How to go from reading nothing to reading everything

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Making a Commitment to Reading
  • How to go from reading nothing to reading everything

The worst thing that ever happened to me was when I stopped reading books.

I stopped taking care of myself — stopped caring about myself. I wasn’t hanging out with people who made me better.

I spent evenings smoking pot and watching random football and soccer games on television. I filled my feed reader with daily tech news and wasted hours skimming through ethereal posts, comprehending nothing. My life was full of junk: I was watching it; reading it; consuming it.

I had lost my love of books, my defining characteristic as a kid. But it wasn’t completely gone; just buried. It resurfaced when I was around people who sparked it. My wife refused to marry me before I read the Harry Potter books, so I read them all in four months. HBO premiered Game of Thrones, which was amazing, and I had several friends who raved about the Song of Ice and Fire series, so I made certain to finish all five novels between seasons one and two. And a chance viewing of WWII-in-color footage inspired me to finally take on The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (which was totally worth it).

It was during these renaissances that I knew something was wrong. I’m not that quick on the uptake — it took me years to properly respond, to return books to their rightful role in my life. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t somehow, some way, come back from the brink of a book-less void.

I didn’t do it consciously. I stumbled on the answer, battling through lean months and relapses. At my lowest depths I couldn’t have believed change was possible. To me it still feels inexplicable; eloquence eludes me. I only know that then I was not a reader of books, and today I am.

At the same time? It was simple. I did one thing, and no matter how much I struggled, I kept at it, and I continue to do it every day.

It’s three words: commit to books.

Yes, such a thing manifests differently in everyone. Maybe it’s not really so simple (it’s sure as hell not easy). But then again… every secret, tactic, trick, system, and habit for reading more books I’ve ever seen boils down to that one fundamental idea.

The central characteristic of a commitment is dedication. Dedication is a lifelong pursuit, and it must be constantly renewed. It requires time, effort, persistence. Books are not my whole life, to be sure, but they are a big enough part that being a book reader is an ineluctable part of my core identity.

Did I wake up one day and make this commitment? Of course not. As I said, it took years, and it was hardly a conscious task. What happened was this:

Little by little, I began making more choices that solidified my commitment to books, and making fewer choices that undermined it.

Whether I’m aware of it or not, every action I take, every activity I pursue, every minute I spend during my day, all of these decisions make a statement about my commitments. You can’t announce a commitment like you would a New Year’s Resolution. You build a commitment over years and decades, choice by choice.

What were the choices I made continue to make that build my commitment to books?

I stopped smoking pot. Everyone has vices, and this was mine. I was never, and am still not, against smoking weed now and then. When it became a habit, though, that’s when I understood how antithetical it is to my greatest ideals. What are pot’s two strongest characteristics? It inhibits short-term memory, and it makes you feel good about the status quo. Fine for a random Saturday night. Not a good idea if I want to accumulate wisdom and skill and to create things I’m proud of (all of which require the ability to process complex concepts — you know, like you might find in a challenging book).

Some people can function just fine while smoking regularly, maybe; I have no opinion one way or the other. All I can say is, every time I chose to smoke I also chose to undermine my commitment to reading. Please apply this logic to alcohol, pornography, magazines, reality television, and so on.

I got rid of cable television. How great is watching sports? I grew up on it. I still love it. But do I feel better after watching Colts vs. Texans on Thursday Night Football, or after reading three chapters in Smartcuts? I’d like to read as many books as I can in my life (knowing that I’ll never read all the books I want to), and every decision to watch a game or an episode or channel-surf brainlessly reduces that number. Has anyone ever said, “I want to watch as many sporting events and TV shows as I can in my life?”

I sleep eight hours a night. And sometimes more. Reading books requires concentration requires sleep. Being tired makes it exponentially more likely that I will make decisions that undermine my commitment, which makes getting sleep probably the best thing I can do to grow it.

I keep a list. Adding a book I want to read to a list is probably the smallest physical commitment I can make to reading it, but the psychological commitment is immense. I know that I can’t get to the books at the bottom of my list — and all the ones that aren’t even on the list yet — until I finish the books at the top.

I buy books. And little else. As my consumption of other goods and services decreases, my book purchasing skyrockets. Both Ramit Sethi and Ryan Holiday (and plenty of others) promote the philosophy of immediately buying any books that look worthwhile. My walls are now lined with bookshelves. I always make sure that the next book on my list is on its way before I finish the current one.

I read every day. More specifically, I know when I’m going to read every day. I like to do it in the evening, when the sun’s going down and I can relax my muscles and let the sweat of the day flow from my skin. And on weekend mornings when there’s nothing required of me and I can luxuriate in the silence. And in bed, reading a novel, I lose myself in other worlds until I slide off to sleep.

I write about books. This site is a commitment to the commitment. It’s a chance for me to share what I learn and connect with others who proudly call themselves book readers. (That’s you.) And if you’ve gotten this far, I’m sure that I’d love to talk with you. Do tell me your story.

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