How many books should you read each year?
This is a topic I go back and forth about and can never come up with an answer that satisfies me. Since I interact with books on a daily basis in my various writing and editing roles, books are basically my life. Obsessed with trying to determine just how many books I should be reading to be well read and current in my profession, I secretly stalk my Goodreads friends’ Reading Challenge counts while neurotically adjusting my own reading challenge in small ways (from 52 to 75 books a year) to large ways (from 75 books to 175 books and then back to 52 books…all within the span of two days). A little much? It’s just another timesucking casualty of the book nerd life.
The core question, though, is something I wrestle with, and the only answer I’ve arrived at that works is: “more.” There’s the answer: there is no magic number of books you should read in a year—read as many as possible and preferably at least if not more than the previous year, with allowances for longer books thrown in the mix. Simply, you can never read too many books.
So I’ve started to revise my thinking on this question, aiming not for trying to come up with an arbitrary number of how many books to read in a calendar year, but rather starting to focus on how to read more books each year. If you really are married to a number on Goodreads or whatever personal goal you have (like the popular 52 books in 52 weeks challenge) or even if you simply just want to pump up your reading journal, check out this five part series. Is the goal to simply keep adding numbers on top of numbers? Maybe. I personally don’t think there’s any shame in that. There are only one or two books I wish I’d never read, that I count as a waste of my reading time, and that I only read because I was concerned more about quantity over quality. Every title you read adds to your frame of reference and gives you fodder for future discussions and interests. But it’s also my hope that you’ll come out of this series pumped about reading in general. So ever onwards!
-How to Read More Books-
Method 1 – Read Shorter Books
In March 2014 I read The Goldfinch and my stance on reading long-vs-short books changed. The Goldfinch was the longest title I’d read since college when I devoured Dickens, Eliot, Collins, and the like for my Victorian literature concentration. 2014 was a year of longer books in general, Outlander, Flowers from the Storm, etc. I somehow got myself in the mindset where big books = better books and by and large ignored anything under 350 pages for a while. As you can imagine, this turned out to be a real headache when I took that YA class and had to read 42 books in a semester…yeah…
Since that time I’m coming around on shorter books. There’s something to be said for books that are tightly written narratives and pack a punch in a shorter page length. Here are 5 of my favorite short (as in, under 350 pages) books.
My book club read this last year, and it was an eye-opener. Jackson’s novel is totally chilling, the kind of novel that freezes your blood and leaves you shivering all over. Why such a melodramatic description? Because the narrator, Merricat, is a young girl whose outlook on life—delivered in a captivating, terrifying first-person voice—is alarming and disturbing, but in a way that reaches inside you and yanks on your morbid curiosity of what life looks like through the eyes of someone who has malicious intentions. Part of what makes it so interesting is Merricat’s innocence vs. corruption, also a little black cat named Jonas (reserving that name for future male black kittens in my life…). The pages fly by yet are so densely packed with emotion that you close the book with a book hangover of the best kind.
Neil Gaiman’s novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, was the first I read by fantasy and magical realism author Gaiman. The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a novel I placed on hold at the library and totally forgot about until it came in while I was on a “staycation.” I devoured the novel, spellbound in the way anyone who’s ever read a Gaiman novel could be. The Ocean at the End of the Lane follows a man as he reflects on his childhood and in particular a generation of women who lived next door. There’s also some magical and supernatural elements that swirl around the story, giving it a satisfying and atmospheric touch of fantasy. I’ve always loved novels that do the whole personal reflection on events from a safe distance kind of thing, and Gaiman’s novel does not fail, packing a hefty punch in under 200 pages.
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic, 144 pages
I read this novel because a friend suggested it, and like so many novels that take your breath away, I had no idea what to expect and went in blind. The Buddha in the Attic follows a group of Japanese women who were basically mail order brides for Japanese men living in the United States in the years before World War II. There are only eight
“chapters” if you will, but to me Otsuka condenses so much meaning into so few pages that it feels like you’ve read a saga when you’ve really only read under 150 pages. I think one of the things she is a master at is capturing significant moments in an almost theatrical way, meaning the sections felt like scenes in a play. It’s sparse prose, but economical and calculated in a brilliant way.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad, 274 pages
Egan’s novel totally shattered me. An exploration of modern celebrity, success, love, failure, redemption, and the pure intangible of happiness, A Visit from the Goon Squad follows a group of people in the rock and punk music scene. Loosely connected short stories weave the characters in and out of each other’s lives. What I loved most about this novel was its postmodern, experimental form enhanced the writing, made it come alive, and did not seem like a gimmick.
It’s a beautiful story that I read on Christmas Eve and Christmas last year, the perfect cap to a year of exploration and discovery in my life. There was also some chaotic family issues going on, so sinking into Egan’s world was a welcome retreat into the beauty of escapist literature, proving that something can be both “escapist” and “highbrow.” Egan also went to my alma mater, UPenn, and majored in English. It was a big deal when she won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. Read it, and you’ll see why.
Susanna Kaysen, Girl Interrupted, 192 pages
I inhaled Kaysen’s memoir of being institutionalized in a mental hospital during the late 60s. Kaysen, and the reader, questions if she should have been put in there in the first place given that the psychiatrist diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder and ordered her to the hospital on the first day he met her. Did she in fact have a diagnosable mental illness? Or was she really just navigating the ever-changing rise of feminism as a young woman in 1960s America? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between, but in any case Kaysen definitely gives the POV of the consummate outsider looking in. I have often wondered what it would be like if I were born then and had the mental illness I have; would I be hospitalized? Would medication help me live a high-functioning life? I’m not sure, but Kaysen’s memoir is both sobering and compassionate towards her fellow patients. It’s hard for me to read anything about a mental institution, but Kaysen’s memoir is so poetic, so profound that I would reread it in a heartbeat.