My 2018 Reading Challenge

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been almost a full year since my last post.

I used to be a big reader. I would make time to read, and I would read something whenever I could find a moment.

That stopped a few years ago. I started playing a lot of online games. Mostly poker and World of Warcraft.

And then I had children.

My schedule was upended. I watched a lot of TV, I bounced a lot of kids on my knee while watching it, and I spent a lot of time at work. My limited reading time was spent reading blog posts and non-fiction books about my various interests and entrepreneurship.

Lately I’ve mostly stopped playing online games. I’ve played some poker on and off, but I don’t see the appeal in learning a negative-sum game where AI will have the game locked up against us mere mortals in no time. Maybe five years, at best.

I fell into reading fan fiction. My kids started watching a show. I watched along too. Someone I follow online mentioned some favourite stories, and I was hooked.

Several million years later… The rush of stories has slowed to a trickle as authors moved on to other fandoms. I’ve read through the backlog of recommended stories. I was struggling to find something to read.

I read a collection of stories from one of the better authors. Something unrelated to the fandom, that she had published traditionally. I read her other collection last year.

Then a friend wound up in hospital. I brought him some reading material. I thought about the books I had brought, and how much I had enjoyed reading them. I had read another book recently, too. First a short non-fiction book, then a great sci-fi story by the same author.

Maybe it was time for a reading challenge. Get back into my old habit.

I had just signed up with Goodreads. They suggested a reading challenge for 2018. It was early July, so I only had 6 months left. I’d enter the books I had already read this year, then read enough in the rest of the year to hit my target.

Imagine my astonishment when I realized I had only read 4 books in 2018.

When I was younger, 4 books was a decent weekend. Now it was my 6 month total. That included the three books I had read in the past weeks.

At first, I set my yearly total to 10 books. Then I was embarrassed with myself. I changed it to 26. That would be just under one a week for the rest of the year.

Three weeks later, having already read 8 books, I decided to boost the total to 52 books, representing one a week for the year.

On the last day of July, that also seemed conservative.

In July, I read 11 books. A mix of fiction, non-fiction, audio books, paper, and Kindle books.

If you think audio books are cheating, maybe they are. But at two audio books over the last month, it’s not like I’m somehow padding my total with them.

I listen to audio books in the car or while I’m cleaning up around the house. I managed to finish two in the month because I was doing an unusual amount of solo driving. Two audio books in a month seems like a relentless pace to me. Maybe it’s my choice of material. “The SIngularity is Near” clocks in at 24 hours. Even listening at 2x speed, it’s slow going. In July, I finished “Immunity to Change” and “The 10x Rule”

Paper books get read when I’m at home and have time. After lights out, I switch to the Kindle app on my phone. I managed only two paper books last month, and neither was very long.

“Where Are the Customers’ Yachts” and “Overqualifieder”.

The Kindle app is where I do the bulk of my reading.

  • I can read after dark.
  • I can read for a few minutes on the couch.
  • I can read while I’m walking down the street (a habit I picked up as a kid).
  • I can read during my lunch break, standing in line, while the kids play sports, or wherever else I can sneak in a moment.

In July I read:

“Six Wakes” by Mur Lafferty
“Autonomous” by Annalee Newitz
“Be More Chill” by Ned Vizzini
“Shift (The Faceless Book 1)” by Rikkaine Thompson
“The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr
“Twist (The Faceless Book 2)” by Rikkaine Thompson
“The Serpent (The Gameshouse, #1) by Claire North

Improving my rate:

I can increase the amount of reading I do by:

  • Increasing the amount of time I have to read
  • Reading smaller books (my youngest tells me the “Llama Llama” books are delightful)
  • Increasing my reading speed

Increasing my reading time will be tough. I did a good job of finding those little moments to read in July.

Reading smaller books is a bit pointless. According to Goodreads, I have a backlong of 350 “want to read” books. I don’t want to start picking what goes into my brain based on the number of pages.

Reading faster it is.

I read at 300-500 words/minute normally, depending on the complexity of the material, tiredness, etc.. It also depends on my state of mind. Sometimes I slow down deliberately to savour some especially enjoyable writing. Other times, I push myself because I can’t wait to see what happens next.

If I’m going for speed, I can read at 800 WPM, with pretty good retention. I have to keep reminding myself to push, though, or I slow back down to my normal “cruising” speed.

But …

I was a fast reader as a kid. I’d push myself to read fast. I took pride in being a fast reader. So I’d constantly push myself to my limit. That improved both my top speed and my casual reading speed.

Knowing what I know now (I did read “Peak” by Anders Ericsson and have been aware of his work for a while) it seems likely that the principles of deliberate practice should help me do better.

If I can increase my reading speed, I can read more. There are reports of reading at 1000-2000 WPM with decent retention.

But why?

Reading either fiction or non-fiction is instructive and mind-expansive. When you read, somebody has spent hours, weeks, sometimes evewn years developing the material. You get to absorb it in just a few hours.

Then it spends years in your head. Changing your perspective. Mingling with the other works of other authors. Thoughts are being cross-pollinated with ideas in your subconscious.

The benefits of non-fiction are pretty obvious. Someone has mastered some technique, or concept, or discovered something that they think is beneficial to a wide audience. They write down everything they know, in a form that is readily consumed.

Fiction allows us to experience different viewpoints. It exposes us to new ideas. It’s often a way to expose truths that might be unpalatable, difficult or unwelcome in any other form.

If Dickens had only written angry editorials about the plight of the underprivileged in Victorian London, he would not be remembered. But the novels he wrote that told of those conditions not only personalized the plight of the downtrodden. People lined up to pay money for the next chapter.

I’ve enjoyed rediscovering the way my brain feels after reading a few books. I don’t want to stop. I have also found an improvement in my ability to focus. Going from reading bite-sized material to full-length books, and pushing myself to keep going, is making a difference.

Thanks for reading.

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