I don’t mean to be a nag. I really don’t. On the other hand, I really do love the idea of you achieving your reading goals in 2020. Or, if you don’t have a formalized reading goal, I at least love the idea of helping you to read something, and maybe even to read a little bit more of something than you otherwise would. I rather expect you wouldn’t mind reading a few good books this year, and maybe reading one or two more good books than you thought likely.
I am certain it has always been difficult to find the time, opportunity, and brain space to just sit down and read. I doubt there has ever been a time in human history when it has been easy. But surely there has never been an age when we have had greater access to time that is not filled by life’s absolute necessities of working, eating, and sleeping. And surely there has never been an age when we are so surrounded by the beeps and buzzes that constantly demand our attention, and by the pixel-lit rectangles that willingly provide endless torrents of entertainment or distraction. While we have more books at our disposal than ever before, and while they are only ever one click and 24 hours away from our doorsteps, we have more competition for the time and attention they require. Here at the dawn of the digital era, reading has been not been replaced as much as it has been displaced.
And so, one month into a new year, let me ask the question: How are you doing with reading? Just over a month has gone by since happy new year. The better part of a month has gone by since back to school and back to work. Several weeks have gone by since the chaos of the holidays finally gave way to the structure of well-oiled routines. While the circumstances of some days and some weeks will always inhibit reading, it’s rare that there’s no time and no opportunity when measured over an entire month. Which is to say, if you intended to read some books in the year 2020, you should have already completed some books by February 2020.
If you hoped to read 13 books this year, you should have completed at least one by now, at least if you wish to stay on-track. If you hoped to read 26 books, you should have completed at least two. If you have completed 0, well, then you’re on track to complete 0 and probably don’t have much reason to think you’ll achieve more than that. Good intentions don’t complete good books.
We need to be careful that we do not become legalistic about this. Books are not intrinsically good and reading is not intrinsically virtuous. You may never crack the cover of a book, yet may still be spending your time very well and deploying it in very meaningful ways. But there’s no doubt that reading—especially reading a good book—is superior to some other activities. And at this age when so many of us have so much time for leisure, it’s always worth considering what we are doing when we are not reading. Charts like this one, assembled by Nielsen, prove that most of us have plenty of discretionary time—the kind of time that could be devoted to books. But they also prove that many are choosing to use that time to do other things. Many are choosing to use that time to do things that may be less edifying and less beneficial.
It strikes me that few people begin a new year signing up for a movie-watching plan or a Netflix-watching challenge. Few resolve to spend more time on YouTube or more time playing Pokémon GO. And yet these activities are so compelling and so available and so habitual, that we have to plan and resolve not to surrender ourselves to them. Video alone, according to these most recent statistics, is consuming just over five hours of the average day of the average American adult. It’s hard to make the case, then, that there just isn’t time to read. It’s easy, though, to make the case that reading is being nudged out by activities that demand less, but that also offer less.
So with all that said, I would encourage you, here and now, while we are still near enough to the beginning of a new year, to consider a two-part question: How have you been using your time, and how do you want to use your time? Honestly assess what you have done with your leisure time since the beginning of the new year and think about how you’d like to use what remains. Through the first 31 days of the year, the statistics say you’ve spent 325 hours consuming some kind of electronic media (on your way to spending around 3,800 hours over the year). They say you’ve watched 170 hours of video (as you head toward 2,000 hours of video by December 31). If you’re close to that average, I expect you agree that you’d probably benefit from committing at least some of that time to a really good book. Or even a kind of good book.
Where should you start? Maybe with one of those books you bought last year or got for Christmas and haven’t yet gotten through. Failing that, here are some personal suggestions: