I received a flurry of comments, emails, and DMs after the year-end book list I published in late December. There were plenty of thanks for the recommendations, but there were even more incredulous queries along the lines of how do you read that much? and Do your kids bathe, feed, and clothe themselves? And I haven’t finished a book since college!
Which I totally and completely understand. Reading for pleasure can seem like a tough row to hoe some seasons, especially when career demands are intense and babies are small and plentiful.
I really subscribe to the idea that reading, like any other skill or hobby, is something that waxes and wanes during different seasons in life. I don’t swim much in the winter when it gets dark at 5 pm and my kids have schoolwork, whining, and endless snacking to accomplish before bedtime. When the summer sun rides high until 8pm I can easily slip out to the gym once Dave gets home. Winter nights though, I’m more likely to be dreaming about slipping into bed myself by that point in the evening.
When the kids were younger and my sleep was more disrupted, I definitely did not read as much as I do now. Nursing required at least one hand, sometimes two, and I didn’t have an e-reader yet. It was much easier to prop open a laptop and stream some mindless content or better yet, alternate between staring dreamily into my baby’s eyes or vacantly into space. During my later babies’ early days with smartphones on the scene, I had to make an intentional choice to leave that phone somewhere else sometimes.
Now that everybody is sleeping through the night and still young enough to be abed by 9pm – ahem, most nights. To hell with this Oregon Trail winter we’re having; thank God nobody is dying in a covered wagon. Instead they’re sucking down steroids in a house with a roof – I usually have at least an hour or two of open time in the evenings. Provided I’ve prayed already, packed the lunches, sent the emails, etc., I almost always choose to spend this time reading. And 10-14 hours of reading a week can add up to some big numbers over the span of a year.
Here are a few things I do in order to maximize my consumption of the written word:
1. Make your smartphone smarter: I know, I know…but my ongoing effort to break up with my smartphone is mired in the annoying reality of life in 2019. Do I need a smartphone to survive? Of course not. But life without one – like the summer before last – is more difficult than it needs to be. Our school communicates via a private email system, my office communicates via a chat app, my sense of direction functions via Google maps…anyway, I still have a phone that is smart. So I’ve hacked it a bit to make it smarter for me. I’ve done this by: removing all social media from my phone, decluttering the front screen to the bare minimum, hiding all communication apps (Voxer, Whatsapp, GroupMe, etc) in a separate folder on the last page, no work email, and refusing to download an app for anything unless it can’t be done in a browser (looking at you Whole Foods/Amazon discount).
When my phone is less interesting and less capable of distracting me, I am more likely to pick up whatever I happen to be reading in those lulls of activity during the day, be it in car line or standing at the counter stirring dinner and sipping a glass of wine.
The one thing I’ll probably do again this summer when my kids are home is delete my internet browser which makes the phone even stupider (and harder to use for mindless scrolling) but which is too tough to manage during the school year. I’ve done this every year for 3 summers now and it’s been really great for keeping me more engaged with my family, at least once I get through the horrifying lack-of-immediate-Google-ability detox of the first week. Shudder. My brain is melting.
Without the tempting glow of a tiny screen beckoning you to disappear for a little scrolling, you are now ready to:
2. Get an e-reader. I’ve been a loyal Kindle reader for about 7 years now, I think. It was an actual lifeline when we lived in Rome in 2013, still tethered to my library in the States and able to provide me with instantaneous digital content in my native tongue. I like Kindle because we already use Amazon for so much (thus hastening the decline of civilization as we know it) and because almost every book is available in Kindle format. It also has cross pollination with other Kindles in your family and other devices, so you can share titles with your spouse or kids and if you do find yourself in a pinch when you’re out and about but left your Kindle at home, you can download the Kindle app to your phone and pick up wherever you left off in your book. But don’t do this unless it’s an emergency, because reading on a phone is terrible for you.
I like the Kindle Paperwhite because of its eyeball-friendly display and its husband-friendly backlighting which makes it perfect for snuggling with under the covers without disturbing your bed partner’s sleep. It vaguely thrills me in the same way hiding with a flashlight and a paperback used to do at age 10.
An e-reader is also the ultimate budget-friendly way to read; other than the original cost of purchase, you can basically read everything you could ever want for free, minus your annual Amazon membership. I’m not sure how other e-readers stack up price-wise, but like I said, Jeff Bezos helps the wheels of our domestic economy turn, so we’re already paying for it. Also, don’t pay a crazy amount for one! I think Dave and I got both ours on Prime day or black Friday a few years ago for less than $60 apiece.
But don’t you spend money on books, Jenny? 90-something titles is a lot!
Au contraire, my friends. I spent possibly $50 on books this past year. Possibly. If there is an obscure title that pops up for book club unavailable in digital format, a title I just have to have in hardcover the moment it comes out (cough cough Michael O’Brien), or a friend publishing a new title, I’ll buy it. Otherwise? I’ll…
3. Use the library like a boss. Our library system is amazing. We have convenient locations, attractive and updated (if not beautiful) new buildings, and massive collections of titles. But I almost never check out books irl. If we go to the library, it’s either 100 degrees outside and the kids are home or I’m meeting a girlfriend for a government-sponsored playdate. I don’t go there to check out books, period.
I mean fine, sometimes I let the kids each grab a stack. Which I then spend the next several weeks repenting, finding titles sodden in the backyard, shredded in the baby’s mouth, stuffed under car seats and behind couches, etc. That is when we find all the titles. Books, like puzzles, live at the library for our family. At least for now.
But digital books? Oh, my friends, digital books are what I use to placate myself if ever I think too long and about bloated, wasteful government expenditure of my tax dollars. Digital books are my smug little secret, new release titles by the dozens filling up my hold request que, recommendations from friends or some erie algorithm hastily copy and pasted, waiting their turn in a notes app I continually update. Some months I might be reading $150 worth of brand spanking new releases, all without opening my wallet.
Some library districts might not be so generous or so response to digital title recommendations – almost every book I’ve ever suggested my library acquire, they have, save for a handful of older or explicitly Catholic titles – but did you know there are some library districts that grant non-resident library cards? Mind blown.
Of course, you don’t have to be an e-book apologist like me to work the library system. Turning your to-be-read wishlist into a physical hold request is almost as easy, if a little less convenient. If you don’t mind picking up and returning books irl, this is the option for you. Bonus: less time wandering the stacks and rolling the dice on a title that ends up being a dud, or trashy. Downside: less time wandering the stacks. And less likelihood of you picking up a title you might otherwise never lay eyes on.
4. Be intentional with your leisure time. Don’t let downtime just “happen” to you. If you want to become an enthusiastic reader, you have to be at least a little bit intentional about it in 2019. There will always be something to stream, a newsfeed to scroll, screens to watch, and noise to attend to. Gone are the days where you might pick up a book out of boredom or lack of options. You have limitless options, and boredom can be banished with a simple keystroke. If you’re going to read, you have to make time to do it and resist the siren song of passive consumption of entertainment.
Getting your oil changed? There’ll be a show playing in the waiting room, and possibly music, too. And unless you brought your current read or your Kindle along for the ride, you’re going to find yourself spending 35 minutes of your life learning all about high stakes extreme crab fishing. Ask me how I know.
Similarly, at night, if you don’t set parameters around your screen time and your plan for how you’ll unwind once your duties for the day are done, it’s all too easy to find yourself hopping on instagram for “just a minute” only to look up an hour later, bleary eyed and hunchbacked at the kitchen counter. Don’t ask me how I know.
Decide you want to use your fringe hours to read, and then prepare to be shocked when you can easily cruise through a book a week. No, you’re not necessarily a genius, you just got 10 hours of your time back by refusing to cede the precious resource of your attention span to an algorithm designed to be irresistibly captivating. So actually, maybe you are a genius.
Try it even for a month and see what happens. Cal Newport (author of Deep Work) has a forthcoming title called Digital Minimalism that is all about having agency in this area of our lives, evaluating each new piece of technology and each practice and asking if it truly serves us, and if so, assigning it designated space in our lives. Down with passive consumption and automated upgrades. Up with the thoughtful, intentional application of new trends and technologies in our lives.
5. Find a reading buddy. It could be a whole book club full of many buddies. It could just be the other users on Goodreads whose titles and reviews you peruse when looking for new reads. It could be your long lost bff from college who you commit to rekindling the flame with. Try this: pick a title, both of you get the book, download Voxer or some other voice messaging app, and spend a month reading and virtually discussing your pick, no set meetings or irl encounters necessary.
Reading is really fun. And you can do it on a train, you do it in the rain…you get the idea. And unlike many other hobbies and pursuits that may find themselves sidelined during different seasons of life, it’s something you can pursue whether you’re 5 or 95, provided you have the right glasses, I guess. So while I may not be able to get out and run a 4 miler right now (I want to say because snow, but really it’s because mombod. #cantdoitall), once my kids are down for the count tonight, I’ll be happily indulging in the luxury of opening to the current location in a good book.