How I Read #3: Keeping Count

Do audiobooks count? Do abridged versions count? Do comics count? Does the instruction manual that came with my Bluetooth speaker count? Spoiler alert: Yes

This is one part of a series of articles about How I Read, i.e. what's worked for me and what hasn't. I probably wouldn't recommend reading all of them together, that sounds like serious overkill.


Multiple times this series, I'm going to go back to tips and tricks that are designed to just make you happy. Sunday Reads are all about keeping your morale up. Abandoning Books is about getting away from books that threaten to kill your energy.

In line with that, another thing I like to give myself is some kind of reward for finishing, a quick treat for reaching another milestone. Like adding 1 to my Read count for the year.

Sure, I think of reading as a private, fun activity, but by rotating multiple books and tagging on +1s on Sundays, I'm definitely making some work out of it. Keeping track, therefore, becomes important because it's a way to add a actual ‘closing’ act to the end of an otherwise kind of continuous activity. This is especially important when your books take the form of digital media like ebooks and audiobooks, rather than an actual book that you finally close and sigh and stare at the ceiling and just go "wow".

Moving a book to your Read shelf on Goodreads, striking it out from your reading list, adding it to a spreadsheet you're maintaining are all ways of doing just that: keeping track [1].

Maybe it’s true that just reading and reading without keeping count is the more ‘pure’ way to do it. But watching a number go up all year round is hugely motivational, and it makes me happy. And that’s pretty much what we’re going for here.

Reading Challenges

I have mixed feelings about setting myself reading goals in terms of a number of books to read in a year. This may come as a surprise, as I just said I like keeping count one paragraph ago. But targeting X books in 2021 is a little different from just keeping count.

The obvious argument against it is that it aims for a lesser goal. The objective should be ‘build an optimal reading habit’ as opposed to ‘read X books’, and the numbers should really just be an aide rather than the goal itself.

There’s also the fact that the first time you set such a goal for yourself, it’s going to be completely arbitrary, because you have no idea what kind of number you’re capable of, and yet it might affect the pace with which you pick up new books. You’ll end up spacing your books when you realize you ‘only need to do 4 more this year’.

On the other hand, resetting your count once in a while is definitely healthy. Just counting all the books you ever read in your life doesn’t sound very morale-boosting.

If you want to pick up a reading habit this year and want to set yourself a reading challenge, I’d recommend setting something so low that there’s really no possibility of you missing it.

If you haven’t been reading at all, for example, set your goal to 2 (or 1). Then, when you hit that goal, laughably early in the year, go ahead and double it. Keep doing this all year, and watch that exponential increase take over until the goal is almost completely out of reach. What I’m hoping this achieves is a gradual movement from “this goal is a joke” to “this goal is impossible”, and achieving “oh I guess goals are mostly just guidelines” somewhere along the way.

Read List Analysis

A different kind of goal that I am very much in favour of is the kind that is expressed in terms of the variety of books read. For example, making a list of 5 new genres and resolving to read one book from each at some point this year. That sounds like fun and is enabled only by your practice of keeping track of what books you’re reading, and seeing what’s missing.

In general, regularly looking back on your reading activity allows you to make adjustments in your book selection strategy based on higher-level goals. For example, if you become aware that you’re getting through non-fiction books much faster than you’re getting through fiction, and you’d like to keep them roughly level, you might choose to pick up slightly longer non-fiction books in your next rotation.

I’ll write more about selection strategy in a separate piece, but something worth a quick mention is that keeping track in this fashion is also particularly useful if you want your long-term reading to meet certain other requirements.

If you suspect that your reading selections are largely biased towards male authors, for example, then keeping track of your reads, confirming the bias (by checking percentages, total, and by genre), and then working to rectify it is pretty much the only way to fix this.

What Counts?

Repeat after me: We read because it's something we enjoy doing. That is all. It is, as I mentioned earlier, a private activity. In an ideal world, you shouldn't be able to lord the books you've read over anybody else because our experiences with the very same books can be so different.

And what this realization ought to mean for us individually is that we get complete freedom over deciding whether a book ‘counts' or not.

Since the only purpose of the count is to egg you on, the decision of what constitutes that count is yours alone.

People can be surprisingly aggressive with their opinion about whether certain kinds of books should count towards one’s goal. My guess is it stems from a sense of competition when they hear about your reading habits and want to compare them to their own. They’ll tell you that comic books aren’t really books, and even if they are then they need to be in terms of issues and not volumes. They’ll tell you rereads shouldn’t count because that seems to miss some sacred mission of gaining the most knowledge in the shortest amount of time. Something something, abridged versions, something something. And rest assured, they will tell you exactly what they think about audiobooks.

Sigh.

The only person you need to convince it counts, the only person you're accountable to (there's an etymology joke here somewhere), is you. If you’re spending some amount of time on it, if you’re using up your reading windows on it, if you’re having fun, that’s good enough to count.

I think my most egregious sin in this sense was counting a single chapter of a Khushwant Singh book as a whole book in itself, just because I found them being sold separately on the Kindle Store, and because I felt like giving myself a win. You will likely not do worse than this.

Count the damn comic. Count it twice, who cares, make ‘em squirm.

Footnotes

  1. Writing a review comes in this category too, but I suspect (and hope) writing will turn into a whole other series of blog posts.