What I read in 2015 (and how it changed how I read, work and write)

Well what do you know, a New Year’s resolution that stuck…

About this time last year I decided that I would like to read more books. Not a sudden epiphany, this — I’d always wished that I had more time to read. I’d slipped into the habit of reading articles and Twitter during the day and books were relegated to downtime — bedtime and when on holiday.

Not good enough.

On holiday I would rip through several books in a week. These binges always felt so good — both the reading and the side effects: delight, useful insights, new knowledge.

So why wasn’t I doing it more the rest of the time?

It’s a question of habit, I decided. Habits are hard to build and hard to break — that’s why they’re useful. It’s getting going with a new behaviour and then knowing that you’ve got going that’s the hardest. The less you focus on growing a new habit and then maintaining it, the more chance of falling off the habit-wagon. This was something I’d learned from a spate of reading about how our minds work a few years ago, when Brilliant Noise was commissioned to write the #smartereveryday series of books for Nokia (now Microsoft Mobile). (To find out more about habits and effectiveness take a look at the free Design Your Day e-book, or for more depth read The Power of Habit, Willpower, and Your Brain At Work. Also a hot pre-order tip — How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb is out this month and will be incredible.)

One thing that had worked for me in establishing previous habits was using data. Setting goals and recording them. At just the right moment I rediscovered my Goodreads account — a social network for reading, effectively, that I’d updated and used sporadically before. Was there a way of setting a reading target? There was — an annual reading challenge.

After a bit of thought, I settled on a target of 52 books as achievable. Reading a book a week was unlikely — I run a young company and from time to time it takes every bit of energy and every hour of the day — sometimes for a few weeks. However, I knew that I would make up for these periods of reading less while on holiday. And when I do read, I read pretty quickly. So 52 books felt like a stretch, but not a ridiculous one.

I passed 52 books last week at the start of the Christmas holidays, and am now at about 57 (Goodreads seems to have double counted a couple of things — not sure how, and I’ll try to find a way to delete them.)

In the spirit of an agile retrospective I’m going to run through what went well, what I will do differently this year (because I’m going to set the challenge again this year), what I learned and what still puzzles me about reading and this challenge.

What went well

  • It worked. Having a target and publicly recording each time I finished a book was motivating. It’s not like running a marathon or losing weight — and I didn’t share with Facebook or Twitter every time I notched up another book, just like I don’t share every time I finish a run. It’s the combination of the goal as a reminder and guiding lots of little micro-decisions (I’ll read instead of watching TV, or checking Twitter, reading feeds).
  • Reading more books is wonderful. I love cinema and I love great TV (Fargo season 2 and Narcos were particular highlights this year), but there are more great books about than there are great movies or box-sets. There more good books than you will have a chance to read in your lifetime — with some good choices you’ll always be reading something good. Watching TV is a bit how I think being a football fan must be like — you have to sit through a lot of tedium to get some moments or runs of pure brilliance.
  • Reading helped my work. I was surprised I read more fiction than non-fiction, somehow I thought it would be the other way around. However, what I did read was brilliant and directly supported me in my work at Brilliant Noise. The strategy books helped clarify my thinking and work on a strategy method and Scaling Up came at the right moment to help make sense of 2015 and planning for 2016 (actually haven’t finished this one yet). Reading a good business book — there are more middling-to-poor ones than really good ones — is partly about exploring new ideas or other’s experiences and partly about having the space to reflect on your own work.

What will I do differently this year

  • Find ways to read more on paper. Not because it is better in any particular way, but I’m curious about what reading books on paper is good for — or how it is different and useful to me.
  • Set a slightly higher target. I’ll probably hit 60 books in the last few days of this year and my reading has got faster over the last 12 months, so I’ll need to aim higher. Not sure how much higher — maybe 66 or 70.
  • Read more non-fiction and business books. There’s definitely room for more of these, although I have less patience with badly written business book than a slightly clumsy novel — so I tend to abandon them faster and end up sticking with the few that actually deserve to be a whole book rather than an essay.
  • Keep a reading journal. In one of the books I read this year about writing, the author recommended keeping a writing journal while working on a book. I think a reading journal would help me get more from reading — I leave notes and highlights in Amazon that are useful if I decide to return to them, but I don’t do that as much as I should.
  • Write more. I’ve dropped out of at least two NanoWriMos — the write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge — as November always seems to be such a busy month. With more preparation and planning — or attempting the challenge in a different month — I think I could do it. In part, I think all this reading is about preparing to write fiction (I already write several thousand words a week in reports, plans, articles and communications for my business).

What did I learn

  • I love reading about writing. So yes I want to write. I’ve read a lot of books about writing this year. It’s a genre I enjoy, even though I rarely write fiction — in fact I mostly do it on my holidays, a bit like the way I used to read.
  • While I love paper, e-books work better for me. I have a stack of paper books in my study waiting to be read, but I find it hard to get to them. I move between my Kindle Voyage, iPad Air and iPhone 6S Plus Kindle apps, and the excellent Audible audiobook app. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, convenience in being able to have a quick read whenever I have a spare minute on my phone, moving between whichever device suits me at that moment, being able to highlight text and also to get the book I want, or the next in a series instantly. Second, I can change the font and layout of pages on apps and the Kindle to help me read in the way I want — thinner columns and larger text look uglier from a distance, but I read a lot faster in this way (and I know this because the predicted reading time for chapter or a book on the Kindle device and apps gives you the data).
  • Sometimes you’re not in the mood for a book — come back to it later. Two science fiction books — both “hard sci-fi”, meaning filled with technical detail and actual science — turned me off on the first attempt. This happened with Seveneves and The Martian, but I returned to both a few weeks later and couldn’t put them down. Glad I didn’t just give up add them to my DNF (did not finish) shelf on Goodreads.
  • Reading a lot is about focus. Reading for long periods takes a bit of focus, but it gets better with practice. By the end of the year I’ve found that I can focus on a book even with annoying background noise quickly and stay in it for longer.
  • The more you read, the faster and more deftly you read. There’s a lot to be said for reading slowly (Francine Prose talks about this in her excellent book Reading Like a Writer. It is lovely though to be able to read quickly and to be able to decide when it is a good idea to sprint or slowly walk through a passage or chapter. There’s something to do with mindfulness in this — or meta-cognition — reading something and understanding the depth or quality of attention it requires, that you want to give it and applying just the right amount. That’s what you might call reading deftly — not speed-reading for the sake of speed — but having the mastery of reading and understanding and experiencing a text.
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things rewarded re-reading. I’m going to have to write a separate post about my love for this book — I read it last year, so it doesn’t appear on the list of books I read in 2015, although I think I read — or listened to it on Audible — three or four times over the year. It’s the best book ever written for a founder-CEO or people running small, growth businesses.

What still puzzles me

  • Not finishing books. I’m not quite sure when it’s a good idea actually stop reading a book for good — instead of leaving it to pick up another day. I buy more books than I read. The nature of the reading challenge incentivises me to finish books, so that I can mark them as read and get a notch further along toward my target. Sometimes deciding not to finish a book can be a positive. It’s not worth the time and attention — in that it’s not informing you, challenging you or entertaining you. This can be as much to do with taste as anything. The Girl on The Train just didn’t work for me — something about the characters turned me off and the writing didn’t connect with me. But I’m no literary snob, I finished a several-year project to read all 20-or-so of the Jack Reacher novels this year, and as much as they seem formulaic I’ve really enjoyed them and hugely admire the writing style of Lee Child. Like Elmore Leonard, Child makes sure the writing gets out of the way of the reader — but that’s easier said than done. Leonard and Child’s restrained style rewards the slow reading, Francine Prose talks about — it’s only by looking closely that you can spot the craftsmanship.
  • Reflecting on what I’ve read. Maybe the reading journal will answer this, but would it be useful to spend more time reflecting on a book — what I learned, what I noticed about the writing?
  • How many books to have on the go at the same time. The “Currently Reading” shelf of my Goodreads profile makes me realise just how many books I read at the same time — some are on pause, as it were — but often there are 13 or 14 on the list. Should I have a cap on these? Focus on just three or four books at a time until they are finished?
  • How to prioritise what I read. Choosing a new book is a serendipitous affair. I have a “Want to Read” list on Goodreads, several samples of books on my Kindle and an Amazon wish-list. Sometimes I will hear a recommendation of a book and I will start reading the book right away. Would it be better to have a list of books I want to read, to prioritise them in some way? Or is serendipity doing just fine, thank you?

And these were my favourite books that I read this year..

Fiction

  1. Station Eleven: A beautifully written story about the end of the world that flits between the before and after of the fall of civilisation. I read it twice and it’s just lovely.
  2. Our Endless Numbered Days, by Claire Fuller: A dazzling debut novel from Claire Fuller, who I was delighted to meet at the Curious Arts Festival in the summer. Out in paperback very soon, if that’s your format of choice. I grabbed the Kindle version and a hardback copy at the Festival because I thought it was so wonderful.
  3. The Son, by Philip Meyer: Three generations of a bloody Texas family history told in parallel. Grabs you and pulls you into its violent world. Just when you think you have a fix on a character, it turns your assumptions on their head by introducing another point of view.

NB: I’m a third of the way through The Killing of Bobbi Lomax at the moment — and if I’d finished it before I wrote this list it might have been a contender for top three fiction books of the year too — another amazing debut novel.

Business

  1. Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt: A kick up the corporate behind for the wafflers and befuddlers of business strategy. Helped me re-articulate the importance of strong strategy and stick to ours. Strongest line for me was:
The first natural advantage of good strategy arises because other organisations often don’t have one. And because they don’t expect you to have one either.
  1. No Ordinary Disruption: A practical, evidence supported analysis from the McKinsey Global Institute of four major forces of change that are affecting business today: digitisation, globalisation, an ageing population and urbanisation.
  2. Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Hermina Ibarra: Andrew Hill of the FT recommended this book, and I confess I wouldn’t have bought it on the basis of the title. It draws on the insight that leaders have to model their behaviours before they really grasp them. It’s a useful guide to leadership behaviours and really got me thinking.

Non-fiction

  1. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson. I’ve read most of Jon Ronson’s books and I think they just keep getting better. This book takes the trend of social media shaming and looks at it from all sorts of angles. Ronson combines honesty and curiosity in a brilliant way.
  2. Postcapitalism, by Paul Mason. While he doesn’t have all the answers, he has a pretty strong overview of the issues facing global capitalism. Even the FT recommended this book — and so do I.
  3. Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. A kind of meta-history of humanity, this followed on nicely from a similar book, War: What is Good For? I read last year. It is just fascinating to look at the challenges of today through the perspective of the whole span of our species history.

I’ll finish with an old school, blogger’s hat-tip to the Farnham Street blog — I think the posts there about reading helped nudge me into developing this habit of reading more.

Images: apart from the montage of book covers I read, the photographs I took on a visit to the incredible new Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.