The man who got me into reading books never once told me to read a book. When I was 18, I went to therapy through my college. The therapist I met with was the catalyst who inspired my reading habit, a habit that has since changed my life.
Growing up, I mostly kept my distance from books. You could count on one hand the books I had read in the first 18 years of my life. Yes, there were several assigned books in school that I “read,” but that really meant I skimmed Sparknotes and guessed at a book’s plot until the essay was done (The Jungle is about… a jungle, right?).
As a teenager, I also routinely thought that my struggles were unique to me. In my head, I was the only person in the world who had the kinds of problems I had with self-esteem, relationships, and so on. I had convinced myself that these emotional dumpster fires only happened to me, and were therefore completely my fault.
The therapist was great for many reasons, but there’s one reason in particular I mention him here: he would always reference books in our sessions. I would explain through tears some sort of fear I had, and as he responded, he would reference the life of Steve Jobs, or Muhammad Ali, or some World War 2 fighter pilot I had never heard of. He would often ask me “Do you read biographies?” in an unassuming tone, even though he knew I didn’t read biographies since he had asked the same question a week earlier.
Therapy is deeply personal, of course, but for me this technique of referencing books was very helpful, which is why I still remember it years later. The therapist showed me, through books, that I was not alone. That other human beings, even massively successful ones, had struggles, had worries, and had flaws, too. That the problems were not entirely unique to me.
Books had taken on a new meaning for me through those sessions. Before, I vaguely thought books were a thing professors and rich people had for some unspecified purpose. I had glanced at countless articles with titles like “All Rich People Read Books,” or “All CEOs Read Books,” or “After Waking Up at 4:15am and Drinking a Kale Smoothie and Definitely Not Checking Their Email, You Bet Your Ass These CEOs Read Books.” However, therapy made it clear for me why books mattered. Books became a tool to understand the world, which would help me understand people, including myself.
Even though the therapist never told me to read any of the books he recommended, I resolved then and there to develop a reading habit. The habit took months to develop. Eventually, however, it clicked. Last year, I read 40 books (and wrote about my favorites here). I truly believe reading has enriched my life, and the technique I used to form my reading habit is quite simple. Here is how I developed my reading habit.
Read 2 Pages, Every Day
One of the best ways to develop a habit is to make it easy. Doing 100 pushups will make you quit after a few days; doing 1 pushup every day is easy. To form my reading habit, I chose to read 2 pages every day, tracking my progress through Habitica. Reading 2 pages a day is a slow way to finish a book. A short, 200-page book would take over 3 months to finish at that rate. It seems almost too easy.
But it turns out that even reading 2 pages can be painfully hard when you have spent 18 years not reading for more than a few minutes at a time, when you have not cultivated the ability to focus. Reading 2 pages, truthfully, was difficult for me at first. I was not reading dense biographies. I was reading the hilarious sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I would still open the book each day and groan at the thought of making my way through 2 pages. Movies will keep moving along even if you fall asleep, but a physical book only follows your attention.
Still, I kept reading 2 pages every day. Then, after enough days, a change happens. I don’t remember when, but my groaning stopped. I read 2 pages, and then realized I could focus for 5 pages. So I read 5 pages. Then that number went up to 10. Then that number kept going up. There is no one particular day where your mind switches and you’re reading every day, but eventually, the switch comes. I finished Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in about a month. Then I read the next book, and the next book, until it became more difficult not to read every single day.
Read What You Love Until You Love to Read
Today, I use a simple system to keep track of the books I’ve read. I have an Evernote file called “Books I’ve Read,” and when I finish a book I add the book’s name to that list. I also give it a personal rating out of 10, just so I can keep track of how much I enjoyed each book.
Many people say that how much you read is less important than what you read, which is true. However, I think that is advice for people who already have a reading habit.
If you do not have a reading habit yet, then read what you love until you love to read. Make reading easy. Read 2 pages or even 1 page a day, whatever will make you stick with the habit. Have a reason why you want to read in the first place; for me, it was initially so I could understand myself.
In the years since those therapy sessions, books became an ingrained part of my life. Many of the decisions, projects, and ideas I’m most proud of have at least some of their origins in books. When I was 21, finishing my undergraduate degree in math, I had a class where we each gave a presentation at the end of the term. I gave a presentation on the Collatz Conjecture, which I had only heard of from the book Elements of Mathematics by John Stillwell.
After my presentation was over, our professor, an older man from Brooklyn, asked me how I learned about the Collatz Conjecture.
I told him, “I read about it in a book called Elements of Mathematics.”
He replied, “…You read books?”
And I replied, “Yes.”
He grinned and said, “Well that’s rare, isn’t it?”