How to Read Less (For Real)
In January of this year, I read 50 books. Then I did it again in February. Look, I read a lot. I’ve read somewhere in the realm of 250–300 books a year for the last few years. But this was excessive, even for me. Fifty books in a month! That’s about 1.6 books per day! How did I even do that? I don’t remember it being extraordinarily difficult. But it must have been, right? Where did I get all that time?
There are a bunch of answers. Winter is always when I read the most. This year, COVID meant less outings and more afternoons spent reading. I also have more time to read, generally, than a lot of people. I don’t have kids or a partner, I live alone, I’m an introvert anyway. But the real answer is that I chose reading over everything else in my life. I became a reading monster. I spent all weekend, every weekend, reading. I maybe went to the grocery store and maybe cooked myself one meal. I made no plans with friends. I didn’t do any of my own writing. I didn’t bake. I just read for ten or 12 hours on Saturday, and did it again on Sunday.
I won’t pretend that this wasn’t glorious. But it also got me into A Situation. When you spend 20 hours reading every weekend, you can read a lot of books! Reality came crashing down on me when I remembered that I actually like seeing other humans sometimes, and that I also enjoy quiet walks in the woods, writing long letters, elaborate cooking projects, and many other things. Reading to the exclusion of all else doesn’t actually make me happy. So I stopped reading so much. Then I felt like I was behind and got stressed out about it. This is the cycle I’m trying to break by normalizing reading less.
Over the past two months, I’ve purposely spent less time reading, and come up with a bunch of strategies to restore balance and joy to my reading life. This is what has worked for me. If you, too, have been struggling with your inner reader demon, maybe these ideas will also help you read less — and enjoy books more.
Make Weekend Plans That Aren’t Reading
I make deliberate non-reading plans every weekend: a new recipe to try, a walk with a friend, a trip to a farm stand I’ve been meaning to check out, a few hours working in my community garden plot. I’m slowly reminding myself that these things nourish and delight me, that they aren’t cutting into my reading time, that they’re another kind of worthwhile.
Maybe you’re not an obsessive reader and introvert, and this advice sounds bananas to you. It’s just what I’ve done to restore balance to my reading life, and the importance of balance has been the biggest takeaway from my journey to read less. Balance for you might look like something completely different.
Choose Books That Require a Commitment
What better way to read less than to tackle those big books that require all of your attention, that you simply can’t finish quickly? I’m not talking about books you genuinely aren’t interested in but feel like you should read. Nothing brings on a reading slump faster than forcing yourself to read a book you dread picking up. I’m talking about books that are worthwhile, but slow. Choose something really long. Something fascinating but hard. Something that requires you to pause and think after every paragraph. This kind of reading shifts the focus from quantity to quality. The satisfaction come from sinking into a hard book and seeing it through, rather than from the number of books you can read in a given amount of time.
For me, this has mostly meant picking up longer, more intense nonfiction audiobooks. I can listen to an eight hour audiobook in a few days, but a 15–20 hour book takes me lot longer. I recently listened to Four Hundred Souls, which was fabulous. It took me 11 days to get through, not only because it’s long, but because I often listened to it for just 20 minutes at time, pausing between each essay to digest what I’d read.
Make Non-Reading Goals
I am a goal-oriented person. I make reading goals every year, and fulfilling them is so satisfying! But when I realized that reading was the only thing I was doing for enjoyment, even though I have many other hobbies and interests, I decided I needed to make myself some non-reading goals. I love writing letters, so I made a goal to respond to every piece of snail mail I get this year. I’ve been working on a novel for years, which is slow and not always enjoyable, but important to me. So I made a goal to set aside one evening per week where I write instead of reading. I recently started a weekly newsletter about books and baking. Each issue includes a recipe, which means I need to bake something each week so I can photograph it. Having that structure is both motivating and freeing. I’m baking more, and I’m also enjoying baking more.
I make goals about things I care about. A goal is a little reminder to myself that I value something, that it’s worth putting time into because it brings me joy, or nourishes me, or enriches my life. Naming my goals outside of books gives me permission to devote time to other things.
Listen to Music (or Podcasts, or the Radio, or the Thoughts in Your Head, or Anything Else That’s Not an Audiobook)
In January and February, I was averaging 14 audiobooks a month. That’s a lot! I used to listen to them every chance I got: while cooking, cleaning, walking my dog, driving. Also while brushing my teeth, sitting on my porch looking at birds, eating meals, taking out the compost. Filling up every silent space in my life with an audiobook became a habit. I didn’t even think about it. If I was doing something that didn’t require concentration, I had an audiobook on. If I didn’t, I was wasting precious reading time.
This is a great strategy if you’re trying to read more. But I missed listening to music. I missed silence. I love going for hikes and working things out in my head. I love sitting down to a meal I’ve cooked and savoring it without any distractions. The more audiobooks I read, the less I did any of that, because I’d convinced myself that walking time was audio time. Mealtime was audio time. It didn’t matter if I actually wanted to listen to the rain pattering on the window while making bread, because baking time was audio time. Audiobooks became an obsession, and not in a good way.
I still listen to a lot of books. The difference is that now, before popping in my earbuds, I ask myself this question: do I want to listen to this book right now? Often the answer is yes. But sometimes it’s no. Sometimes I chose music or silence or a phone conversation with a friend instead, and I’m happier for it.
Even if you don’t listen to audiobooks, you can identify patterns like this in your reading life that aren’t serving you anymore. Maybe to get through more books, you started reading at every mealtime, and now it just feels like a thing you have to do. Whatever the pattern is, try breaking it, and see how it feels.
Review Everything You Read
I was so inspired by my fellow Rioter Addison’s piece about how she wrote a poem after every book she read in 2020. I tried it earlier this year, and really enjoyed it, though so far the habit hasn’t stuck. I also remember someone telling me once that they don’t start a new book until they’ve reviewed the one they’ve just finished. I haven’t totally adopted this strategy, but the idea has stuck with me for years.
Reviewing what you read can be a great way to read less. Whether it’s on Goodreads or in your own journal, taking the time to gather your thoughts and write them down means you have to stop and breathe for a minute before picking up the next book. I have to admit I’m still not great at this. But I’ve found that reviewing more of the books I read slows me down, and makes me think about reading differently. If I’m planning to review a book, I often take notes and mark passages. I usually give myself some time before picking up something new, so that I can process my feelings before writing the review. It’s a nice reminder about why I’m reading in the first place: not to swallow as many books as humanly possible, but to fully experience each book I read.
Create New Routines
Several Rioters have written eloquently about creating routines that will help you read more. Is it possible to do the opposite? Yes! To build more balance into my reading life, I turned this idea around.
I am a morning person. I get up early, and I cherish the time in my day I have to myself before I have to go to work. For most of the winter, I spent an hour reading after breakfast. Now I have a new routine: instead of devoting that hour to reading, I spend most of it watching my bird feeder. I am new to birding, and the joy of successfully identifying a new bird species is one of my favorite things. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen northern flickers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, the first orioles of the season, and so many more beautiful birds. I don’t miss that extra hour of reading, and now I can’t imagine not having that time to just sit and watch the birds.
Do you read in bed before going to sleep? I do, and so do many other people. A lot of readers I know fall asleep after reading a few pages. I am not like that. I can’t fall asleep with a book or an ereader in my hands. Still, for years, I always read before going to sleep, no matter how late it was. Sometimes I’d only read a few pages before I felt my eyes closing and put the book down But sometimes, despite my exhaustion, I’d find myself so engrossed by a book that I’d stay up for anther hour.
Simply not opening a book did not occur to me. I’d been reading before bed for so long that I’d started doing it automatically. Then, one miraculous day, I got in bed, turned off the light, and ignored the book on my nightstand. Wild, I know.
Learning to read less has meant paying more attention to what my heart and body want, not what my voracious inner reader demon wants. I’m happier when I sleep more. I’m happier when I don’t force myself to read a book before bed every single night. There is no law saying I must do this. It’s just me. And wow, does it feel good to choose sleep.
Tackle A Reading Project
Pick a project! Your reading life does not have to revolve around numbers. Maybe you want to focus on one kind of literature for a year. Maybe you want to read an author’s entire backlist. A few years ago, I made a list of 50 DIY Reading Challenges, and while reading challenges might not sound like a good way to read less, many of them can be used that way. When you’re so focused on how much you’re reading, it’s easy to forget the reasons you’re reading in the first place. A reading challenge, or a specific reading project, often re-centers those reasons. Reading less, and finding reading balance, is about readjusting the metrics we use to decide whether or not we’re succeeding.
Stop Keeping Track
This is something I absolutely will not ever do. I love keeping track of what I read. I’m one of those people who has trouble believing something happened to me unless I write it down (I’ve been journaling every day since I was 12). The thought of not having a record of every book I read fills me with actual dread. So I can’t speak from personal experience, here. But letting go of reading goals and meticulous tracking can be a way to read less, and improve your reading life. Other Rioters have written about how ditching Goodreads reading goals sometimes leads to more reading enjoyment.
If you don’t have a reading spreadsheet or a Goodreads reading goal, there’s nothing to measure your reading against, no “better version” of yourself to try and live up to. Nobody — including you — will know if you read five or ten or 50 or 200 books a year. I have to admit the idea has a certain wild allure. What could be more freeing than reading solely for the love of it, even if you can’t remember half the books you’ve read, and you don’t have any hard data with which to prove that you are, in fact, a reader?
It’s a step too far for me, and I know myself well enough to know that ditching all my reading records wouldn’t improve my reading life, anyway. But there is some middle ground. I love D.R. Baker’s method of measuring time, not books. It’s a brilliant idea if you’re trying to read less, because you can set a goal that creates space in your life for other things. There are so many creative ways to set reading goals that aren’t about reading more. Maybe you want to finally read your white whale of a book (friends, mine is Moby Dick). Maybe you want to focus on engaging deeply with your book club’s monthly picks. Maybe your ideal reading life means setting aside one day a month where you turn off your phone, tell your family to take a hike, and read for twelve hours without coming up for air. Once you start thinking outside the box, the possibilities are endless.
As I write this, with two weeks left in May, I’ve read 14 books so far this month. That might sound like a lot, but compared to how much I was reading this winter, it’s not. I’ve been reading steadily less books each month since February. My strategies are working. Sure, there’s a part of me that misses those winter months of frenzied reading. I read a lot of incredible books, and, in all honesty, it felt like a glorious achievement. But my reading life has not suffered.
This month, I reread two of my favorite reads of the year so far, Stone Fruit by Lee Lai and Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi, just because I wanted to. I was transported by the horror and beauty of Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland. I’ve been slowly working my way through the wonderful essays in Girlhood by Melissa Febos, which I started ages ago and still haven’t finished. I’ve also made brownies, learned several new bird species, worked through the tangled threads of my work-in-progress on a long hike, roasted a chicken for myself, and had dinner with my bestie.
My inner reader demon might not be winning, but I am.