50 books in 52 weeks
The purpose of this experiment is to firmly establish reading books as a daily habit, rather than an intermittent activity I do when I get around to it. The goal is to read 50 books in one year, beginning September 30th 2013 and concluding September 29th 2014.*
All books will be listed here and I will write a mini-review for each. Scroll to the bottom for my general observations about the project.
You are also welcome to join me, at any pace you like. Twenty books this year? Five books by Christmas? Post your intentions and your progress in the comments.
Last updated May 24/2014
Current book:Prince Caspian — C.S. Lewis — Followup to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m also concurrently reading Guns, Germs and Steel and Rosshalde.
Completed Books & Mini-Reviews
All books read as a part of this project will be listed here in order, and I’ll tell you what I think of them.
Travels With Charley – John Steinbeck – (Book #0 — I was almost finished at the experiment’s outset, so it doesn’t count)
In 1961 Steinbeck took a 10,000-mile road trip around the US to see his country one last time, presumably, before he died. His only full-time companion on the trip was a polite French poodle named Charlie. This book is his slightly embellished account of that trip. The main theme Steinbeck reflects on is the mixed blessing of America’s unstoppable post-war growth. Inevitably he touches on consumerism, unsustainable development, race, civil rights, and language. I loved Travels With Charley almost as much as I love road trips. Highly recommended if you are a fan of overland travel, or poodles. 4.5/5
The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
Anybody who writes, paints, sculpts or makes films knows that it is unlike any other kind of labor. It’s not simply a matter of effort — in order to get to the end of your pieces you need a certain part of your mind to outsmart another part. There is a destructive for inside each of us that tries to sabotage everything we do. Steven Pressfield calls out this force, names it (Resistance) and briefs you on the strengths and weaknesses of your enemy. The battle metaphor is apt, and Pressfield makes a whole book out of it. This thin book is dense with exactly the wisdom I need in my situation — I finished it around midnight the same day I quit my day job to be a writer. Every creative who believes they might “Go pro” ought to read Pressfield’s field manual about the battleground on which the working creative must inevitably prove himself.
My only criticism is that the final third of the book, which deals with the inexplicable and spiritual side of creativity, gets a bit sentimental. He employs a non-denominational spiritual vocabulary that may be a bit too much for some people (angels and other planes of existence, for example — although he suggests that those with an allergy to those terms interpret them as metaphors). Although I still found it valuable I found myself missing the authoritative tone from the first two thirds of the book. But this shift in tone leaves the central message intact. I will reiterate that every single person who is even thinking about making a living as a creative ought to read this book. It could have saved the author, for one, twenty years of struggle. 4.5/5
Learned Optimism – Martin Seligman
Martin Seligman is a psychologist who has studied the relationship between optimism, pessimism and depression for over 40 years. Having recently discovered the great difference between having an optimistic daily mindset and a pessimistic one, I wanted to learn how to cultivate optimism. I figured a book called “Learned Optimism” would be good for learning practical optimism.
Instead, most of the book is a dull history of Seligman’s academic career, with some half-baked instruction near the end. This is a classic self-help pitfall, and I’m ashamed to have wasted so much time before recognizing it: a psychologist writes a mass-market book on his topic simply because he likes to talk about it, and occasionally addresses the reader with instructions for putting his findings to use in real life. But the practical side appears tacked on and arbitrary, and if you’re looking to learn how to become an optimist this is not the book.. There are interesting findings in the book, but I can’t say all 300 pages are worth a read. 2.0/5
Lesson learned here, I hope. I spent too many of my 350 allotted days on this book, because it was so damn boring I lost all excitement about reading. I didn’t read anything many of those days. Shame. Next time, when I notice the book blows, I’ll just move on.
The $100 Startup – Chris Guillebeau
Most bloggers know who Chris Guillebeau is. He’s known for having visited every country in the world and for writing about how to create a non-conformist lifestyle working for yourself. The $100 Startup is about very small business, particularly one-person businesses that require very little startup money. Guillebeau spoke to over a hundred entrepreneurs about their operations and he makes use of their case studies in the context of a how-to book.
The result is actually great. So many case-study-based books bore the reader with examples inapplicable to their own situation. The author keeps the anecdotes short and the principles universal. Just having started working on my own business full-time this is exactly what I needed to read right now, and I’ll be keeping it on my shelf for reference. One thing that surprised me is that the businesses outlined in the book are mostly off-line. I expected the examples to apply mostly to businesses similar to Guillebeau’s internet-based business, but he covers businesses of all types, so don’t worry that it won’t apply to your project. 4.5/5
East of Eden – John Steinbeck
I sure took my time with this one. Instead of catching up by knocking off a few quick non-fiction books I decided to tackle this nearly quarter-million word epic. I didn’t really begin it until I got home and even then it took me three weeks.
Well it was the best damn book I ever read. I will be talking about it for the rest of my life. I don’t know what else I can say. I finished it this afternoon, wide-eyed and totally lost in it. At the end of the last paragraph, I gasped — and I never gasp — and cried. 5/5
Ready for Anything – David Allen
David Allen’s Getting Things Done is probably the most popular workflow system ever sold. He presents a system which, if implemented properly, promises that you’ll be able to get a lot done with low stress levels. Ready for anything is the followup to the original book. It’s a lot more philosophical than its predecessor — there are 52 chapters and the title of each is an aphorism about productivity (“Your system has to be better than your mind for your mind to let go”) followed by a very short essay about its relevance in your workflow. Much of it is quite profound and I learned a lot from it, or at least I felt as if I was learning as I read it, but it doesn’t fill in the practical holes that GTD leaves. Millions of people love the idea of GTD but have trouble implementing it, because it amounts to over about a dozen simultaneous habit changes, which are all dependent on each other. Blogger Leo Babauta has talked about this problem and offers an alternative, which I would recommend instead — Zen to Done. 3/5
Why Grizzly Bears Should Wear Underpants – Matthew Inman
I’ve decided not to add this one to my “books read” count because technically it’s a comic book. WGBSWU is the latest collection of The Oatmeal, a mega-popular online comic. I got it for Christmas and read it that afternoon. It’s genuinely hilarious. 4/5
The Tao of Pooh – Benjamin Hoff
Author Benjamin Hoff explains Taoism using anecdotes from the Hundred Acre Wood. The half-dozen or so characters (Eeyore, Piglet, Rabbit, Tigger, Kanga and Roo) each bring a different philosophy to their foibles, and Hoff gets the point across quite clearly without being too explicit. There’s something about it I didn’t like though. The “Most Helpful Critical Review” on Amazon helped me to realize what it was: the author is a bit too critical of other philosophies, and spends more time telling you what is un-Tao-like about the other characters, which itself seems a but un-Tao-like. 3.5/5
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer
An imaginative and determined nine-year-old named Oskar has just lost his father, and is currently trying to make sense of the adult world around him using his nine-year-old’s logic. Foer is really good at getting into the head of this kid — he was so much like nine-year-old me that at times I was embarrassed for myself. It gets a bit “experimental” in places, with photos, blank pages that contain single sentences, red-pen markups and other weird formatting, which will either excite or annoy you. There were parts I didn’t connect with and parts I absolutely loved. 3.5/5
Capital – John Lanchester
I’ve read three of Lanchester’s four novels now (he also writes non-fiction) and at least “really liked” them all. This one follows a half-dozen mostly-independent narratives set in London, just as the economic downturn of 2008 begins. Each major character experiences major life changes and ethical questions because of dramatic changes in their respective financial situations. My only complaint is that the narratives are a little too independent, but where they do cross it’s interesting to see the same events described through the differing cultural biases held by different characters. I’ll be reading more of his stuff. 4/5
Nikolski – Nicolas Dickner
A quirky novel about three free-floating young people working unglamorous jobs (fishmonger, garbage-archaeologist, etc.) The book was translated from its original Quebecois-French, which might account for some of its quirkiness. Themes of fish, trash, and pirates abound. Although I felt an affection for the eccentric characters and the unsung themes of garbage and sea creatures, the plot never set its hooks into me and it took me a lot longer to read than such a short novel normally would have. 3/5
Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself – Joe Dispenza
This book really derailed me. I spent about a month slogging through it and finally lost patience near the end. It began with such an intriguing premise that I have been interested in a long time: the greatest determining factor in the course of our lives is the feeling of what it’s like to be who you are (or who you think you are) and that one can learn to recognize this feeling and consciously change it, thereby changing your range of possibility in life.
In this the author truly has a great idea, but there are several show-stopping problems with the way in which he tries to translate this into a workable practice for the reader. First of all, he uses an interesting analogy of quantum physics and superposition to refer to our identities. It would have been really useful if he had presented it as a metaphor, but instead he presents his model as if it’s scientifically proven. He uses the word “science” a lot to describe his breakdown of how our identities create our lives, and after not to long it becomes clear that he is no scientist and certainly no quantum physicist. He’s billed on the cover as “Dr Joe Dispenza” and I made the mistake of assuming that his degree had something to do with what he’s talking about in the book, but it turns out he’s a chiropractor.
Still, there is a solid idea in there somewhere and I tried not to judge it by its presentation. But the writing is extremely redundant. Everything is explained repeatedly. The first two parts are meant to make the final part (the actual practice he’s very, very gradually getting to) understandable. But he talks so much he undoes any understanding the reader might have had at first. The practice, when you do get to it, is a complicated, multi-stepped meditation that probably would work if you could remember and apply all the steps with any confidence. But by then the central idea is so overwrought and unclear that I no longer believed in the authority of the person telling me it’s worthwhile to learn the practice. I’ll stick with my vipassana.
This is another example of the problem I had with Learned Optimism. A great idea, unpacked to death, so over-explained you actually lose clarity as you read on. If it were an 80-page book, without the pseudoscience, it might have been brilliant. 2/5
A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki
A novelist, living on a secluded island of Canada’s West coast, also named Ruth, finds a diary sealed inside a bunch of Ziplocs that washed up on shore. It’s written by a young Japanese girl, relating her story to the inevitable finder of the diary. Ruth quickly becomes engrossed in the girl’s story, which is actually pretty dark — despite the girl’s bubbly style, she’s been bullied severely at school, her family is poor, with a distant mother and a suicidal father. Her only ray of hope and freedom is her 104-year-old grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun, with whom she’s sent to spend a summer.
The novel flips between the girl’s journal entries, and Ruth’s growing obsession with the outcome of her story. The themes are heavy from the beginning: death, time, legacy, and suicide. The tension builds as Ruth nears the end of the journal entries (she is spacing out her readings to correspond with the time taken to write them all) particularly because she’s aware of something that the girl is not: that her area of Japan will soon be hit with a devastating earthquake and tsunami, which is probably what brought her diary across the ocean to Canada.
It’s a fantastic story. I highly recommend it. I did have a problem with the way the ending was handled, but I can’t tell you why without giving too much away. 4/5
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
Absolutely loved this novel. The narrator is an old-era butler, entering his twilight years in postwar England. The book takes place over a six-day car trip around the English countryside, but he spends most of that time reminiscing about the previous few decades before the war, and how it was a time of dignified men running society with their sophisticated ideals. He is a staunch defender of the old ways and makes his case, but a disturbing contradiction becomes more obvious to the reader. I’m making it sound boring, but it’s brilliant. Read it. 5/5
Updates and Observations
Not much to report, except that I’m enjoying reading very much these days. I’m not concerned with quota as long as I sit down to read every day.
Despite the lack of updates I have really picked up the pace. It sounds obvious now, but the amount I read in a day has little to do with my resolve or my goals and everything to do with whether I like the book I’m currently reading or not. I like where I’ve settled with my reading habit. I don’t feel forced to read, but when I do have a book I like, I’m reading 50 to 100 pages most days.
I also spent a month reading mostly the long articles found in back issues of The New Yorker, at a rate of about 5,000 to 10,000 words a day, which I really enjoyed and learned a lot from. It was nice to be able to do this, now that I’m at peace with my progress even though it doesn’t reflect my original goal.
Today I added three book reviews, although I am sure I’m forgetting a book I’ve read since my last report.
Currently I’m reading The Remains of the Day, and absolutely loving it. I am also reading, concurrently, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses (again.)
Just a quick note to say I’m still here but I am struggling with my original goal. I’m currently writing a book (and doing fifty other things) and it is difficult to imagine that in the remaining seven months I will be able to compensate for the slow pace of the first five. I still shoot to meet 50 pages every day, and if I establish a 50 page/day habit by the end of this I will have accomplished the primary goal of this experiment.
I will keep the scope of experiments in mind when I declare them in the future. The person setting the bar isn’t always the same person who has to clear it. October 2013 David could only think about reading, while March 2014 David has different priorities. In any case I think I will do well if I keep pursuing my daily standard (instead of my annual goal) so that I do not begin to resent my duty to myself to read. I want to keep it enjoyable.
I am alarmed at how quickly time passes. A book every two weeks would have been fine, as I’m simultaneously working on the biggest item on my bucket list. But I do love that I’m finally becoming an avid daily reader after all these years, which was the ultimate goal anyway.
Being behind, as I am, means that the remaining days in the project require an even higher rate of pages per day than I had at the beginning if I want to hit the same mark in the same timeframe. At the moment I don’t see that happening, because it would make even more of a job out of plowing through pages, which is not the point of reading or even the point of this experiment. For now I’m going to continue at my 50 pages a day rate, which is would meet the original goal if I wasn’t behind. I am fine with that and it will deliver the ultimate result, which is that I become accustomed to reading every day. Fifty pages will be my minimum, and I’ll read more than that on some days. For now that is enough.
I’m currently reading Capital by John Lanchester, at an estimated 125,000 words. I’m 80% done. I’ve also read about 15,000 words worth of long-form periodicals, which brings my total to 675,000 words. The target is 3,750,000, which is 18.0%. Looks like I miscalculated last time, and the year is 38% over by now, which means my pace has been less than half of the original intended pace. Very discouraging.
As some readers warned about, I ran into an immediate problem when I decided to read 50 books in as many weeks: I found I was gravitating towards shorter books, even if I didn’t want to read them as much as I did certain longer books. So reading ended up becoming like eating spinach — I was doing it to get through it, rather than enjoy it.
If this was supposed to be the year I became an avid daily reader, then why do I have to put off reading books like Dune or The Discovers until next year? And when am I going to get to all those New Yorkers that are full of fascinating articles (but are not books and do not contribute to my goal.) It made no sense. So my goal made reading unattractive to me, and I let it fall behind.
I figured out a solution. Since the point of the project is to develop a daily reading habit, what really matters is the amount of reading I do, not the total number of books I finish.
So I’m translating the goal of reading 50 books into reading 50 books’ worth of words. This means that a book with double the words will count double towards the goal, and I can also count other long-form writing, such as The New Yorker, which I love and have a pile of.
I want to read 50 books in a year, at say an average of 300 pages per book, and the typical 250 words per page, gives me 3,750,000 words to read this year. That will include books of all kinds, and long articles in high-quality publications such as The New Yorker. It will not include blog posts, newspapers, cereal boxes or anything like that. This gives me a way to read whatever I want regardless of size.
Where am I at now?
I am still way behind, but now the resistance is gone.
The books I’ve read (word counts estimated):
The War of Art – 30,000
Learned Optimism – 110,000
The $100 Startup – 65,000
East of Eden – 225,000
Ready for Anything – 40,000
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (60% done) – 90,000
Total = 560,000 words
560,000/3,750,000 = 14.9% word count
76 days/365 days = 20.8% time elapsed.
So I am behind, but not by as much. Previously East of Eden had me WAY behind, because it counted no more towards the goal than The War of Art, even though it’s ten times as much reading. This was discouraging, but now I’m excited to read regularly again, not having to worry about book-for-book efficiency.
Whoosh! December flew by as it often does. I read two books in December that I have yet to review. So I’m still continuing my inadequate but steady pace of a book about every two weeks. The warnings some people made at the outset of this experiment are becoming true: it is harder to enjoy something when it becomes a job. Still — even though I’m lagging behind my ambitious pace, this experiment is still slowly accomplishing its purpose, which is to make me an avid reader.
The book every two-weeks pace includes almost three weeks spent traveling and the last two weeks of my job, so I’m not as behind as it looks. But I have drifted away from the daily 50-100 page quota. Sitting down every day to read is ultimately the goal, no matter how many books I read, and now that holiday festivities are over I’m renewing my commitment to this daily session.
There have been a few lessons since my last update. One is that many non-fiction books are not well-suited to reading like novels. I got bogged down reading a short little book on productivity by David Allen, because it felt completely inappropriate to sit down and whip off 50 pages at once. The book is divided into 52 little lessons, and if I’m reading this book for any reason other than to add to my book count, then I ought to be thinking about how to implement what I’m learning. But there’s no time for that when you plow through fifteen concepts in one sitting. I will be mindful of this in the future. I’m reading a novel now, and novels lend themselves much better to high-volume reading.
I always have this idea that I will be reading more often when I’m traveling, and it’s absolutely not true. Short-term travel, the way I do it anyway, is not conducive to dedicating time alone with a book. I spent two weeks away from home and I think I read a total of twenty pages or so during that time.
After flip-flopping a bit I decided to go ahead and read the book I really wanted to read, the 225,000-word East of Eden, and I’m loving it. I’m having the conflict many readers predicted when I announced my ambitious goal, between enjoying the read and trying to get through the read. I’ve read 3.5 books in 7 weeks, which is half my target rate. If I’m being generous with myself, I could say that 3.5 of those weeks were spent either working at my job or traveling and I didn’t expect to get much done, so when it comes to reading during my normal routine I am reading a book a week. There will be other interruptions though, and I have to account for these. I expect East of Eden to take at least another week, maybe two, because I just don’t want to rush this one. I may read a very light non-fiction book concurrently.
A book a week is a pretty extreme pace. Still, I am determined to do it, and many of the books on my shelf are much quicker reads than the current one. The overall goal of this experiment was to get into the habit of always having a book on the go, and it is definitely working to that end. If I were to do it over again I’d do maybe 35 or 40 books in a year, and I doubt that for the rest of my life I will ever read fewer than a book every two weeks. That’s about perfect.
Not including the first two weeks (during which I expected to get little reading done because I was still employed full-time) I am surprised to see I’ve actually kept pace. I’ve read three books in about three weeks, although one of them was really short.
Things I have noticed so far:
Although many people do read a book a week, this pace is very brisk and unforgiving — fifty pages a day if the average book length is 350 pages. A single missed day of reading means six days of 50 pages and one day of 100 pages the next week just to catch up. Only a daily avid reader can accomplish this, and so my only hope is to become one. There are books in my queue that are much longer than 70,000 words — Dune is 185,000, East of Eden 225,000.
Part of my strategy has been to include some especially short books so that I can accrue reading time for bigger ones later. I had a three-day bus trip, during which I planned to knock off two slim books, but barely read anything, because there was a loud bachelor party happening around me at all times, including on the bus ride itself.
After the time-wasting debacle with Seligman’s book (see the review above) I am wary of sinking too much time into books I won’t like. Today I aborted a reading of the much-liked Tuesdays With Morrie because the tone was quite sappy to begin with and could only get worse as the old man neared his inevitable death.