I am truly terrible at keeping New Year’s resolutions. My New Year’s quests to diet and exercise usually crash and burn in about a month. Last year’s pledge to limit my sugar intake lasted only three days. So this year, I resolved to take a different tack with my New Year’s resolution: Rather than making vague promises to eat right or work out, I turned to books as my method of self-betterment.
While I acknowledge the irony of quoting a television character here, the point still stands. From a young age, I have surrounded myself with books. No, I wasn’t reading Proust at age 16 like Rory Gilmore. But I did write my college admissions essay on Neville Longbottom, so that has to count for something.
Like many educated men and women of my generation, I went to college and promptly forgot how to read. Of course, I was handling books constantly ― as an English major, many of my courses assigned hundreds of pages of reading per week. The sheer volume of assignments thrown my way turned me into an expert skimmer. I picked my battles. I knew which passages to hone in on, highlight, and analyze for class. By the time I graduated, I had “read” hundreds of books and articles. But I only remembered a few in detail.
So as I sat in a seedy Atlanta bar last New Year’s Eve, beer in hand, pizza grease dripping down my chin, I resolved to get back to my roots in 2016. I challenged myself to read 52 books just for pleasure over the course of the year ― one book a week.
For the first time in my life, I stuck to a New Year’s resolution. As of December 9, 2016, I read 52 books this calendar year. Here’s what I learned:
1. Books are a mirror.
Books will only reflect what you’re capable of seeing, but the act of reading still has true transformative value. The best books I read this year held a mirror up to my flaws. They showed me imperfect, selfish, broken characters and I connected with many of them. This self-awareness translated both personally and professionally ― and, indeed, research shows that employees with higher self-awareness lead to better team performance, from decision quality to conflict management.
2. Reading made me more empathetic.
Studies show that reading literary fiction as an adult is linked to enhanced Theory of Mind, i.e. empathy and emotional intelligence. I found that reading intricate, complex human narratives made me more sensitive to other people’s feelings and experiences. In a year when tension and hatred touched so many lives, that lesson in empathy was critical.
3. Don’t knock it till you try it.
This may come as a surprise to you all, but I’m not a sporty girl. I can’t sit through a football game, but after reading The Blind Side I can walk you through the evolution of the left tackle position. I cheered with the rest of the country when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, but their win meant so much more because Moneyball taught me the game Theo Epstein was playing. On a separate note, I did actually read authors other than Michael Lewis this year.
4. Reading shouldn’t always be an escape.
I think we can all agree that 2016 was a dumpster fire of a year. Many people use reading as an escape, but reading did not take me away from the hatred, the anger or the heartbreak that spilled over this year. But books did give me a method of coping. They showed me characters in crisis who modeled grace and strength that I could take back with me to the real world.
5. My resolution to read was more achievable than any I’ve tried.
Focusing on something like reading is a clear win. First, it turns your goal into something tangible rather than vague notions like “eat healthier.” Second, you can easily track your progress ― I used tools like Excel spreadsheets to note my pace and hold myself accountable. And it requires you to carve out regular time to work on your resolution. I took my hour-long subway commute and turned it into daily reading time. Breaking a seemingly insurmountable goal down into small bite-sized intervals is key ― indeed, research suggests that planning out when and how to achieve your goal is effective in helping you stick to it.
With that said, volume isn’t everything when it comes to reading. Depth of understanding is often more important than breadth of knowledge. If you spend an entire year reading and analyzing The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, then you’re a braver woman than I and you should consider that a year well spent.
If you’re interested in reading more in 2017, feel free to get some inspiration from my 2016 reading list below. I cobbled this list together from book recommendation lists, New York Times bestsellers, friends’ bookshelves and my mom’s and grandma’s suggestions ― both of whom read far more than I did in 2016. (If you, too, would like to know what my Beema is reading, shoot me an email).
Stay strong with your resolutions in 2017 ― you got this.