Reading Deeper in 2021

Like almost every book lover, my reading life looked different in 2020. I read more books than I ever have before, by a lot. I finished 88 books in 2020, a personal record by more than 25 books. That number felt great, but getting to it didn’t always feel so great. I was reading for the win – the goal was not to enjoy reading, but to finish books, and lots of them. Having the twofold stress of the pandemic and a pregnancy, short and light-hearted books were a lifeline, and always being just around the corner from finishing a book gave me something to look forward to.

I don’t regret reading this way, but I did miss depth in my reading life, and I especially missed a slower, calmer reading experience. Last year, I went for quantity over quality, but this year I’m focusing on quality. That means I’ll stop shying away from those long or challenging reads, but more than that, it means I will focus on enjoying the reading experience rather than bolstering my book tally.

I always set some categories to read in each year to keep my reading broad and varied – like a series, a mystery novel, a Jane Austen reread – but this year I’ve also set some general goals. These are big-picture principles that will guide my reading life this year. I hope these goals will help me select great books and build good reading habits in 2021.

  1. Read Less. Yep. You heard that right. I want to improve my reading life – and the rest of my life – by reading less. I got so stuck on completing books in 2020. I never took a walk in silence, because I could get through some audiobook; I zoomed through a book so I could mark it as finished, instead of slowing down to savor beautiful prose or ponder big ideas. I was enjoying books, but not enjoying the act of reading. This year, I want to read to read. I also want to make room in my life for quiet, without always adding the noise of new information. I want to take time to contemplate the books I read. I want to listen to an audiobook at normal speed. I want to take a walk in silence.
  2. Better Myself. I want to do more learning and growing this year. I want to learn something this year that will make my life better every day. In December, I read Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel (one of my favorite books of 2020), and it truly made my life better. Simple living is a passion of mine, and this book had me wondering what else I can learn from others to make my life simpler and better. I’m particularly interested in books on habit like Atomic Habits and One Small Step Can Change Your Life, personal growth books like The Chemistry of Calm, and contemplative nonfiction like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet.
  3. Learn Something. I don’t read enough history. This year I’m eager to learn more about history and the lives of interesting people through some great biographies. Reading biography is actually a huge stretch for me. I usually include a biography on my yearly reading challenge, and usually that category goes unmet all year (along with the book of poetry I always think I’ll read). My list currently includes Woody Holton’s Abigail Adams and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Honestly, those will probably keep me busy quite a while, but I would love some great biography recommendations if you have them. My underlying goal here is to stop thinking of this genre as dry and boring, so I read it more naturally in the future.
  4. Explore children’s literature. I already have a collection of picture books I love. I wrote in the past about weeding out the twaddle and keeping only the very best books to read with my kids. Now that my oldest is four, I’m eager to build a library full of great books for older kids. This year, I want to read a lot of children’s chapter books so I can pick great read alouds and surround my kids with great books to choose from when they’re ready to read for themselves. To meet this goal, I’m doing buddy reads with my sister-in-law (an elementary school teacher and my favorite children’s book expert), reading beginner chapter books like My Father’s Dragon with Bub, and taking on whatever catches my fancy on my own, like the Little House series. I’m always looking for great recommendations, so please share your favorites!
  5. Go long. I was not that pandemic reader taking on War and Peace. I rarely even touched a book longer than 350 pages. That’s okay, except I almost always find great pleasure in a long book that has stood the test of time. If a book is long and still everyone loves it, there must be something great about it. Two of my very favorite books, Les Miserables and Middlemarch (which has a great free audiobook version on Librivox), are so long I’d once resolved never to read them, and boy am I glad I didn’t stick to that resolution. The thing is, you cannot enjoy a long book if you can’t enjoy the reading experience. In 2020, I stuck with very short reads, because I did not have the fortitude for intimidating page counts, but this year I want to stop looking at the numbers and just savor a great, long book. It almost always pays off. Unless it’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Skip that one.

Year-End Reading Roundup

The end of the year is always a time I like to reflect on my year of reading, what really worked for me, and what books I loved. While the first half of the year my reading life suffered due to early pregnancy and lock-downs, about midsummer I found myself reading again – happily, naturally, and more than I ever have before…even after welcoming my third child (and first daughter!) to our family. I’ve loved books for a long time, but this year I realized they have become my sanity, and self-care has come to mean making time to read.

I already recapped January to June reading in my Midyear Reading Roundup. Here is a snapshot of my reading life July to December – the habits that have kept me reading lately, and the books I loved most.

Early Morning Reading. After Pantsy was born, I started getting up earlier in the morning for some quiet time before the kids woke up. I try to read first thing in the morning for at least fifteen minutes before I do anything else – before breakfast, or talking to my husband, or checking my phone. When I do this, I have better, calmer days. I’m a better mom when I read.

Cleaning House. Pantsy’s birth also made me obsessed with having a clean house (which I promise is new to me). With three kids under four, keeping things clean is a way to maintain control of something and impose a little order in the chaos. What does this have to do with reading? First, more cleaning time is more audiobook time! Second, having a clean house means when I sit down with a book, my calm environment helps me focus. With fewer distractions, I can immerse myself more fully in a book for longer periods of time.

Reading Short. I have stuck with mostly short books all year. Finishing books with great frequency kept up my momentum and gave me a sense of accomplishment. I usually read several long books in a year, but this year I only exceeded 600 pages (my benchmark for “long”) once, and that was an audiobook. I’m hoping to take in more long books next year, but in 2020, didn’t we all need as many wins as we could get?

Varying Formats. These days I usually have one e-book, one audiobook, and one or two print books going at once. Different formats fit into different places in my life, so using them all at once gives me more reading time. As mentioned in my Midyear Reading Roundup, I’m new to e-books, and since then I stole my husband’s Kindle. It’s perfect for reading in the dark and reading one-handed – which are useful features when nursing a newborn! (Big thanks to Modern Mrs. Darcy daily e-book deals.)

Goodwill. Much as I love my new Kindle (“my” “new” Kindle), I’m still doing most of my reading the old-fashioned way, and my new favorite source is my local Goodwill. I would honestly rather go there than to an actual bookstore. Goodwills are usually a crap shoot for books, but at this one, I always walk out with at least two books in great condition that I’m so excited about. And they cost $1.49 each. When I decide to treat myself these days, it means a Goodwill trip with a $10 budget.

Every one of these came from my Goodwill.

Libby. I’m not entirely sure how I went through 31 years of life without Libby, an awesome app by which you can borrow audibooks and e-books free through your local library. I’ve always adored LibriVox (and still do) because audiobooks are expensive, but I got a bit burned out on classics and Libby has made it possible to listen to contemporary books without the price tag.

Okay, now for the books! I read all over the genre map this year, and have quite an odd variety in my favorite picks.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Did this as a buddy read with my BBFF (Book BFF slash regular BFF) and we both adored it. It’s about a hostage crisis and opera and it is everything that is beautiful about being a human being.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. How great is this book? I read this for the second time, with the great LibriVox recording by Karen Savage. Anne is a character that should be annoying and unrealistic, but Maud brings her to life so perfectly that I believe her character every second, and I love her.

Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel. I wanted to get this for everyone for Christmas, but thought getting self-help books for people would probably seem rude. This is the best book I’ve ever read on stress management and I can’t recommend it enough if you struggle with any stress, not just overthinking. I particularly benefited from her chapter on decision fatigue.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I don’t believe there are many books everyone should read, but this is one. This book is full of both practical information and philosophical reflection on the subject of aging and dying. In the hands of any other writer, this would be morbid, but Gawande leaves you feeling like you’ve had a comforting conversation with a trusted friend. At less than 300 pages, it is well worth anyone’s time.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford. I found this middle-grade mystery novel while searching Modern Mrs. Darcy for Christmas reads. I liked the cover and the e-book was on sale, so I bought it on a whim. I just loved it – the charming illustrations at the start of each chapter, the wintery atmosphere, the RPG references. Milo lives in an old house his parents run as an inn, and when an odd assortment of guests turn up right before Christmas, Milo makes a new friend and goes on a quest to learn what his mysterious guests are hiding.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I happened to pick up this World War II veteran’s story right before Veteran’s Day, and it really drove home the meaning of the day. I plan to pick up another veteran’s story next year. This is a truly incredible story of an airman’s survival following a plane crash in the Pacific. There was more than one moment where my jaw literally dropped in disbelief.

The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I put off reading this final Sherlock Holmes collection because it was published a decade after the previous work, and ominously described as “darker” than other collections and not all narrated by Watson. Posh! I was expecting a bunch of grisly murders written in the third person, but found these were in the same spirit as other Sherlock stories, and they were even better. Most were narrated by Watson, but two were amusingly narrated by Sherlock himself. The e-book is only 99 cents!

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. This book wins the Miss Congeniality award for the most likable characters of the year. Locke and his band of thieves known as the Gentleman Bastards are utterly charming and whatever they were up to, I was there for it. That alliterative title is not just to be cute: Locke literally lies his way through an insane, chaotic, bloody mess of a plot. I don’t often read adventure or fantasy, and I’m so glad I took a chance on this. The audiobook narrator is excellent, and you can easily speed up to 1.4 or 1.5, so don’t fear the length.

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. I have scandalous gaps when it comes to children’s literature since I wasn’t really a reader until adulthood. This year, I resolved to finally read the whole Chronicles of Narnia series, and I adored this volume. From the theology perspective, this is second only to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. This one will seem a little out of place for those who know my usual taste, but I loved it. It’s like a juicy romance novel had a baby with a Jane Austen novel. It is funny, romantic, and full of drama, yet infused with wit and satire – breezy to read, but still intelligent. The best thing about this book, though, is that my one-year-old staggered over to me with it one day saying, very excitedly, “Penguin!”

Penguin!

Midyear Reading Roundup

When July comes around, I like to reflect on my reading year so far, and share some of my favorites. Overall, this year has turned out to be a good year for numbers–but not my best year for quality, with half my ratings being 3 stars or less. (Pro-tip: I’ll never know if you just skip ahead to the book list.)

Audiobooks buoyed my numbers while my print reading suffered a steep drop-off in February. My rut was punctuated with some disciplined reading of a book here and there, but I have not been that quarantined reader who is taking on War and Peace. Library closures hit my reading life pretty hard. I’ve come to rely heavily on the library to quickly acquire THAT book and get to it while I’m excited. It’s been hard to go back to shopping on my shelves. Marie Kondo says there’s a moment to read a book, and that moment is when you first encounter it. Readers often question Kondo on books (not me! ..but that’s another topic for another day), but she has such a point here and I’ve tried to pay attention to it in my reading life. As much as I can, I read books right away when I get them, and request or buy them right away when I hear about them. I do read and love books that have been sitting on my shelves, but I have a difficult time choosing one and I almost always read them slower.

I’ve been working my way out of the slump with some discipline (and luck). Here’s what’s been working for me lately in my reading life.

1. Short audiobooks (at 1.25 speed, baby!). I love audio as a way to consume massive classics, like Middlemarch and The Three Musketeers. Usually 12 hours is my minimum, but this year short has been my go-to. I listened to 14 audiobooks January through June and most were about 8 hours. With audio sped up I go through them very quickly, listening while on walks with the kids, cooking dinner, folding laundry, driving in the car, and the like. I’m knocking some long-time TBRs off the list, and regularly get the encouragement of actually finishing a book.

2. Re-reading. My memory is too good to do this very often – I don’t just remember the plot, but also the literal words on each page. It feels like I just finished it, even if over a year has passed. But I’m starting to find I’ve forgotten almost everything about some old favorites and I’ve enjoyed going back to them. I’ve done some of my re-reading by audio or read-aloud, which brings the books to life in a totally different way.

3. Snowball method reading. Think Dave Ramsey for books. You may be familiar with Ramsey’s snowball method for debt, where you start with focusing on your smallest debt and work your way up to the biggest. Small victories along the way help you stay motivated. I applied this to my absurd in-progress stack – tallied up the pages remaining in each and started with the lowest page count. I haven’t gotten to zero yet and I keep acquiring new book debt, but I turn to this strategy whenever I’m unsure what to read next and it has kept me reading when I might otherwise stall out in indecision.

4. Reading aloud. My husband and I have taken to reading together at bedtime and it’s awesome. My husband is a fantastic reader and since I’m an insomniac, being read to in bed really helps me wind down and sleep. 

5. Ebooks. Confession: before this year I had never finished an ebook. I even had a Kindle for a while and never finished a book on it. Lately, reading on my phone seemed like a good way to fit in more books and cut down on time-wasters like social media. It’s enabled me to take advantage of little moments where a paper book isn’t practical, like when I’m nursing a baby and have only one hand free. I’ve finished two books borrowed through Libby, and am working on my third.

Okay, now for the good stuff. Here are the books I’ve been loving this year.

1. A Place for Us by Fatima Fahreen Mirza. This is definitely my favorite book of the year so far, and one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. It is the story of an Indian Muslim family in America, particularly revolving around the rebellious son, Amar. The characters are real, the writing is lyrical, and the story is a beautiful combo of hopeful and devastating. I never cry over books, but this one got me in the end.

2. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. I can’t believe I wasted so much time assuming this book would be boring. This book has everything – mystery, ghosts, murder, kidnapping, graveyards, extortion, love triangles, opera singers, mysterious foreigners – you get the idea. It gets right to the action and doesn’t waste time. I had so much fun listening to the full cast recording on LibriVox.

3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. This books tells the story of four Chinese mothers and their American daughters. The cultural and language divides that exist between the characters beautifully highlight the barriers that always exist between mothers and daughters that make their understanding of each other imperfect.

4. The Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in audio. I’ve been listening through the Sherlock canon on LibriVox, read by David Clarke. This is something I’d have a hard time reading in print, but I just eat it up in audio. This format is perfect for these stories. Sherlock is a character for the ages, and Doyle’s storytelling is excellent.

5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Thirty-something Keiko is happy living alone and working the convenience store job she’s had for over a decade, but decides to make some changes when she gets sick of the pity, worry, and disapproval from her friends and family. This book is bizarre and insightful and charming in an Eleanor Oliphant sort of way, and can be read in one or two sittings.

6. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is my second read through this book, and my husband read it to me this time around. I enjoyed it so much more than when I read on my own – it’s like it’s meant to be read aloud. Tolkien is just delightful, and brilliant.

7. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This is what I call “bibliophile lit”, or fiction where the plot revolves around books and readers in a way that is probably not realistic but is delightful for book lovers to imagine. It’s also a something-for-everyone book that felt part literary fiction, part YA, part mystery/suspense, part historical fiction.

8. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. This was one of my ebook reads, and I really just tried it because I was curious and it was immediately available on Libby. I expected to find a mildly amusing, annoyingly quirky 3-star read, but I just loved this. It was funny and clever and different than anything I’ve read before. It had some really fun twists and left me really rooting for the characters.

If you’re interested in what else I’ve been reading this year, check out my 2020 Reading Challenge on Goodreads. I’d love to hear how your reading year is going, what you’re reading, and your thoughts if you’ve read any of the favorites from my list!