It’s okay: I used to be afraid too. Approaching a book made me squirmy. This is because in fourth grade I’d fallen behind in one of those Little House books and Mrs. Shill sent me home for spring break with make-up reading homework. I might appreciate the Little House books now, but at the time I loathed every last Ingalls girl. Their world of fiddle music and farm animals was the antithesis of what mattered to me at the time, which was pretty much the Rolling Stones and nothing else.
Because of my Little House punishment, I developed a Pavlovian response to the prospect of reading a book: panic. It was four years before I discovered that reading books can be a pleasurable voluntary activity: in eighth grade, a friend introduced me to Up and Down with the Rolling Stones, a memoir by Keith Richards’s former drug supplier. I loved every lurid page, and lost myself trying to figure out the salacious meaning of “His top lop protruded.” (Now I see that the o is next to the i on a keyboard, and “lop” is a typo.) You’re not going to like this, but that book changed my life.
I’m no longer afraid of books, although I never start reading one before I check to see how many pages it is. This is because I’m a member of the clean plate club when it comes to finishing a book. I still feel lousy about not finishing The Good Earth, and that was a couple of decades ago. Not finishing a book means that every minute you put into reading it until you quit was a colossal waste of your time. You’re too old for this now. You should finish what you start. Here’s how.
Go to your bookshelves and pick a book that you’ve never read — Ulysses, say. Look at the number on the last page of text, not including back matter; my Modern Library edition ends on page 783. Now see which page the narrative actually starts on: page 3. How nice for you: this is an easy calculation, as you can subtract 3 from 783 and get 780, a clean multiple of five, which is the number of pages you must commit to reading per day. (If the book had started on page 5, on your first day you could have guiltlessly read to page 8: you’re working your way up to the hard stuff.) Keep up with your five-a-day habit, and you will have read Ulysses in only 156 days. Believe me when I tell you that reading Ulysses will not be a waste of your time, which is not the same as saying that I’ve read it.
With a really excellent book, you’ll find after a few days that you will achieve liftoff and soar past the five-a-day requirement. You might even find yourself going for seven pages a day. Or maybe you’ll forgo counting the pages entirely once you’re sure you’re in flight. This happens for me with just about any book about artists in New York at midcentury, and maybe it will happen for you with that anvil Ulysses.
Once you’re done with Ulysses, you can add it to the list of books you’ve read this year. Note: You cannot include children’s books on this list, even long and laborious ones reminiscent of the Little House books such as Little Women, which I read last year (441 pages at five pages a day) because my daughter was reading it and I wanted to show my solidarity. If you include kids’ books on your list, you leave the system open to exploitation: what’s next, Hop on Pop? Hop on Pop is a great book, but come on. Children’s books go on children’s lists. Aside: My daughter’s list won’t include Little Women, as she wisely bailed after chapter 27. (She’s allowed to quit because she’s a kid. You’re not.)
Another way to commit to a book: read it aloud to someone. My husband owns a midcentury British spy novel called Miss Turquoise that I read out loud to him in five-page chunks whenever we go to bed at the same time and one of us remembers that we’re supposed to be reading it. (If you go the read-aloud-buddy route, never let your buddy do the reading: then you can’t put the book on your list.) Consider selecting a book that has been turned into a movie; watching the movie immediately after finishing the book is your reward, unless the movie is bad, in which case I apologize for suggesting it. Bonus: The film hopefully shellacs the story into your head so that if someone asks you what the book was about, you will have had a second opportunity to go over its plot points — that’s twice the chance for retention. (Again, you’re not young anymore.)
Now that you’re no longer abandoning books willy-nilly, it’s time to set clear goals for yourself — twenty-six books a year, say, meaning one every other week. Yes, it’s fine to reach for slim books if it’s November and you’re in danger of missing your target. I recommend The Birds, Camille Paglia’s assessment for the British Film Institute (I did 86 pages over three days concluding on December 31, 2015), directly followed by the Hitchcock marvel. Don’t press your luck, though. One year I’d read only twenty-five books by December 31 and had to borrow a slip of a Jamaica Kincaid novel from the bookstore where I was working at the time. I settled into the couch to read and was seized with some sort of sickness that put me booklessly in bed by around nine p.m., Mrs. Shill’s laughter ringing in my ears.
Nell Beram is a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor and coauthor of Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies (Abrams, 2013). Her writing has appeared at Salon and Slate and in The Threepenny Review, V magazine, and elsewhere.