Why you should have a reading list

I’ve always read a lot. My habit of carrying a book every where began in elementary school. I read Jane Eyre in snippets in between lessons in sixth grade, and it still made a big impression. (More on that in the video.)

But it was only as an adult that I began tracking my reading, a habit that has made me a better, more intentional reader.

Jeopardy! started it. A contestant said she’d read 1,000 books over a decade, and I scoffed. That didn’t seem like that many! (Spoiler: it is.) I’d never kept track, I told my husband, but I bet I read at least 100 books every year. (Spoiler: I don’t.) So, in 2008, I started a list in the back of my planner. That first year, I read 65 books. The second year, 101. Year three, 88. My annual average is 106.

Tracking began as a way to see how my reading stats compared to other people, but has become an intensely useful and personal tool. Trying to get to 100 books a year, I gave myself permission — finally! — to skip books that weren’t entertaining or educating me. Realizing I read most when I was overwhelmed — for example: 110 books in 2014, when we made big job decisions and moved — I set parameters to make sure I wasn’t using books to avoid life. Scanning my list regularly, I make sure I’m reading a wide variety of authors from different places and backgrounds. And I mark my favorite books, so I’m always ready with a book recommendation — or two, or three, or as many as you'll take

My lists still are decidedly low-tech, handwritten in the back of my paper planners each year, separated by month. It's my preference. 

But I have friends who use spreadsheets. And there are dozens of apps that can helpGoodreads is the most obvious and popular choice — you can set reading challenges for yourself! — and I've also had fun on Litsy. A friend aptly described it as the lovechild of Goodreads and Instagram. 

The first advice financial planners give to people wanting to save money is to create a budget to track spending. Your reading list is like a budget. If you want to read more, tracking the books you're already reading is a great way to start. You'll see what books bog you down, what authors or types of books you gravitate toward, and when you have time to read. You might be surprised by how much — or, as I was, how little — you're actually reading.

And you'll be able to set a realistic reading goal moving forward. 

Raising Readers

How do you raise readers?

It's a question I get asked quite a bit, likely because, always charmed by seeing my boys lost in a book, I often post pictures of my bookworms on social media.

I always struggle to answer, though. Part of me — the part exhausted for two years because my youngest son just would not sleep through the night as our oldest had, despite being swaddled in the same blankets, shushed with the same songs, laid in the same crib and implored by the same, very tired parents — well, that part knows kids simply are the way they are. If there’s a bookworm gene, it’s likely that both my husband and I are carriers. Perhaps my boys would be readers if I'd never forced Dr. Seuss on them. (Sidenote book recommendation: The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Doesn’t clear up this question, but is clear, intriguing science well told.)

Still, I never pass up a chance to encourage reading. So, take these ideas for raising readers with an acknowledgement that your mileage may vary. 

The whole thing boils down to this: Create a culture of reading in your home. Reading is the always available entertainment. Reading is the thing you do to relax. Reading is the thing you need to succeed, and books have the answers to all questions. Books are things to be enjoyed, shared and discussed.

Read in front of your kids. Reading is what adults do. All adults. Men and women. Mike, before the boys were born, tended to read only before bed, but I asked him to make a point to read in front of the boys because I didn’t want them thinking books were something only women liked.

Read with your kids every single day. Yes, you’ll read board books, but read novels, too, sooner than you think. You need the entertainment and you’ll be surprised how interested they can be. Read Ferdinand and Where The Wild Things Are and I Want My Hat Back and The Book With No Pictures and keep reading them as you go on to Charlotte’s Web and The Hobbit and Wonder and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Read tidbits from your own books, when it makes sense. Read poems. Read news stories. Read cereal boxes. Read even when they won't sit still. And when they don’t want to read to you and/or stop wanting to be read to — at age 9, our oldest has hit this milestone — then read together in companionable silence. We have a family reading hour most nights before bed. Sometimes I read aloud. Sometimes we all read silently. Either way, I think we all feel cozy and content and loved. 

Talk about books. Ask what they’re reading. Tell them what you’re reading. Let them hear you talking about books with your partner or your friends. I love when my boys come bounding down the stairs, well past bedtime, to gush about the book they’ve stayed up too late to finish. And if you're talking about books, you don't have to worry about what they're reading — Judy Blume says so

Make books constantly accessible. The boys always have had a basket or shelf of books in our living room, books in their rooms, books in the cars, everywhere. We love the library, and we made a celebration of getting their library cards. Now, they get online and request books from the library; I made a special trip yesterday just for their books.  

Recommend good books, encourage all books. Your kids are going to pick out crap. My boys have read more Ninjago stories than I can count. Let them have the books they love about the topics they want, but keep throwing good books at them, too, until something sticks. When my boys were little, I used to tell them they could have five books at a time from the library — three they picked out and two we picked out together. A kid who picks up a crappy book is a kid at risk of thinking reading is lame. Don’t let that happen. This is where reading aloud comes in handy; you have more say over a family reading project.

And finally, never make reading a punishment. I realize you might have teenagers who have to just suck it up and deal with reading A Tale of Two Cities(though, maybe they’ll end up loving it as I did), but for elementary-age kids build that love of reading by keeping things positive. If they have to read a book they don’t love, try reading it with them or finding the book on audio, so they can follow along — anything to make it fun. And don't make a kid read before getting something good or after doing something bad. Reading should be something they get to do, not something they have to do. 

That's how things are in our house. How are you raising readers? 

Making Time to Read

Back before smartphones ruled our lives, stories bookended my days. My return to this habit feels like a tiny act of resistance.

Once upon a time, I started every morning curled in a chair in the sunniest corner of our living room with coffee and a book. Then, my iPhone appeared and “seeing what’s going on in the world” seemed necessary. I woke up scrolling. Lately, as I read my feed through bleary eyes, I’ve found myself starting each day in the grip of someone else’s tizzy, which is unpleasant and unhelpful.

So I’ve committed to starting my day with a book. For years, I’ve stashed my phone away from my bedroom every night, and now it stays in its isolated charging spot until after I’m showered, dressed and ready to face the day, my head full of whatever story or nonfiction or poetry I’m reading. I’ve had slip-ups — I had to check on school closures one snow day, for example, and it’s amazing how fast that rolled into Facebook — but mostly, I’ve been reading instead of scrolling with my morning coffee, and I’m happier and better for it.

Some of the books I’m reading — fiction and nonfiction — give me the space, time and context to process the news. Others give me a mental break, so I can come back to reality fresh. I am being more intentional about the articles I read and the sources I visit. If anything, I feel more informed.

Plus, an extra half-hour everyday with a book is helping carve through my never-ending to-be-read pile. Here are more tips for squeezing in more books:

  • Start and end your day with 30 minutes of reading. To do this, ditch your phone.
  • Always carry a book with you, on your phone if you have to, in paper or on a Kindle. Don’t scroll when you can flip pages. 
  • Read while you eat. A book makes a great lunch date. 
  • “Read” while you drive — or walk or workout or … — with audiobooks. (I hear Lincoln in The Bardo is fantastic in this format.)
  • Reward yourself with reading. Clean the bathroom, read a chapter. Vacuum, read a chapter. Do the dishes, read a chapter. Prep dinner, read while it cooks.
  • Create a reading culture. If everyone else in your family is reading, you’re likely to be reading, too. (More about how to do this in the next newsletter.)

The Best Question

What are you reading? It’s my favorite question, to ask and to be asked.

The question contributes to creating a reading culture because it assumes the person is reading in the first place. And if the person is not, if the answer is a noncommittal shrug, well, I typically take that as a challenge to find a book the person will love, taking the conversation through a game of "like-this-read-that." I am an unabashed reading evangelist, and book talk is much more interesting than the weather. 

But the best reason to ask the question is for the reaction of readers, something I see every time I take advantage of Cincinnati’s literary scene to ask a visiting author what book has their attention. Their faces brighten. They lean back, pleasantly surprised by the question, or lean forward, eager to answer it, or a little bit of both. You can see them thinking about the last book they read and what they want to say about it. They talk with their hands.

The answers have been as interesting as their reactions are charming. Josh Ritter, a singer-songwriter who took a turn as a novelist with Bright’s Passage, one of the weirdest, most haunting books I’ve ever read, was working his way through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Marukami, a novel described as hallucinatory by the New York TimesTracy Chevalier, author of The Girl With The Pearl Earring, confessed she was researching a new book by reading Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I, Testament of YouthThe Mothersauthor Brit Bennett, revisiting Another Country by James Baldwin, said the novel felt more meaningful the second time around, “whatever that says about where I am in my life now.”

The answers of regular folks are no less intriguing. Are they reading for pleasure and escape or work and study? Do they love the same authors I adore, or will they offer me someone new to discover? What makes them laugh? What issues concern them? Like the authors, people usually are flattered to be asked; you’re implying that you respect their taste and think they have interesting things to offer, and they usually do. Whether you share their reading style or not, the books people read offer insight into their interests and pursuits. On Facebook, I asked the 100th subscriber to this newsletter, Margot Susca, what she was reading, and it launched a thread that drifted from her recent read — Hillbilly Elegy, the politically tinged memoir by J.D. Vance — to the best books to read aloud with kids. (Everyone agreed on Roald Dahl.)

With four words, you can help make America read again and spark an interesting conversation. And so, I want to know: what are you reading?

Why Make America Read?

The pictures of Jonathan Harris, a Cleveland librarian wearing a blocky, red Make America Read Again hat and passing out books at the Republican National Convention last summer might have made you laugh. I know I laughed. Hell yes, let’s make America read again.

But as the election season went on and the din of people yelling over each other grew louder, the call to read grew more serious to me. Apparently, I'm not alone, seeing as bookstores can't keep copies of George Orwell's 1984 on the shelves. But I think we need to read beyond dystopian novels. We should be reading American stories, the books that are not for us, that show us a different experience from our own, books that make us laugh and cry, and books that help us understand the world and how we got here. 

Reading bursts bubbles. It takes you out of your own head and puts you into someone else’s. It makes you think critically about the information constantly coming at us all.

Make America Read Again is not about making everyone think alike. People read books and reach different conclusions all the time; attend any book club, and you’ll see that.

Reading makes people think. It sparks curiosity. You start to wonder, and then you’re wandering through new information, thinking about the world differently, maybe even changing your mind. The smallest of examples: I never much liked any sport, least of all boring baseball, until, reading Shoeless Joe, the W.P. Kinsella novel on which Field of Dreams is based. Kinsella’s magical realism was my portal to the great American pastime, and I soon found myself in the nonfiction section, with The Teammates by David Halberstam, and the children’s section, with Summerlandby Michael Chabon. Then, I was reading sports stories online and going to spring training games, genuinely excited and charmed by the experience. Reading, thinking, reading, thinking — it’s an infinite, circular process.

Reading should be an American virtue if informed citizens are the key to a healthy democracy. We’re a big country, home to millions of people from countries and cultures all over the world. Read enough — read broadly — and you can’t help but make connections between disparate ideas and people. And when you see the connections among us, kindness, compassion and empathy follow.

And beyond all that, reading is fun, cheap entertainment. A comfortable chair and a good book (Free! Yay libraries!) — sometimes I think that’s all I need in the world. I can learn anything, travel anywhere, be anybody. For me, reading is a comfort and a joy.

Make America Read Again is not about the books you should read or the books you need to be a good citizen — or, at least, it’s not just about them. Make America Read Again is about making Americans read more — more books, more often, about more diverse topics. Last year, a majority of Americans said they read one book. That’s a start, but I think we can do better.

So, hell yes, let’s Make America Read Again.

— Hillary