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What to Read Next (No. 244): some notes on reading 1,000+ books
Including my ultimate Top 10
My “Books Read” spreadsheet goes back to 2009. That was my junior year of college, which means that this spreadsheet functions as a log of my entire adult reading life.
Earlier this week, as I was thinking about books (which happens a lot), I suddenly realized I must be nearing 1,000 titles in my spreadsheet. After some quick math, I confirmed that I hit four digits at some point this summer.
That number hit me like a smack in the face. That’s a lot of books. And a lot of time reading.
My reflective brain immediately went into question mode: How does it all measure up? Has it been worth all that time and attention? What are the books that have stood out? What kinds of books aren’t worth it? Why on earth do I read so much? What am I getting out of all this reading?
Here’s a few random thoughts I have about this milestone number which at least serve as some starting points for answering those questions.
Do you have any questions about my reading? What are some of the standout books of your reading life? What sort of magic does reading bring to your own life? I’d love to hear.
1. The Magic of Reading
There’s an undeniable magic to losing yourself in a good book — fiction or non-fiction — that’s hard to describe. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words in this newsletter over the last five years and it’s still something that leaves me wordless.
Reading is a unique consumption experience, as compared to listening to a podcast or watching a show. The brain is working in a different way while reading — it can certainly be mentally taxing, but it’s almost like you can get into a flow state with reading in ways that you can’t with other forms of media.
Books are portals to other worlds, other lives, and other experiences.
There are plenty of sciencey, practical benefits to reading. But that’s not why I do it. I read because it makes me a better human — not necessarily in a moral sense (though it does do that at times), but by giving me a richer understanding of life and a deeper empathy for my fellow humans.
Plus, life is hard and complex and emotionally taxing. A bit of escape and entertainment are more than warranted — and for me, there’s no better entertainment than reading.
I haven’t yet figured out a way to say it better than CS Lewis, who wrote that reading allows us “to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own.”
So, Reader, lean into that magic and read more books.
2. Quit More Books
In order to read more books and enjoy more books, you should quit more books. I implore you, Reader, to put down more books that you’re not connecting with. Life is too short to read things that you don’t want to be reading.
I have a quicker trigger than I used to on quitting books and I haven’t looked back. There are times where I put a book down, knowing that I might pick it up and enjoy it later, but I still don’t hesitate to put it on the shelf, unfinished and with a bookmark in place.
3. Don’t Read as Many New Books
As a reviewer, it’s really easy to get sucked entirely into the new book scene. Publishers and authors reach out to me on a regular basis, asking for coverage for the season’s hot new books — and it’s hard to say no. Who says no to free books?!
In the last few months, though, I’ve been finding myself saying no more and more. Here’s why: For the past few years, I’ve noticed an increasing percentage of my “Books Read” list comprised of recently published books (within the previous two years), but my “Favorite Reads of the Year” lists mostly consist of books much older than that.
New books are shiny objects that have hundreds of thousands of marketing dollars behind them. On the other hand, books that are more than a few years old and have stuck around in the cultural zeitgeist tend to be there for a reason.
There are absolutely new books that are worth reading, but my own hope is to even the scales a bit and read more classics. My experience is that even when I don’t love a classic book, it affects me and stays with me more than the vast majority of new books.
TL;DR — Make sure you read some classics now and then. They’ve stuck around because they say something unique and essential about the human experience, which is what reading is all about.
4. You Have More Time to Read Than You Think
It might seem like I must spend all my free time reading. I don’t. It takes less than you might think, actually, to read a lot of books (no matter your definition of a lot).
I wake up early in order to have about an hour of reading before the kids are awake — always paired with a great cup of coffee. At the other end of the day, Jane and I read for about 30 minutes before turning in for the night. It’s absolutely true that reading more helps you read faster over time, which means that in those ~90 minutes I can pretty easily get 100 pages of reading in. That page count equates to a book finished every few days, which is 100+ per year. Any bonus time during the day or on weekends is gravy on top.
Not too crazy, eh?
I truly don’t like being the old man yelling at the kids on the lawn, but if you watch a little less TV (or YouTube/TikTok videos) and read just a little more, you’ll be amazed at what you can do.
5. 10ish Books That Stand Out
Back in late 2019, I used What to Read Next (No. 100) to create a list of 40 of the most memorable books I’ve read. That list holds up pretty darn well, so definitely check it out.
But I’ve read another couple hundred books since then and I think I can do even more pruning to give ya’ll a Jeremy’s Top 10 For Right Now (“favorite” books can and should change with every handful of years of life).
It was surprisingly easy to do this, actually. I mentally framed it as a list of books I’d be happy to read over and over for the rest of my life, on the condition that I could never read another book outside this list.
I could give plenty of commentary on all of them; I won’t in this newsletter, but perhaps in another. In no particular order:
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (can I have the whole series?)
Hamilton by Ron Chernow
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Stand by Stephen King (representative of King’s work as a whole)
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (my sleeper pick)
I’d love to hear what would be on your list!
Thanks so much for the time and inbox space — I can’t say enough how grateful I am for your readership.