Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022


For a certain subset of the population, there is nothing as relaxing as a New Year’s resolution.

These are the non-resolvers, people who sit merrily and watch others grind their way through cakeless, wineless weeks of January self-denial.

Normally I am with these spectators, but this year I was struck by an urge to improve myself in one particular area. In 2022 I would like to read more books.

The realization came last week when I came across a phenomenon that looks dazzling in a pandemic year of distraction: lists compiled by people who managed to get through at least one book a week last year.

“I learned a lot,” wrote Sunday Times data journalist Tom Calver of the year-long odyssey he took while reaching a New Year’s resolution to read 52 books in 2021.

Some made him cry. Others left him sleepless. Being a numerator, he put them all in order of pleasure, starting with Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and ends with Against nature, an 1884 novel he found completely “miserable and senseless”.

Calver’s list appeared a day after a friend in Australia, Richard McGregor, left on Facebook to post 52 demanding mini-reviews of books he read last year.

McGregor, a former FT journalist who is now at Sydney’s Lowy Institute think tank, has been writing these lists for a while. As usual, the latest was full of anecdotes derived from his epic browsing, as this is one of the more than 1,000 pages in Stephen Kotkin’s latest Stalin biography volume.

“What now. Well done, “Stalin exclaimed as he recounted Hitler’s 1934 Night of the Long Knives. “Know how to act!”

Stories like these are just one reason I envy McGregor and Calver. They are a reminder of the pleasure, the knowledge, and the mere utility that can be obtained by reading books.

As American author and bookstore owner Ryan Holiday puts it, “Reading is the shortest, most established path to total self-improvement.”

Holiday sends a monthly list of his recommended books 250,000 newsletter subscribers and says he reads “about 250” books a year, which puts him in a terrifying league of super readers. Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil reads up to 90 novels, biographies, art and history books per year, in addition to technical books for work.

Everything turned out well before Tyler Cowen, the American economist whose annual list of recommended books is one of the items that are best read on his popular economics blog. He claimed he could get through on a good night. “five whole books ”.

This is impressive, even if not every page is read. But the question is, how do they do it? Where do these greedy readers get the time? What do they give up?

Each undoubtedly has their own strategy, but here are some of the more common routes to amazing readers.

  • Get up early. Cowen gets up around 6:30 a.m., by that time McGregor was already an hour up.

  • Be ruthless. If you hit a bad book, put it down. Don’t even give it away, Cowen says. “You can harm people.”

  • Read anywhere. Great readers do this on the bus, on the couch, in bed and while walking the dog, via audiobooks.

  • Browse to non-fiction. Fiction requires a close, word-for-word reading. But it’s more important to understand, not to read most non-fiction, says American author and consultant, Peter Bregman. This can usually be done by limiting yourself to the table of contents, introduction, conclusion, and a few pages of each chapter.

  • Read books at the same time. It’s good to have several running at once. The trick is to change them. Do not try two monumental histories at the same time.

  • Read differently. Do not just stick to fiction or non-fiction. Change authors, periods and topics.

  • Read about what you do not know. It’s more fun.

  • Read in groups. Do not stick to one book about Marie Curie. Read some of them.

  • Disconnect. Calver had to put his cell phone in airplane mode at times. Smile has been without one for decades.

  • Stay committed. Netflix is ​​possible, but not on the scale that many of us are used to.

  • Finally, keep in mind that many large readers tend to stick to books contained in a single volume. Stay away from Proust.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @ pilitaclark.com





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