January 17, 2022

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How a super reader gets through 52 books a year

For a certain subset of the population, there is nothing so relaxing as a New Year resolution.

These are the non-resolvers, people who happily sit and watch as others grind their way through cakeless, wineless weeks of January self-abnegation.

Normally I am with these spectators but this year, I have been struck by an urge to self-improve in one particular area. In 2022, I would like to read more books.

The realisation dawned last week when I came across a phenomenon that seems dazzling in a pandemic year of distraction: lists compiled by people who managed to get through at least one book a week last year.

“I have learnt loads,” wrote Sunday Times data journalist, Tom Calver, of the year-long odyssey he took while meeting a New Year resolution to read 52 books in 2021.

Some made him cry. Others left him sleepless. Being a numbers person, he ranked them all in order of enjoyment, starting with Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and ending with À Rebours (Against Nature), an 1884 novel he found utterly “miserable and pointless”.

Calver’s list appeared a day after a friend in Australia, Richard McGregor, went on Facebook to post 52 exacting mini-reviews of books he read last year.

McGregor, an ex-FT journalist now at Sydney’s Lowy Institute think-tank, has been writing these lists for a while. As usual, the latest was full of anecdotes gleaned from his epic page-turning, like this one from the 1,000-plus pages in Stephen Kotkin’s latest Stalin biography volume.

“What a guy. Well done,” exclaimed Stalin, when told of Hitler’s 1934 Night of the Long Knives. “Knows how to act!”

Stories like this are just one reason I envy McGregor and Calver. They are a reminder of the delight, the knowledge and the sheer utility to be gained from reading books.

As US author and bookstore owner, Ryan Holiday, puts it: “Reading is the shortest, most established path to total self-improvement.” 

Holiday sends a monthly list of his recommended books to 250,000 newsletter subscribers and says he reads “around 250” books a year, which puts him in a daunting league of super readers. Canadian scientist, Vaclav Smil, reads up to 90 novels, biographies, arts and history books a year, on top of technical books for work.

All pale before Tyler Cowen, the US economist whose annual list of recommended books is one of the best-read items on his popular economics blog. He has claimed that on a good night he can get through “five whole books”.

That’s impressive, even if not each page is read. But the question is, how do they do it? Where do these voracious readers find the time? What do they give up?

Each doubtless has their own strategy, but here are some of the more common routes to prodigious readership.

Rise early. Cowen gets up at about 6.30am, by which time McGregor has already been up an hour.

Be ruthless. If you strike a bad book, put it down. Don’t even give it away, says Cowen. “You could be doing harm to people.”

Read anywhere. Big readers do it on the bus, the sofa, in bed and while walking the dog, via audiobooks.

Skim non-fiction. Fiction demands a close, word-for-word reading. But it’s more important to understand, not read most non-fiction, says US author and consultant, Peter Bregman. This can mostly be done by confining yourself to the table of contents, introduction, conclusion, and a few pages of each chapter.

Read books simultaneously. It’s fine to have several on the go at once. The trick is to vary them. Don’t try two monumental histories at the same time.

Read diversely. Don’t just stick to fiction or non-fiction. Switch authors, eras and topics.

Read about what you don’t know. It’s more fun.

Read in clusters. Don’t stick to one book on Marie Curie. Read a few of them.

Disconnect. Calver had to put his mobile phone on airplane mode at times. Smil has gone without one for decades.

Stay committed. Netflix is possible, but not at the scale many of us are used to.

Finally, bear in mind a lot of big readers tend to stick to books contained in a single volume. Stay away from Proust.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark.com

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