So Many Books, So Little Time: Tips for Reading Strategically by Donalyn Miller
We own too many books. I’ve confessed this before, and it surprises no one. Don and I spend too much time sorting, culling, dusting, moving, and shelving books. Without constant maintenance, our book collection would take over our lives and home. We have tried to control our book hoarding tendencies, but it’s a losing battle. We use our library cards. We download audio books. We continuously give away books, but more appear. We don’t apologize anymore. We live in a house with too many books and we accept it. Don and I fell in love with reading as children, but we owned few books of our own until we became adults. We can measure our path to prosperity in bookshelves. Our daughters grew up in a home filled with love and books and we will grow old here–happily sifting our book treasure.
We read most of the books we bring home, but not all. Some books, once purchased or borrowed, float to the bottom of our to-read piles for months, if not years. We rediscover these lost books when cleaning the garage or dusting a corner, and these forgotten ones have a second (or third) chance to migrate into current stacks.
When you own a lot of books, they demand actions from you. The unread ones glare at you, neglected. Shiny new ones distract you and move to the top of your to-read stack. Books you need to mail swarm on your desk. You visit the library three times in one week. Boxes arrive. Piles form. It’s overwhelming and glorious in turn.
At this life stage, I have given up reading all of the books I own. I think it’s OK to own books you haven’t read (space limitations aside). There’s something comforting about knowing you have the right book in your house for any occasion or need. More than a few books leave our home pressed into the resigned hands of family members and friends who expressed a random interest or concern. We have a book for that. Whatever “that” is. I have found peace in my book obsession these days. I read every day. I challenge myself to read 365 books each year, and I meet or exceed this goal. This doesn’t scratch the surface of the books I want to read. I have learned to read selectively, so I can continue expanding my book knowledge while enjoying my reading life as much as possible. Recognizing time and energy as the sole limits on my reading habits, I have developed some strategies for maximizing my attention and efforts.
Tips for Reading Strategically
- Accept your inability to read everything you want. There are thousands of books published every year. You cannot possibly read every book that looks interesting to you. You are going to miss some great books. You are going to read some amazing books, too. Enjoy your reading life and set aside your FOMO (fear of missing out).
- Abandon books that are not working for you. Life is short. There is always another book. Don’t waste your limited reading time and mental energy reading books you don’t enjoy. What do you need from a book? How long will you read a book before deciding not to finish? What do you notice about the books you abandon? What do you notice about the books you finish? Set personal guidelines and feel free to ditch a book if it doesn’t meet your needs. Embrace abandoning series, too. You are not required to finish a series just because you start one. You do not have to read every Animorphs book or The Series of Unfortunate Events in order to recommend them to other readers. If you’re enjoying reading an entire series run, go right ahead. Binge reading a series has its own pleasures, but don’t feel you have to slog through every book if you’re no longer invested.
- Expand your book knowledge with reviews, blogs, and award lists. With limited money to purchase books and limited time to read them, you want to spend your resources wisely. Reading review publications like Horn Book, School Library Journal, Booklist, and others provides high-quality background information on thousands of books. You can fine-tune your to-read piles and research books you haven’t read, yet. Check your public library network or ask your school librarian about book review publications or resources. Which books earn good reviews or appear in social media conversations? Which books seem like a good fit for your students? Which books fill a need in your community? While you can’t read every blog and book review site, find a few that offer credible, comprehensive, easy-to-access information. I highly recommend We Need Diverse Books’ website (don’t miss the Tumblr) and John Schu’s Watch. Connect. Read. blog as places to start. Study award lists like the ALA Youth Media Awards and the Nerdy Book Club Awards. Which titles appear on more than one award list? Who are the authors and illustrators creating exemplary books? Researching artists and their books broadens your working knowledge of what’s available for children to read and the current trends and issues in children’s publishing. You don’t have to read every book to stay on top of ongoing conversations.
- Take recommendations. When a new book enters our house, it rapidly assimilates into our existing book hoard. Books shift from the bottom to the top of my to-read pile based on whim, urgency to read a particular book, and recommendations from trusted readers. A book may sit unread for months, but when a friend recommends it, I will often dig it out and prioritize it. Take recommendations from your students, too. When you see five middle-schoolers passing the same book around, you can assume the book has high-interest for readers their age. Find out why. Besides, when you take recommendations from other readers, you reinforce your reciprocal relationship as readers in the same reading community. You have something to offer and so do they.
- Alternate book lengths. Intimidated by the 500-page epic fantasy tome on your shelf? Pick a shorter book. Your reading stamina flags? Pick a shorter book. You haven’t finished a book in a month? Pick a shorter book. Making pace through a book quickly fills you with accomplishment and keeps your reading momentum going when you cannot make a long-term commitment to a lengthy book right now.
- Read representative titles. You don’t have to read every Gary Paulsen book to discuss his work or recommend it to others. Read noteworthy examples across his range, including fiction adventures like Hatchet, nonfiction memoirs like My Life in Dog Years, and historical fiction like Nightjohn. Which books appeal to a wide range of readers? Which books reflect an author’s style or writing craft? What makes an exemplary graphic novel? Reading representative classics, award-winners, and favorites across genres and formats shapes your criteria for determining exemplar texts and keeps your reading life interesting by exposing you to new genres, formats, writing styles, and information.
- Read with your ears. Do you listen to music or podcasts while exercising or working? Do you have a long commute or spend time traveling? Downloading a few audiobooks to your phone or device provides boredom insurance and opportunities to squeeze in a few more books. Ask your public library about their audiobook databases. Search Audible by narrator when you find an enjoyable performer and research noteworthy audio productions from the Odyssey and Audie award lists.
- Put yourself first from time-to-time. No matter the demands on your book knowledge from your students and reading communities, read some books for yourself. Your entire reading life doesn’t have to fulfill some outside purpose. Read that detective thriller or bodice-ripping romance novel. Research your fascination with climate change or Italian cooking. Reread beloved favorites. You are more likely to engage others with reading when your reading life is personally fulfilling and enjoyable.
Most of all, does your reading life fill your current reading needs? What do you want to read and why? What questions do you have? How are you continuing to grow as a reader? What gaps do you see in your reading diet? What strategies can you employ to reach these personal reading goals? How can you manage your limited resources and your desire to read? I look forward to reading your comments and suggestions.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.