17 Strategies of a Born-Again Reader

I used to have piles of untouched books on my nightstand. I was an avid book reader as a kid and an avid book buyer as an adult. But somewhere on the road to adulthood, I apparently decided that reading was for people who didn’t have more important things to do, and that I was too important and too busy to find time to read. So, from the age of approximately 16 to 42, I would binge read on vacation, and that was about it for my pleasure reading.  

What changed? About five years ago, I noticed that some of the highest-impact people I know are also some of the most active readers. People who are beyond busy. How were they reading so much more than everyone else? I began to realize that I had it all wrong about reading—it is a path to impact, not an obstacle to it. It needs to be a daily part of my life, not an afterthought for vacations.  

I have a demanding job and two young kids. When and how was reading going to fit in? Well, once I let go of my too-busy-to-read stuff, I figured it out. I now read approximately 40 books per year (in addition to reading a ton for my job). Here is what works for me:

1. I have reading role models—really busy and accomplished people whose work ethic, talent, and impact on the world is exemplary … who read regularly. When I think I’m too busy to read, I think of them: Lisa Carnoy, Bill Gates, Dave Levin.  

2. I only read what I want to read on my own time. I don’t read things because I think I should, period. If the book requires willpower for me to pick it up, then I won’t read it. Instead, it should require willpower for me to stop.

3. I research books before I read them. I am pathetically unspontaneous in my reading. I read about the books, I read the reviews, I listen to friends’ advice. By the time I pick up a book, the chances I won’t like it are trivially low. As a result, I have addictive streaks of reading book after book that I love.

4. That said, one of my best reading experiences of 2012 was an impulsive purchase during a massive travel delay.

5. I stopped looking for 30 and 60 minutes of reading time. Five minutes is enough: on hold with customer service, in the waiting room of the doctor, waiting in line at Walgreens or for the spin cycle to complete or for the subway likely to arrive any minute or for the microwave. Two to three of those a day, and you’ll read two good-sized books a month! I’ve heard these shreds of time referred to as “leisure time confetti.” Yes! Read during the leisure time confetti.  

6. I am agnostic on medium—print, kindle, audio—because more access to books means more chances to read, especially during leisure time confetti.

7. Being agnostic on medium was a conscious choice that required me to overcome my own biases, preferences, and comforts. I got myself used to e-reading, even though I still truly prefer print. E-reading is far more portable than print and responsive to sudden urges to read and unexpected windows of reading time. (Doctor is running late, OK, I can download a book right now and be reading it in less than a minute. Screw People magazine—I will be three chapters into a book I’ve been dying to start before the nurse calls me in.) E-readers also only require one hand and this is huge for parents who can rarely spare both hands, for folks like me who need to sit less and walk more. (Yes, I walk and read on my kindle—“Mommy, can we play in the park?” “Sure, just let me grab my kindle.” They play and I walk slow laps around the playground reading.)

8. I am willing to spend money on redundancy if it helps me maintain momentum. For example, I sometimes check out a book from the library AND pay for the audio version. This way, I double my chances of reading on any given day. It sounds decadent, but on a dollar per hour basis, this is still dramatically cheaper than seeing a movie.  

9. In fact, I budget money for books. My view is that if I’m willing to spend $20, plus babysitting, for two tickets to a two-hour movie, I should be willing to spend $20 for a book that will entertain me for at least 10 to 20 hours, and that I can re-read, pass on to others, and proudly display in my home.  

10. I use goodreads.com. I love how easy and accessible it is—on my phone or laptop, I can scan a barcode in less than 10 seconds. I love how visual it is—it is pretty and makes me happy. I love how voyeuristic it is—what are my friends reading? I love the ego boost I get when I mark my progress or move a book from the “to-read” to the “read” shelf. It’s the digital equivalent of those summer reading charts the public library used to give us, where we got a sticker for every book we read.  

11. Goodreads also helps me plan my reading and keep track of books that I am dying to read but will not remember the name or even existence of when the time actually comes to pick out a book. It allows me to make better choices.  

12. I also love looking back to see what I was reading when, and reflecting on how those books captured what was going on in my life—and even how those books shaped what was going on in my life.

13. I read aloud to my children every night. We actively schedule our lives to make this happen, even if it means reading by phone when I’m on a business trip or reading in the morning if I have an evening work commitment. We read meaty, substantive books and, by the end of 2016, had read 70 books, including the entire “Little House” series, “Anne of Green Gables” series, “Wrinkle in Time” series, “My Side of the Mountain” series, “Mysterious Benedict Society” series, all the books of Christopher Paul Curtis, and many others. They love the read-aloud time and I love the read-aloud time—it’s one of the few shared activities that has survived every age/phase so far (kids are 11 and 10).

14. We also try to tie family travel and reading together—such as visiting South Dakota/Minnesota for “Little House” and Prince Edward Island for “Anne of Green Gables.” We live near New York City, so we’ve read a number of city-based books and visited those places.

15. I have fallen in love with non-fiction. Somehow, I hadn’t realized that good non-fiction is as absorbing in its narrative, suspense, and writing as good fiction. This revelation opened up a whole world of reading that is so distant from feeling like a “guilty pleasure” that I can squash the worry, in which my type-A personality sometimes wallows, that reading is a lazy enjoyment.

16. When the TV in my bedroom broke, I didn’t even try to figure out what was wrong with it for two years. I love TV, but have decided that a TV show has to be pretty awesome to be better than the next book on my nightstand. There are definitely some shows that I put in this category, but not many.

17. I am getting better at treating reading as a shared and social activity. In other words, I am bringing my reading life outside my own mind. I ask people what they are reading and tell them what I am reading. For some reason, this feels really uncomfortable for me, like a violation of others’ privacy or an unwelcome opening of my own privacy. And yet, when I do it, it is almost always rewarding. This is a growth area for me, and writing about reading here is actually a very bold step in this direction.