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Reading in 2021

A couple of years ago, I realized I wasn't reading books anymore. I was reading a ton - mostly stuff on the web - but I hadn't managed to physically open a book and read it cover to cover. I was ashamed, and immediately made a resolution: that year, I would read fifty books.

It was obviously an arbitrary number: more or less one or week, with room for a little bit of slippage. But having that North Star meant that I read more eclectically and adventurously, and although I didn't quite hit fifty, I read an order of magnitude more than I had the previous year, discovering a host of authors in the process. (Incidentally, this effort was also the origin of my reading roundups every month, which I've also found to be useful retrospectives.)

2020 was a mess, and no more needs to be said about that. Most of the books I "read" were audiobooks, via, which largely replaced my podcast listening. It was hard, for most of the year, to bring my brain to a calm enough place to read words on a page at length.

This year, though, I've decided to revive my 50-book goal. I have a different reason: too often, the last thing I look at when I go to bed is a screen. My intention is to build the very normal and common habit of reading a book before going to sleep, instead of, for example, falling down a web rabbithole or checking Twitter. And I miss the eclectic, long-form thinking that can only be found in books.

It's rare that I'm able to get into a business book: these often feel like overlong blog posts that have been padded out for the prestige of having a publication under the author's belt. Some people pride themselves on only reading these, but I think this limitation forces you to miss out on the wealth of human experience. Fiction is more than a diversion; it's an experimental playground for empathy and human thought. It's weird to me that some people have a stigma around it. Conversely, I don't want to lock myself off from reading business books, and there's certainly a lot to learn. I just think that if something could be a blog post, it should be.

My mother is also an avid reader. Largely confined to her bed, she devours books on her Kindle (because the font size can be increased to satisfy her failing eyesight) and on Audible. Sometimes, when she's stuck in dialysis or having a particularly bad day, my sister will FaceTime her and read to her over a call. When she's done, she records her review in one of those hardback notebooks filled with close-lined paper, and moves immediately onto the next one.

I also feel the need to record what I've read, with some kind of a brief review of how I found it. My equivalent of a notebook is Notion, which I already use to keep track of my bookmarks. I've altered my reading database to keep track of books now, too. It's occurred to me to write a Known plugin to keep track of my reading on this website, and maybe I will, but this seemed like the fastest path to getting into a good habit. Notion has good data exports, and an API is finally coming, so I feel confident I can move my data elsewhere if I ever need or want to. Once the Notion API is out, I'm thinking I'll wire it up to Known as a linkblog, so people who are interested enough can follow my reading as I record it.

I'm also going to post on Goodreads. Although it's getting long in the tooth, and it's controversially retiring its API, it's where a lot of people share their reading and discover new books. So I'll be using that for the time being, mostly so I can discover new titles to read from my friends. Although Goodreads is owned by Amazon, I buy all my books using Bookshop, to avoid giving them any serious money (and to support local booksellers). For now, I'm telling myself that this is an acceptable compromise.

The books themselves? Mostly on paper. My Kindle has been unused for years, and I'm honestly not sure if it even works anymore. And I like the feel of reading a paper book. I realize how selfish this is: billions of trees are cut down to make books, and the environmental impact is non-trivial. The environmental impact of an e-reader is also non-trivial, but as long as you don't upgrade it every year and read 30-40 books a year, you break even. So although one of my goals is to get away from ending each day looking at a screen, I think I need to find a non-DRM encumbered reader with an e-ink screen that I can keep for years, and switch to that. If you're using one, I'd love to hear your recommendations.

Of course, the most important question is: what are you reading? What books have stood out to you that you think I should check out? In all these layers of technology - as with the internet itself - the only things that really matter are the words and ideas, and the authors behind them. I'd love to hear your recommendations.


 Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.