I read all the time as a child. On long car rides my parents chided me for having my head buried in a book, cajoling me to look outside at the scenery. Like many people, I broke my reading stride when I started college.

Six years ago I learned about the 52 Book Challenge, where you try to read a book a week for a year. I was taking a year off from school, and was bored and alone in my parents house in the foothills. One year of college had broken me physically and emotionally. I was focusing on building my health back up and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I reached out for a community online and discovered the book challenge.

During that first year away at university, I stopped all extracurricular reading. Stress, sleep deprivation, and the trials of late teendom left me with little energy or desire to read books. It was difficult to gaze at more words after forcing my way through pages of academic text; I generally wanted to stare at a wall when I was done. But then I was at home in LA, unable to drive, alone except for my parents and two friends. I had lots of free time between the few credits I was taking at the local community college and my temporary unemployment. I began to read again.

Writing this now, in 2020, I didn’t think it would take so long to return to a regular habit of reading average-length books. At first I was striving for a return to old reading habits, but over time my goal has shifted. I still push myself to read, but I don’t pressure myself to read the same way I did when I was younger (my memories of which have a dusting of nostalgia). “How I used to read” is a false idea: I was a kid, my parents monitored what I read, I didn’t care how many books I was reading, my time spent online was extremely different. So the modern goal was reading fifty-two books, and now it’s evolved into a desire to read widely, balancing comfort zones and pushing limits.

When I hear people lament that they don’t read anymore, I tend to recount my journey to my current reading habit. I didn’t begin to keep track of my number of books read more formally until 2017, but I have odd scraps noting which books I read in 2014-2016. From this, I’ve developed a sort of a schedule, if you will. The main driver is increasing the number of books you read, advancing to the point where you can comfortably read several-hundred-page fictions.

A few comments:

  • I didn’t include young adult or middle grade fiction because I’m not drawn to them. That can be an excellent way to start reading more—perhaps even re-reading books you enjoyed when you were younger, then working up to more recent works.
  • I decided years ago that if I didn’t like a book, I wouldn’t force myself to finish it. Sticking with a book I didn’t like often made me resent reading, and I felt I wasted my time. Reading is enjoyable to me, not a chore, and allowing myself to put down a book that didn’t capture my interest was freeing. That doesn’t mean I give up on hard books, just that if something is awful I know I can (metaphorically) chuck it.
  • I’ve more recently become more aware of the representation in books I read: gender, sexuality, race, disability. I’m mindful of the books I read now, and am intentional about prioritizing authors of color. While I hope everyone is aware of their reading patterns, it can be overwhelming. My advice is to pay attention to what you’re reading, but don’t feel guilty. Make a note of it and set a goal for the next year (or next reading sprint).
  • I found the structure of a challenge motivating, as I’m unfortunately competitive. Even when I didn’t complete the 52 Book Challenge for several years, it gave me something to strive for. Look at challenges as a way to motivate yourself—there are plenty ranging from reading authors of color to more gamified book bingo—but if they feel constricting, don’t pressure yourself to commit.
  • I’m a data nerd so I like keeping track of metadata about all the books I read. I use Goodreads, and this year started using my own spreadsheet to monitor custom metrics based on this template from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Whichever method you choose, I urge you to keep a list of all the books you read. (Feel free to add me on Goodreads!)

Without further ado, here are the steps I took to build up my reading again.

  1. Read lots of very short books. Poetry is my recommendation, because there are so few words on the page. Novellas work too. Anything that will build your confidence about reading books and finishing them. Recommendations: Urban Tumbleweed, Spring and All, Binti, I Don’t Think Of You (Until I Do), Shopgirl, Graphite, Salad Anniversary.
  2. Read short story collections and/or anthologies. There’s a lot of variety, and finishing each story or section gives a sense of accomplishment. If you don’t like a story, you can skip it or power through knowing it’ll be over in a few pages. Recommendations: The Girl’s Guide To Hunting And Fishing, Self Help.
  3. If you want to read more fiction, start reading long graphic novels. The Sculptor by Scott McCleod built up my confidence to follow a single plot line for a sustained period, and also finish a huge book. Recommendations: The Heart Of Thomas, The Sculptor, What Is Obscenity?, Bitch Planet.
  4. To get comfortable reading longer books, move to genre fiction. I absolutely love romance novels; I can binge them and finish them in a day or two. Many are 300-400 pages. With genre fiction, there is an agreement between the author and the reader to stick to conventions. The plot structure can be predictable, like in romance, or maybe it’s the fast pace, such as thrillers. Conventional genre fiction almost always has a conclusion: the main characters have a happily ever after, the mystery is solved. Especially in these turbulent times, formulas are comforting. Recommendations: Look For Her, Do You Want To Start A Scandal, The Crossfire Series.
  5. Read “light” nonfiction: business books, self-help, pop science or anthropology. Recommendations: Seven Days In The Art World, Choose Wonder Over Worry, My Morning Routine, Bad With Money.
  6. Read whatever you want! This isn’t the end, though. Watch for patterns in your reading, and start challenging yourself with books out of your comfort zone. (This doesn’t mean tackling meaty philosophy or the like, for me that guidance included a YA fantasy book.)

I’m so sad when people tell me they wish they could develop their reading habit, because reading has been crucial to my understanding of the world and provided solace through the strains of everyday life. If you want to talk about your reading journey, have questions, or want book recommendations hit me up on Twitter. ✨