How to Read 73 Books in a Pandemic
When the world changed overnight, I turned to reading to escape.
The thing about reading 73 books in a year is that I really didn’t mean to.
I’ve been using Goodreads to track my reading since I graduated from university. In 2017, I read 42 books. In 2018, I read 39. In 2019, I read 32. My original goal for 2020 was to read 40 books, the average of what I’d read for the past three years.
At the start of the year, on a whim, I also started posting my book reviews on Instagram. The good thing about making any kind of public proclamation is that it forces you into a commitment, no matter how small. Even though I’d been rating books on Goodreads since I started using it regularly, there was something different about posting longer reviews on Instagram, articulating what I liked about a book and what I didn’t.
Even though my reviews always got substantially fewer likes than my selfies, I continued anyways, committed to sharing my taste in art, even when no one asked for it. In January, I fell in love with Hanif Abdurraqib’s poetry collection A Fortune For Your Disaster, Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Sabrina and Alexander Chee’s essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. In February, I read most of Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In The Dream House on a Greyhound ride to Montreal. And in March, well, you already know what happened in March.
COVID-19, as we all well know, changed everything about how we live. Suddenly, I found myself indefinitely laid off from my retail job, and almost equally important to me, I was unable to pick up my holds from the library, which was also indefinitely closed.
Without the library being open, my usual reading habits were disrupted. And so, I adapted. I made my way through the stack of holds I had last checked out, a thick pile that included Rachel Cusk’s Coventry and Téa Mutonji’s Shut Up You’re Pretty. I ordered new titles from one of my favourite small publishers, Arsenal Pulp Press, including Kai Cheng Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love and Amber Dawn’s My Art is Killing Me. I finally got around to reading some classics that had been sitting on my bookshelf for years (Beloved by Toni Morrison is EXTREMELY good). I started checking out e-books from the library, starting with My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. I read them through CloudLibrary and Libby on my phone, a total behavioural 180 that continues to astound me.
I’ve always turned to books for comfort, especially when I was a kid. At the start of last January, I re-watched Matilda for the first time since childhood and sobbed so hard at the image of a six-year-old girl carrying a little red wagon full of books back to a home she didn’t fit into. I remember growing up and losing myself for hours in A Series of Unfortunate Events, Eragon, and Harry Potter, plus all of those hardcover -ology books: Wizardology, Egyptology, Dragonology. The trend continued in my dogmatic freak teen years, although this time I read more for information, learning everything I possibly could from long books about ‘70s punks and left-wing politics like Please Kill Me and No Logo.
During the spring lockdown, I needed books more than ever to quiet my mind and focus on something other than reality. Without work to go to in the mornings, I stayed in bed for at least an hour each morning with a book, trying to escape the grief and uncertainness of the new world as we knew it. On weekends, I’d stay in bed even longer, often zipping through half a book in one sitting. I discovered the answer to what was once a hypothetical question: What would you do with your day if time was no longer a concern? For some people who were suddenly laid off, the answer was to lose themselves in video games, movies, gardening, baking, long walks. For me, it was to read.
The thing about doing something for an hour or so almost every day is that over weeks and months, you can get a lot done. I’ve always wanted to read the elusive 52 books in a year. In the middle of September, I reached it with Alicia Elliott’s essay collection A Mind Spread Out On The Ground, which I read on my phone. Although lockdown was over and I had gone back to work, my habit of waking up and reading continued. I noticed that on days I didn’t do it, I was irritable and moody. Something about starting my day with a book calmed me down better than anything I’d ever tried before.
The only downside was that as the number of books I finished grew, the more I wanted the number to grow even more. I hit 50 books (Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier) and instead wanted to hit 60. I hit 60 books (This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt) and instead wanted to hit 70. I hit 70 books (Intimations by Zadie Smith) on Boxing Day and knew that there was no way in hell I’d get to 80 by 2021.
The other problem was that it made me less inclined to give up on books I grew disinterested in. In the past, I had no problem not finishing a book, even if I was three-quarters of the way in (I have not finished Elif Batuman’s The Idiot to this day and don’t think I ever will). Seeing the numbers grow, however, made me more inclined to barrel through, even when my heart wasn’t in it, which I don’t recommend. In reading, just like in life, it is often better to give up on something you are no longer interested in rather than slogging through just to say you did it.
Reading 73 books in a year, much less a pandemic, taught me a lot. It taught me that it’s important to read when you want to, rather than when you think you should. It taught me that it’s critical for white readers to de-centre whiteness in the books they read, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. It taught me that it’s more important than ever to support independent book stores close to you, as well as small publishers and presses. And it taught me that your reading habits can always change. To reiterate, I read BOOKS on my PHONE now (WHAT!!!)
I don’t have a lot of reading goals for 2021. Yes, I still put 52 books as my goal in my Goodreads challenge, but I am less attached to the outcome of if I get there or not. This year, I am more interested in the quality of my reading, rather than the quantity. If a book sucks, I will feel no remorse with closing it and moving on. I’m also going to continue to post my reviews on Instagram and Goodreads, but I’m only going to share a longer review for books in the 4-5 star range.
And every morning, I want to continue to wake up and read, in order to escape the uncertainness and grief that continues to pervade our new reality, if only for a little while.
What I’m Reading: I started Memorial by Bryan Washington this morning. I haven’t read anything by him yet but have heard great things about his debut novel, as well as his short story collection, Lot. So far, his writing is definitely living to the hype.
What I’m Watching: On New Year’s Eve, I watched Soul with my boyfriend. I sobbed like a BABY, proving once again that Pixar movies somehow have the cheat codes to the heartstrings of adults. I’d recommend that if you are feeling like having a good existential cry. I also re-watched the legendary documentary Paris Is Burning before the premiere of the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race last Friday. Although the history surrounding the film is quite complicated and nuanced, I would highly recommend watching it if you’re a Drag Race fan and have never seen it before.
What I’m Listening To: One of my favourite contemporary rock bands, Hamilton’s The Dirty Nil, released their third album, Fuck Art, on January 1st. It’s extremely good if you are still into guitar music, which I think is considered very uncool right now.
Where I’m Donating: Montreal poet Eli Tareq El Belchany-Lynch, who put out the wonderful collection Knot Body last year, is looking to raise around $10,000 for the Montreal Black Therapy Fund, for four Black Montrealers to receive therapy for a year. You can send e-transfer or PayPal donations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for reading the first edition of my public newsletter! I am trying to write these every two weeks, so the next edition will be published around Jan. 18th. Please subscribe and share it with friends if you enjoyed it. You can reach me on Twitter, Instagram, or my website.