Go Buy the Book: How a Once-Avid Reader Reinvigorated Their Love for Reading
I read 30 books in 2020.
Some novels, some essay collections, some biographies, some psychological, some scientific, some historical, but all were a part of a goal I set a few years ago to start reading more. Like all resolutions, this one required mental willpower to commit to, but it also involved re-learning something so simple, yet rarely done: Picking up a book.
Mine is a near-universal case: Being a voracious reader as a child, but going to high school, required to read specific texts and essays that were really of no interest. As a kid, I remember going to the library and picking out 10 books at a time, only to return next month with the completed stack in my hand to return and to pick out 10 more. When on vacation, I packed far too many books that I could manage, including Junie B. Jones, A-to-Z Mysteries, and Magic Tree House. Late at night, I would tear through Goosebumps and Carl Hiasen’s books, wanting desperately to be caught in a mystery that only I could solve. Entering middle school, I dove into The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Divergent, and several others that weren’t attached to a series. But suddenly, when I got to high school and I was assigned to read Alas, Babylon before I even started 9th grade, it was like the part of my brain that loved reading switched off.
Being forced to read anything you didn’t choose is not enjoyable. But not only will kids trudge through that book, it leaves less room for the reading materials they actually enjoy. Despite reading countless plays and books that were assigned, I don’t remember picking up and finishing a book that I picked out. There were still worthwhile assigned books in high school that I ended up enjoying: No Country for Old Men, Angela’s Ashes and The Great Gatsby were all difficult to get through in the moment but interesting books in the long run. Later, we read plays like A Streetcar Named Desire, A Doll’s House, The Visit, The Importance of Being Earnest, Othello, Hamlet, and Death of A Salesman, which were all fun to re-enact out in the classroom. But my daily reading started and ended with books that were assigned. When on vacation in Arizona the summer after high school, I packed one book: “Modern Romance” by my longtime favorite comedian Aziz Ansari. The days were filled by the pool or long road trips to different areas, and still, I read only about 20 pages.
The problem was twofold: Not only did school make me associate reading with being tested on exactly what happened in the book and having to write analytical essays about what a certain stage direction meant, I had a phone. During high school, I inadvertently rewired my brain to not sit down and read for a long time, or do anything that is not near-instantaneous, for that matter. Growing up on social media distorts your ability to process knowledge, and makes it feel like anything past a whole page is too long to get through. Knowing this problem is one thing, trudging past it is completely different.
That’s why halfway through freshman year, at the beginning of 2019, I made a half-baked resolution: “Read more.” Its simplicity made it completely ineffective. I had no clue where to start, what to get, so I went down to Barnes & Noble and bought William James’ The Principles of Psychology, a 1400 page book, and The Gene, a science-heavy book that was 600 pages. With a clear mind and excitement to learn for pleasure again, I sat down to read them and couldn’t get past five minutes. “What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself. “This is hard,” I thought as I quickly abandoned the resolution and went to go watch Netflix, probably.
The problem was that I wasn’t going about it correctly. No one is going to read a centuries-old, jargon-filled book if they haven’t read for pleasure in five years, the same way an overweight person isn’t going to be able to run a marathon on January 1. I went about it full-force, without setting clear goals, or even bothering to make them manageable. When you inevitably have a minor slip-up, it reaffirms the years of inactivity where you were unsure of starting the habit: “Maybe it’s just not for me.” This is exactly what happened, and as a result, I felt demotivated and let the books sit untouched for half a year.
But throughout the quarters that followed, I still felt the initial urge to read again. I wasn’t involved in any clubs, which means my free time was filled with staying planted at the computer and watching (somewhat) mindless content. I mean, a supercomputer capable of creating societies and language and art and culture, fine-tuned through years of evolution, sits in my skull, and I go to class and daydream about other things. I felt purposeless, like I had a brain I wasn’t using for any good.
The first spark that got me back into reading was a well-produced documentary on YouTube by Max Joseph, titled “Bookstores: How to Read More Books in the Golden Age of Content.” In it, he travels to multiple iconic bookstores in Western Europe, South America and New York, interviewing readers, librarians, and friends who gave him reading advice. The amazing drone shots showcase the books’ sheer beauty, but the message I took away came from inside an interview with Tim Urban, a motivational speaker and Ted Talker.
Urban wants to show you that your current pattern of reading, if it’s anything like most Americans, is low. Through simple math, he demonstrates just how simple it is to read more books. “If you allotted [one half-hour] everyday to reading, you will become a major reader who will read a thousand books [in your life-time] instead of 55.” The secret is that easy: Reading just 30 minutes a day, instead of the zero I do currently, will drastically increase the books I read over the course of my life, and subsequently, how much I know. He continues, “The people who are, like, ‘Here are my ten favorite books of 2016’ and you’re just, like ‘How- how do you-’ they just do this and you don’t.” I wanted to be one of those people.
The second push was a horrible yet miraculous, uncomfortable yet pleasurable experience that tipped the scales and jump-started me back into the world of literature. When I was coming home from college with my mother after finishing my freshman year, I had the worst travel experience of my life at the Denver airport. Apparently, it’s home to a number of conspiracy theories, but I had never had any trouble with it before. We got there at around 6PM, and our flight was delayed until midnight. Having six hours to kill, I wandered around looking for something to do and saw a bookstore. Like Joseph, I loved going to bookstores, touching everything, reading the titles and looking at the nice covers, yet usually never buying anything (or if I do, placing it on my nightstand and not touching it again).
It was in this specific store that I saw a particularly funny looking cover and read some of the words it was attached to. It was a personal essay humor collection called Calypso by David Sedaris, and I had never seen this type of book before. Books had separate chapters, all forming one cohesive story that you read front to back. Books are informational; they present their findings in a logical pattern. This book didn’t. It had vignettes from Sedaris’ life, each narrative distinct from the other, like a book of short stories you could pick up at any point. Probably due to impulsivity, I decided to buy it.
Like how the artists ABBA and Weyes Blood completely changed the way I thought about music, this book changed the game in terms of what I thought books could be. I kept legitimately laughing aloud at what was written. At simple words. As we kept waiting and waiting for our flight, I had nothing better to do but read, so I did, each essay quickly filling the time. I had maybe finished about 100 pages of the book before our flight was delayed once again to around 2 am. But that meant I had even more time to read. Eventually, our flight was cancelled all together, and we scrambled to get another one. Long story short, I spent about 25 hours traveling either in planes or waiting in an airport, and it was truly gross and boring. But I had that book. And I said to myself, “You know what, I just remembered this reading thing is actually pretty fun.” So I kept going, and eventually finished it.
Over the summer, I read books about science, psychology, fiction, more from David Sedaris, social psychology, cultural critique, a memoir, and one about Hollywood and the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I worked as a host at a restaurant with an ocean view and while I was sweating, cleaning up tables on the porch outside, I looked out at the beach and envisioned myself out there, reading Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, a novel about an orphaned girl in the swamp. It took me two days on my balcony to read The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn, a thriller with a less than satisfying ending. I learned that I could memorize anything with simple strategies while reading Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer, so I learned the top 50 most populous countries in order. I read 1984 by George Orwell and was creeped out by the similarities between the book and the world as we knew it today. During the fall quarter, I saved Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow and Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark to read over winter vacation because I was the most excited to read them. December came and we went to St. Lucia, where I did nothing but read all day, a 180 turnaround from what I did the summer vacation after high school.
Before I knew it, 2019 was over and I had finished 25 books, which was 25 more than I read last year. And I thought, “That was fun. Let’s do it again!” So I did, and during 2020 and 2021 I kept up the tradition of simply reading because I wanted to.
Reading, then, didn’t become a resolution, or something I had been forcing myself to do. My morning routine where I woke up and made coffee, then read for 30 minutes was genuine, and something I actually looked forward to reading. Of course, there were bad books, but it didn’t deter me from wanting to learn more. I discovered things I had no clue I was interested in, like artificial intelligence, the invasiveness of social media, journalism, and humor collections like Sedaris’ (now, I’ve read seven of his books). I was lost in works of fiction that I didn’t want to end, or whose endings I hadn’t seen coming. and I was immersed in the 800-page world that Hanya Yanigihara created with A Little Life. Two years ago, I embarked on a book that long and gave up. Now that I’ve explored and learned what I like, I finished it while savoring every page.
From this experience, I learned how powerful resolutions can be if you set the right ones, plan for the journey ahead, and stick with it. I’ve learned so much since implementing the habit, and it’s something I’ve gotten my friends into, comparing our Goodreads profiles and buying each other books for our birthdays. Like any habit, reading requires patience, but actively rewiring your brain is worthwhile and productive (I read a book on it: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr). I promise, there’s a subject every single person would enjoy reading a book on. All you have to do is start with one, for 30 minutes a day.