How Do You Read So Much?

Reading pace and how I think about the quantity of what I read.

Reading pace is highly individualized, and each book may deserve a different pace. I can read some books in a single night, and some take me years.

Right now, I’m reading Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene,(1) which explores the historical and current foodways that led to African-American/Southern cuisine. The book isn’t a light read as Twitty traces Southern food back to the realities of chattel slavery and uses his family history as a guiding light. The chapters are dense. Some of the chapters depict the worst horrors humans inflicted on other humans.

I find myself reading it slowly. I find myself pausing. I find myself rereading passages. When Twitty lists out ethnic groups, ancestors’ names, geographic places (present or historical), or foods, and I find myself glazing over, I stop and go back. Because the people who were enslaved deserve that respect, unlike the fictional kings of Westeros, whose fictional names and places I will skim or skip.(2)

Again, The Cooking Gene is a good book. It’s just not an “easy” read for me. Nor should it be, and it’s okay that I’m not reading it at my “usual” pace.

The start of rethinking my reading

As an English major in college, my ability to knuckle down and get through a book came in handy. I always read the assigned readings in college.(3) My reading was seasoned in the fire of reading Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and James Joyce’s Ulysses (and the book explaining Ulysses) for two different literature courses in the same semester.

But in my free time, I found myself unable to read books. Despite its excellent quality and entertainment, I spent six months working through Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Fanfiction and comic books kept me reading outside of college. Writing fanfic taught me the work of writing.

After graduation, I dated a speed reader specifically interested in reading the “100 best books” in canon.(4) Yes, I was skeptical and envious of his reading speed. Even then, I had a longer to-be-read list than I thought I could read in my lifetime.

At some point — it may have been after that relationship exploded — I realized reading so quickly wasn’t enjoyable. While far from a “speed reader,” I wasn’t retaining what I read; I wasn’t appreciating the prose, and my eye was too uncritical of what I read. I assumed the book was quality based on how highly it was recommended or lauded. I often missed flaws or felt odd or uncultured for not finding the book good.

I also realized I was reading books where people like me (and frankly, the vast majority of people in this world) were omitted. I wasn’t on the page. That fucking sucks.

I reevaluated what I wanted to read. I considered what I wanted to purchase, spend my time with, and the ideas I wanted to internalize. I revisited my consumption pace.

I also went back to my inner child. I jump-started reading non-comic books again by reading aloud to and being read to by a partner, specifically YA books like The Hunger Games, The Chronicles of Narnia, and His Dark Materials. We could tackle reading together while I struggled with adult working life and him with graduate school.

So how did I read 16 books in January 2023?

1. Reading is my main hobby. (My other two are writing and houseplants/gardening.) It’s been a primary hobby my entire life, and I’ve shifted hours to reading. I’ve never been a gamer, and when everyone upped their gaming and TV/film hours in 2020, mine tanked.

2. Reading before bedtime is a lifelong habit. When I was 8 or 9, I convinced my mother to let me stay up reading from 8-8:30 pm. I stretched that as far as I could. I’d sneak over to my nightlight to “destroy my eyes” (as my mother put it) but continue reading. Despite not being a reader herself then, my mother read books to my brothers and me before we could read. My grandma did as well, and she taught and encouraged me to read.

Unless I’m dead tired, I cannot fall asleep without reading and spending time away from a screen. If I’m reading a great book, I will stay up even later to continue, or maybe I’ll structure my night to “go to bed early,” aka get in bed early but stay up until my regular bedtime or later to read. A little reading every night adds up!

3. I read different genres and formats, such as comics and audio. I do not limit myself to physical paper books. (Though they are my favorite form of reading.) Some genres and formats will be quicker to read than others.

You cannot go back as quickly with an audiobook, but you cannot go faster than the narrator can talk (or your app can speed up). The more of a genre you read, like mysteries, the more easily you’ll understand the tropes and other writing conventions employed, and it may fly by. If you’re reading the 11th book in a fantasy series, you already know the world and many characters and understand the writer’s writing style and patterns.

4. On a pure numbers game, most books I read are under 300 pages. If you’re reading longer books, you just simply aren’t going to read as many books. I don’t read books under 300 pages to inflate my reading numbers. It’s simply that my most-read genres — like romance books — and formats — like graphic novels — are typically under 300 pages per guidelines from publishers. Traditional publishers don’t want your romance book that’s over 90,000 words unless you’re Nora Roberts; but even then, Nora Roberts’ readers may not want books outside of the 60,000-90,000 word range.

5. Adding to the numbers, I started several of the 16 books pre-January. Xenocultivars and Tentacles & Triathlons were started in the second half of December. I began two of the Wonder Woman graphic novels in March 2022, which I put down for a long while. But Banish Your Inner Critic: Reignite Your Creative Spark by Denise R. Jacobs takes the cake; I started it in 2019.

6. I’m a mood reader who can juggle multiple books at once. This means I don’t get “stuck” on one I’m trying to desperately finish, and I’m gentle with myself if the book is not for that moment.

I sat down James Baldwin’s Another Country for several years after reading the first part, where a character commits suicide, and it brought back all the feelings about a beloved friend who committed suicide. The book was still there when I was ready to finish it.

7. I can get out of reading slumps. I do think this is individualized, and it’s related to #6. If I feel like I’m not enjoying reading or that everything I’m reading is dragging on and on, I grab a short graphic novel and spend an hour or so reading it from start to finish. It’s like a magic resetting wand.

8. Buddy reading can encourage me to focus. My buddy read in January was Uprooted by Naomi Novak, and my friend Dina encouraged me to keep reading with her update posts and gave me her much deeper than mine insights about what we were reading.

9. It’s wintertime. The number of books I read in January will be higher than in spring and summer months. Right now, my houseplants don’t need as much care (many are dormant or semi-dormant), and my garden is quiet. I read 8 books last July as I traveled for three weddings, socialized, and gardened.

10. I put my phone out of my grasp. The #1 thing that interrupts my reading is me picking up my phone. Why am I reading the worst book ever written — aka any social media feed — when I can read a book!

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you read one or 16 books in a month. Avid readers like myself cheer on more readers.

In the last two years, my mother started reading for pleasure for the first time in her life. She’s in her mid-60s. Her favorite reads are mysteries by Lee Child, J.D. Robb, and James Patterson.

While not my picks, the reader community is generous to new readers. We realize that many people struggle with reading in complex ways, and perhaps previously, readers were shut down or out. I have close friends and family whose love of books was squashed by shitty high school teachers. I also know readers who prefer audiobooks due to dyslexia or other disabilities.

Your reading pace isn’t about a number — though goals can help some people. It’s ultimately about the reading experience you want to craft for yourself and the books you enjoy.

1. The Cooking Gene is under a Harper-Collins imprint. The HC Union is currently on strike. The Union has asked that we withhold full reviews, but we can give a thumbs up, it’s good, on reading those published by marginalized authors. So thumbs up, it’s good on The Cooking Gene.

2. I just won’t read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire because it’s full of gratuitous sexual violence that doesn’t need to be in fiction. The TV show was plenty. I want those hours back.

3. A whole problem on its own which is a complex mix of class politics and white supremacist training on deference to authority figures. Basically, shit I’ve been unlearning in the last 10+ years.

4. Another spot of white supremacy and what we naively thought we should read and what was drilled into us as important, even without direct guidance from the academy.

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