How to read 100 books in a year and still have a life

December 3, 2017 · 8 minute read

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The stack.

You have one. So do I. It’s sitting on your bedside table now, or on the floor, or spread around the house - that growing, tottering, guilt-inducing pile of books that you are absolutely going to read.

Soon. One of these days. When you’re not so busy.

I know how you feel. I’m pretty busy, too. But I got tired of feeling guilty about all those unread books, so at the beginning of 2017 I decided to take action.

I decided to see if I could read one hundred books this year, without cutting anything else - school, work, family, side projects - out of my life.

You Already Have Time To Read

I won’t bury the lede. Here’s the secret I learned: despite how busy I might be, I didn’t need to “make time to read”. I didn’t have to wait for the perfect opportunity, like a long evening cuddled by the fire. (I haven’t lit a fire in my fireplace in three years. I don’t have time.)

Your reading time, like mine, already belongs to you. It’s stuffed down in the couch cushions of your life, in the places where you are checking your phone, driving to the store, or drifting off to sleep at night. Like found money, these little slivers of time can be yours for free. You just have to go after them. It’s not even that hard.

But, as Jeff Olson points out in The Slight Edge (one of the books I read this year), things that are easy to do are, by definition, just as easy NOT to do. To get to 100 books in 2017, I had to develop - not a plan, not a goal - but more of a system.

How to Read 100 Books in a Year

1. Keep track of what you read.

The numbers are stark. If you want to read a hundred books in a year, you have to read an average of two books a week for fifty weeks, with just a couple weeks left over for wiggle room. That’s a pretty relentless pace. So self-accountability is important.

To keep yourself on track, I suggest writing down each book you read, along with the date you finish it. A book journal is a really good place to do this - that way you can make notes about your impressions of the book as well.

There are all kinds of tools online that can help you organize your reading. Me, I used an Excel spreadsheet all year - no good reason, I don’t really recommend it, and I will probably look for a better option next year.

Whatever you use, the point is that you absolutely must maintain a cold, hard record of what you read, in un-fudgeable detail. This will help you know if you fall off the pace, when you can afford to take a break, and will keep you honest with yourself.

2. Read before going to bed.

The only time of day that I reliably know I can use for reading is the time between when I get into bed and when I fall asleep. I always keep books by my bed and I always reach for one before turning off my bedside lamp. If I can get through fifty pages or so per evening, even a hefty book goes by quickly.

The trick, as always, is consistency. I bite off a good chunk of a book every night, with as few exceptions as possible. I’ve gotten so I can’t fall asleep without reading for twenty to thirty minutes a night.

3. Read widely.

The whole point of reading is to enjoy it. You’ll never get through a hundred books in a year, not even close, unless you genuinely look forward to picking up your next book. So keeping your book “pipeline” filled with books that interest you is important, though it’s not always easy.

Developing a broad range of interests really helps here. This year I read at least two books in each of twenty-five (somewhat arbitrary, self-defined) categories:

US History (Military), US History (General), Sociology, World History, Contemporary Novels, Juvenile/YA, Sports, Classic Novels, Biography, Business, Computer Science and Technology, Personal Development, Devotional, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Suspense Novels, Mystery and Suspense Short Story Collections, English and Writing, Poetry, Nature, Philosophy, Psychology/Cognitive Science, Humor/Satire, Memoir, and General Science.

That’s not a comprehensive list of possible reading topics by any means, but it did save me from a rut of reading nothing but American history and suspense stories. If I’m having trouble finding my next book, I look through these categories for one I haven’t touched in awhile - searching the internet or asking friends for recommendations is a lot easier if I have a particular category in mind.

I also highly recommend general browsing at Goodwill and other thrift stores. Some of the best books I read this year, like Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, were ones I’d never heard of until I stumbled across them on a shelf.

I try to vary the level of books I’m reading, too. If I’ve just finished a fairly heavy, difficult read like Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I might try to read something light and fun next, like John Steinbeck’s The Short Reign of Pippin IV. Using lighter books as palate cleansers helps you stay on track without getting burned out and wasting an evening on Netflix.

4. Read in different media.

As much as I would prefer to read all of my books in physical print editions, I don’t have quite enough time (or shelf space) for that. I usually have at least one print book and one audio book going simultaneously.

I spend between six and eight hours a week driving, enough time to get through most audiobooks in one to two weeks, especially if I listen at a faster speed. (You may not care to listen to sped-up audiobooks, which is fine. For me it depends on the narrator. I found that a 1.5 to 2 times speedup is workable for many books.)

Even at faster playback speeds, though, an audiobook still takes most of us longer to get through than the same book read in print. If you have time to sit down and read something, you should be looking at a printed page. The audiobook is an inefficient use of your time unless you need your eyes elsewhere.

I also read the occasional ebook - though I don’t prefer that format - just because sometimes my phone is the only thing handy.

5. Read cheaply.

A book habit can get expensive, even with the help of your local library. If you want to read a lot of books, you have to be careful not to price yourself out of the game.

I like owning good books, so I make a habit of hitting up the local Goodwills, library sales, and used book stores whenever I get a chance. I try not to pay more than a couple of dollars for anything I buy.

For audiobooks, I only resort to Audible if I can’t find the book through a free service like Hoopla. (Especially if you like classics, there is a surprising number of free recorded books out there!)

It is also the case that if you become known for reading a lot of books, people will sometimes just give them to you, unsolicited, whether you want them or not. I am not promising that this will happen to you. But it might!

Why Read 100 Books in a Year?

If you want to …
  • understand the way the human mind works
  • gain a broader perspective on the events of the past and present
  • feel empathy for people in radically different circumstances
  • learn from the wisest people in human history
  • improve your professional qualifications and expertise
  • increase your attention span and ability to understand difficult subjects
  • become a better writer
… there’s no better way than developing a consistent reading habit.

Of course, there’s nothing magic about reading exactly 100 books in a year. I could have stopped at 67. I could have doubled down and gone to 120. But ultimately, this year’s project wasn’t about a particular number at all. It was about using quantity as a force multiplier for quality - about trying to stretch and grow my mind as much as possible, using whatever spare time I could find to read the best books available.

Did I have to give things up in order to find 100 books’ worth of reading time? Sure - I didn’t watch as much sports this year, and I wound up deleting the Facebook app off my phone. But paradoxically, focusing my free time on reading seemed to increase the overall amount of time I had to do other things. The 100 book project forced me to keep careful track of my time, and it turns out I have a lot more of it than I realized.

When all was said and done, I hit my 100 book goal in less than eleven months. But I’m still reading! I hope that next year, you’ll consider dusting off your own tottering stack, picking up a good book (or 100), and joining me.

I’ve published my full 2017 reading list (so far) here. Feel free to share your own book recommendations, reading habits, or other ideas in the comments! Here’s to another year of great reading in 2018.

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