Less Is More: How to Be Better at Reading in 2020

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Books column 2020 how to read more
Via @dauntbooks on Instagram

AnOthermag.com’s books columnist Ana Kinsella on why we should aim to read better, not more

Was your new year’s resolution this year to read more books? I know, it’s OK. You’re not alone. This is a safe space. It’s funny how we tend to lump reading books – a form of leisure going back centuries – as a moral good on a par with quitting smoking or running laps around the local park, but here we are. In today’s culture, obsessed with optimisation and easy fixes for living better, books have become a sort of symbol of how self-actualised a person is. For some reason, books are seen as the antidote to mindless hours spent on phone games or watching Netflix. Doctors can even prescribe them to patients with mental health issues. Even if they’re not a panacea for all your problems, there must be some personal good to be found in reading.

So now you – along with countless others – have settled on your resolution, and maybe, by this point in January, you’ve already done a sweep of the local bookshop, emerging triumphantly with a stickered copy of The Testaments and one of the Elena Ferrante novels, hopefully the first but maybe it doesn’t matter what order you read them in? (Sorry to say: it does, I think.) How do you make the most of this resolution and push past so-called ‘Quitter’s Day’, January 19, when good habits start to fall by the way-side?

It would be easy to share a load of shortcuts – how to cram in an extra 50 pages on your lunch break, which pop psychology nonsense books to zoom through. But instead, here’s my big idea for 2020: change your goal from reading more to ‘reading better’. The pressure to consume more is a symptom of our sick cultural landscape: oversaturated with all forms of media, we obsess over lists of books to read before you die, or the best prestige TV to watch along with everyone else around us. Lists can be poisonous, and I say that as someone who sometimes makes lists, including for this very column. The poison lies in the prescriptiveness of them – read this, watch that, hold this particular opinion if you want to be seen as cultured, or canny, or smart. Lists will always neglect some books and push others, often for no reason other than big marketing efforts from publishers.

Let’s ignore the lists. Follow instead the through-lines of what interests you about the books you read. If there is a moral good in the act of reading, it’s because of the power of books, novels in particular, to make some room in your mind. A good novel (and sometimes even a bad one) can open doors that all the glossy, high-budget streamable TV couldn’t touch. It’s an act that is entirely your own, and a good novel won’t ever spoon-feed you the way Netflix might. There’s no pop-up prompt to ask ‘Are You Still Watching?’ every 20 pages. 

There’s no real value to be found by blindly pursuing a quota. I once spent New Year’s Eve waiting for my boyfriend to finish reading a book he wasn’t even enjoying, just so he could reach his goal of 50 books in 2017. Read a book a week, or per month, or have three on the go and stretch them out for the whole year. If you want to read better this year, ask yourself why you want to read in the first place. Find what you get from it. For me, it’s a kind of electrical charge that runs through my mind. It spurs my mind into action, even if it’s just a pulpy page-turner to pass the time on the bus. And if I had to put a more concrete value on it, reading also keeps my vocabulary from shrinking, making it much easier to earn the money for more books by writing columns like this one.