Two stories, semi-related:
When I was 20, an 18-stone truck driver with a black belt in kyokushinkai karate broke my nose. It was about half my fault: I was doing what my old style of jiu-jitsu called a ‘V’, tackling a series of semi-compliant partners throwing three-quarter speed punches, each of them approaching like bad guys in an early-90s Van Damme flick…except that Roger (the trucker) didn’t believe in doing anything half-speed. I straightened up from uchi-mataing one guy, saw a fist the size of a toaster coming towards my face, felt the snap, and two weeks later I was in hospital, having my bones re-broken so I could breathe properly again. I was in hospital for a full day, during which I read the entirety of Tom Wolfe’s 448-page The Right Stuff.
When I was 22, I booked a flight to Japan on Russian carrier Aeroflot, because it was cheaper than every other airline by about a third. I had a great time in Japan. On the way back, we got diverted to Minsk airport because of extreme weather conditions, sat on the runway for five hours in sub-zero temperatures, then finally flew back to Moscow just in time for the nice woman at the desk to tell me the next connecting flight was in 12 hours and then close a door in my face. I ended up huddling together on the floor of Moscow airport with two other people I’d met on the plane for a fitful bit of sleep, and got a flight the next morning. Somewhere in all that, I read Eiji Yoshikawa’s 984-page novelisation of the life of Japan’s most famous swordsman, Musashi.
The moral? I make bad decisions.
Here’s another thing, though: you can always read more, if you decide to read everywhere.
I started thinking about the above two stories at the start of 2017, when I compared a friend’s reading list from the previous year to mine and realised she’d ploughed through something like four times as many books as me. She isn’t less busy: she has two kids and a demanding freelance career, while I only have one of those things and a stupid workout habit. The difference: she was making time to read, and I wasn’t.
It’s easy to think that you don’t have time to read, because reading is something that you feel you should be able to find time for. Look at enough Tumblr posts and you’ll convince yourself that it’s something best done in coffee shops with authentically-grained coffee tables, on sun-loungers with a sparkling view of the sea, or wedged into a fine leather armchair with a glass of single-malt Scotch.
There’s nothing wrong with reading in these places, of course, but in a way they’re the worse places to read, because what you’re worrying about is the place rather than the reading itself. Because you can get good reading in anywhere, and the point of good reading is that it transports you out of that place anyway: from the corner of a crowded tube train to low-earth orbit, or from a turgid supermarket check-out queue to the manic energy of a Wall Street Trading floor. Books are still one of the best things in life, and you can read books anywhere.
As with everything else in life, the secret is not finding time: the secret is making time. Here’s how I’ve been doing it:
Having the Kindle app on my phone, and a Kindle in my jacket. The latter is self-explanatory: I don’t need to carry a book everywhere, but I’ve always got a book with me. The former is for even more niche spots of time: when I’m jammed nose-to-armpit on a tube train, or stuck queuing for an overpriced coffee. These are times I would normally check Twitter or Reddit, but they’re often good for a page or two: and those pages mount up. Everything auto-syncs, so it’s fine.
Having an actual, real book by the side of my bed, but no devices. I’m as bad at everyone else at frittering away the last hour of an evening on the internet, or hauling myself upright in the morning and immediately getting on the internet. The secret is to change this habit: change your default first/last activity to a different one. Make it easy by making the ‘Device’ route harder: hide your phone in another room, since you shouldn’t have it in the bedroom anyway. At first it’s a wrench, but within two weeks it’s your new default.
Aiming to read a minimum of 20 pages a day. Between evening and morning sessions I’ll usually blow through this easily, but on the days where they aren’t possible (because I’m leaving early to work out/staying up late on a project/drunk/hungover), I still make sure to crank through that 20. The number isn’t important, and so it should be low: the habit is crucial.
Reading a mix of stuff. I usually have about 2-4 books on the go at one time: probably one fiction and one non-fiction, but often some mix of easily digestible Gladwellian pop-science and more hardcore stat-based stuff. Going straight from one dry science tome is misery: heading straight from one brain-expanding novel to another gives you little time to digest. Quite often, I’ve got one book that’s easy enough to read anywhere, under any sorts of distractions: or I’ll chug through some dense, 800-page treatise knowing that I’m going to treat myself to a zippy little Vonnegut novella afterwards. Similarly, I find that a mix of actual paper books (tactile, pleasing) and Kindle stuff (convenient, makes note-taking easy) is best. If I find myself starting to flag, often just switching formats is enough to fix me up.
Reading everywhere. Seriously: make reading your default time-killing activity, and you’ll be amazed.
Right now, we’re about three months into 2017. I’ve read this lot. How are you getting on?
On Writing – Stephen King
Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor Frankl
Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed
Into The Woods – John Yorke
Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
How Bad Do You Want It? – Matt Fitzgerald
The Education of a Coach – David Halberstam
Nomad – Alan Partridge
The Obstacle Is The Way – Ryan Holliday
The Tiger – John Vaillant
In Light Of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahm
The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood
Two Hours – Ed Caesar
The Golden Spruce – John Vaillant
The Power – Naomi Alderman
The Knowledge – Lewis Dartnell
The Signal and the Noise – Nate Silver
Seveneves – Neal Stephenson
Smarter, Faster, Better – Charles Duhigg
Tribe – Sebastian Junger
Recommendations in the comments, please.
HOMEWORK: 20 pages a day this week. Anywhere and everywhere.