How to Read 100 Books in a Year

Some of you may recall that last year I had a New Year’s resolution to read at least 50 books, which half-way through the year I amended to 100 books. How did I do? Well, I had a bit of a shaky autumn, but with a concerted late-December push, I got myself over the finish line, and read exactly 100. And yes, I was sufficiently nerdy to keep a spreadsheet recording the details every single book I read. And I can remember enough about pivot tables from my time working in an office so that I can now play around with my own reading statistics, and tell you that, for example, my preferred format (with 58% of total titles) was the paperback, that my favourite genres were fantasy and science fiction, and that, as a result of making a concerted effort to catch up with contemporary writing, I read 68 books from the 2010s but a mere 8 from the entire 20th century (and 6 from the 19th century).

When I tell people about my reading achievement, I get reactions ranging from dismissal (’only 100 books? Easy!’) to disbelief. One common response is a slightly awestruck wistfulness: an ‘I wish I could read more books but…’
Well, if that applies to you, fear not! I am here to share with you my secrets, and get you past that but.

1) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t know where to start.’

I confess this one is a novel (see what I did there?) problem for me, because I always have dozens of books I want to read. However, help is at hand. The simplest approach is just to ask friends and family for their recommendations, and there’s always the good old-fashioned try-asking-in-your-local-bookshop method, but these days there are all kinds of electronic resources as well, from Goodreads to Amazon algorithms to countless book bloggers. The main thing, I think, is to accept that tastes differ and you’re not always going to enjoy something, however highly it comes recommended. If that happens, don’t give up: try the next thing. Sooner or later you’ll find the book for you, and then you can read everything by that author, seek out things in that ‘if you like x, you’ll love y!’ category, and delve into the fanfic. Discovering stuff you might want to read has never been easier.

2) ‘I wish I could read more books, but they’re expensive!’

They can be. But if you want to read, there’s no need to shell out on a load of brand-new hardbacks. I’m consistently astonished by how few people make use of libraries – they have hundreds of books! And you can borrow any of them for free! It’s amazing! And I can’t speak for all library systems, but the one in Derbyshire is pretty good (for now, at least) at keeping stock up-to-date and arranging inter-library loans for the princely sum of 45p if the title you want isn’t available locally.
If e-books are your thing, I’ve heard about (but not tried myself) something called Bookbub, which sends you emails recommending cheap or free books. There’s also Kindle Unlimited, although I personally found their selection of titles didn’t match up to my reading interests. And, while genuine second-hand bookshops are a rarity these days, there are charity shops a-plenty, not to mention millions of second-hand books being sold online, many for 1p+p+p. Getting hold of cheap books has never been easier.

3) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t have the time!’

This is by far the commonest reason I hear why people can’t read more. My invariable answer is: audiobooks. Listen on long drives. Listen while you cook dinner. Listen while you exercise. Audiobooks let you read while you do that other stuff that keeps you busy. They’re great, and these days thousands of them are available via your phone (I use Audible and I swear by it). It’s never been easier to find books to listen to. Another idea: if you can’t find the time to commit to a full novel, try short stories. You can get a complete narrative in just twenty minutes or so. Perfect for the time-strapped.

In summary, it’s never been easier to find books you’ll want to read, in the format you want, at a price you can afford. In theory, it’s never been easier to read. So why do so many people seem to struggle to consume as many books as they say they’d like to? Well, the answer is obvious: because it’s also never been easier to get distracted. Just as thousands upon thousands of great books are now readily available, so are games and movies and TV shows and YouTube videos and web forums and blogs and cute cat pictures and every other thing you can possibly think of (and an awful lot more you can’t think of and probably don’t want to). And I feel like, behind 90% of those ‘buts’, the real reason is that the person would rather spend their spare time watching Netflix or playing World of Warcraft. Which is fine – I’m not going to get snobby about different forms of entertainment – but I have to say, if you really really want to read more, there’s ultimately only one way to do it: you need to put down the Internet and pick up a book.

Bad advice for writers

Aspiring writers are often short of many things: time, money, inspiration, friends, sanity… but one thing which is never in short supply, as a writer with human contacts and/or an internet connection, is advice. Unfortunately, much of the advice on offer is not actually very good, and if I didn’t know better I’d say it was promulgated by a secret society of successful writers trying to ensure nobody else climbs up the ladder behind them. Here’s a selection of some of my, um, favourites:

 

1) ‘Write what you know.’

Possibly the most commonly-encountered piece of advice for new writers, and probably the worst. I mean, it’s all very well if what you know is international espionage, bedding gorgeous celebrities and how to find a cure for cancer with one hand tied behind your back, but if that’s the case, you probably don’t have much spare time for writing. Assuming your life is more humdrum, therefore, why would anyone want to read about it? Diary of a Nobody has already been done. So use your imagination. Make stuff up. That’s what writers do.

 

2) ‘Write your first draft by longhand.’

Or on a vintage typewriter. Or in your own blood, by the light of a guttering candle. First drafts are troublesome enough without inflicting further difficulties on yourself. The computer might lack some of the glamour of scribing in days of yore, but it’s a jolly useful invention nonetheless. Do you really think Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway wouldn’t have used laptops if they could? Course they would. Austen might have even managed to crank out a few more novels if she’d have had a quicker way to work. Think about that the next time you’re tempted to pick up a quill pen and a sheet of vellum.

 

3) ‘Set aside a special writing space.’

My objection to the fabled ‘room of one’s own’ isn’t so much that it’s a bad idea as that it’s simply not very practical. Most of us have to live with restricted space and/or other people, so the opportunity for creating a little writing cave is limited, and telling people they need one is just encouraging procrastination. Which is one area where writers need absolutely no encouragement. Much the same applies to setting aside a regular slot of writing time. All well and good if you can, but not an excuse for slacking off if you can’t. There’s only one way to get on with writing a book: get on with it, wherever and whenever you can.

 

4) ‘<famous author>’s Top Ten Tips!’

There are hundreds of these floating around the aether, containing gems of advice from successful writers on everything from punctuation to diet. Underlying the whole cottage industry is the cargo-cult logic that adopting the same habits as Iris Murdoch will make you write like Iris Murdoch. I’m afraid this doesn’t actually work, any more than buying a replica ‘Blackie’ Fender Stratocaster will make you play guitar like Eric Clapton. Now, some of these tips can be quite entertaining. Some may even be useful. But as to uncovering the secret of success from these writers? All you need to know is this: they are all different.