find yourself eating directly out of a can, or shrugging and eating a bowl of cereal and then just going to bed. As a bachelorette, I ate meals alone that I would never, ever feed to a guest.
The fantastic part of cooking for yourself and yourself alone? Actually there are several. One. If there is a mess in there, it’s your mess and you have nobody else to blame. If you keep it clean, it stays that way. Two. You can make whatever you like, and nobody else will complain. Three. You get all the leftovers. If you stock something, it’s still there later.
(The trick to that last, if you have roommates, is to hide special leftovers in ugly containers. Wrap it in foil, use old stained and melted plastic containers, or reuse a frozen okra bag as a sleeve. Hide it behind the spinach. Write up a label reading ‘CABBAGE STEW.’)
It was cooking Dinner Two while listening to audio books that convinced me I could learn to be a good cook. I would eat a small serving when it was ready, because I was never satisfied by my cardboard-encased frozen meals. Then I would portion out the rest in containers, some for lunch and some for dinner.
Depending on the recipe, I would have anywhere from 3-8 servings.
If you have a small freezer, it will fill up with leftovers very quickly. After the third time I did Dinner Two, I didn’t have enough room (or containers) to fit any more. As I ate servings from earlier batches, I would free up more space, and that helped to add more variety. My goal was to have at least six different kinds of leftovers stored in there, which was about the same as the frozen aisle at my grocery store.
Bringing homemade lunch was fun. I would carry it in still frozen, and by lunchtime it would have defrosted. I would heat it up, and people would wander into the break room, sniffing, saying, “That smells good!” A far cry from the microwave popcorn/diet cola “lunches” of my friends. Our office park was too far from civilization to go to a restaurant for lunch, and the cafeteria served the singularly worst sandwiches I had ever tasted. Nothing I made could be had locally at any price. Conspicuous consumption!
Dinner Two bought me time. Every batch meant I traded one evening of cooking and cleanup for roughly two additional dinners and three lunches. In a sense, they pop magically into existence. They seemed to stack up at a rapid rate. A couple of times I even managed to feed a friend who dropped by for a surprise visit.
With time, I learned to be faster at food prep. I invested in better knives, bigger pots, grander glass pans. Not only could I cook more, faster, I also found a bunch of recipes that took less than half an hour. A few dinners in my repertoire can be on the table in ten minutes!
I prefer cooking for a family or a dinner party to cooking for myself alone. It gives me a reason to get fancy. I eat better, and certainly I eat more fresh vegetables. It doesn’t hurt to have extra hands to help with the cleanup, and someone else to trade nights. In that sense, Dinner One and Dinner Two can represent an alternating schedule.
Cooking from scratch and cooking in batches has a lot going for it. It saves money, tastes better, and frees up all the time everyone else is spending waiting in line, waiting for a table, waiting for delivery of what is so often disappointing and unsatisfying. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the more variety you have on hand. In another way, Dinner One, Dinner Two is a form of time travel, a way to send gifts, money, and time to Future You.
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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