A Year Spent Reading 100 Books

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1152px-Pierpont_Morgan_Library_LOC_gsc.5a29820I write New Year’s resolutions every year, though I really ought to know better. Run every day, floss regularly, stop eating donuts: it’s the stuff of fantasy. In 2014 I spared myself the usual set-ups for failure in favor of a more exotic set-up for failure: I resolved to read one hundred books. It was just excessive and foolish enough to be tempting. I suppose I just wanted to know if I could do it. By the time this article is posted I’ll have read my hundred books, and I’d like to share some unexpected lessons I’ve learned while completing this reading challenge.

1. Become a regular at your local library.

Browsing through the library is the best way to find your next good read. The classics and dustiest castaways rub spines with the potboilers and popular hits. If you keep an open mind, you never know what you’ll find in the library.

One of my best finds of the year was Mikhail Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark. The publisher’s blurb was enigmatic: a Russian epistolary novel which may or may not involve time travel? I couldn’t tell if it would be fantastic or completely ridiculous. It turns out it was great–as powerful and heartbreaking a novel as I’m ever likely to encounter. In this same way, just poking around, I discovered two other favorites: Noelle Kocot’s The Bigger World and Nicholson Baker’s Paul Chowder Chronicles. It’s surprises like these that keep me going back to the library.

2. Stop reading a book if you don’t enjoy it.

I’d never have made it to a hundred if I hadn’t felt free to stop reading any book I wasn’t enjoying. For every book I finished, I’d given up on at least two others. Slogging through a book you don’t like is the quickest way to poison your motivation.

Most often I would stop reading because I’d picked out a stinker, but sometimes it wasn’t even the book’s fault. I had to put down Amos Oz’s My Michael even though it seemed really good. The problem was, I’d only just finished reading Eduardo Halfon’s excellent The Polish Boxer and I needed something a little less emotionally demanding. No fault of Oz’s, but I just couldn’t continue. Next year in Jerusalem, I guess.

3. Read what you need.

In January my wife and I moved to the U.K., and as a first-time expat, I felt out of place. I needed to feel grounded in Britain and Britishness, so I let my needs guide my reading choices. I’d heard great things about W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn but never felt the need to read it until I myself was living in the book’s setting of East Anglia. Through Sebald, the English landscape took on a sense of depth and historical weight. Similarly, a rather bleak poem like Philip Larkin’s “Here” (from The Whitsun Weddings) came alive for me when I learned the poet was writing about the same routes my wife and I frequently traveled by train. Shaping my reading choices according to where I was in life—according to what I needed—kept me eager and grateful to read each day.

4. Get out of your comfort zone.

Some psychological wall has always come between me and comic books, the proper comic books full of tight-fitting costumes and stentorian dialogue. So this year I forced myself to get out of my comfort zone and into a comic shop. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed golden age comics like Superman. It’s fascinating to watch the new genre taking form, trying to find its footing between prose and cinema. Among the newer comics, I love the series that question the genre and its limits, especially Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye (starting with My Life As a Weapon) and G. Willow Wilson’s continuing run of Ms. Marvel comics.

5. You can’t read too much.

The small truth I’ve been happiest to take away from my year of voracious reading is this: you really can’t read too much. A hundred books could have been a grind and gone terribly sour if I hadn’t kept it fun, kept it interesting, and kept it about me. Refusing to be alienated from your own reading is hard (especially if you keep in touch with all the literary business and buzz) but it makes all the difference. I wish the same success for anybody who, like me, will be taking up a reading challenge in 2015.