What reading 100 books in a year taught me

Last year I actually kept to my new year’s resolution: to read 100 books in 2017.  I’d heard about the task from a friend, who’d attempted it but gave up at about book 70.  Never having kept to a single resolution in the previous 16 years of my life (my nails are still as stubby & disgusting as ever), I decided to give up on the idea of a traditional resolution, and to instead focus on learning something from my year, and to achieve something quantifiable.  Thus I embarked on this Odyssey of furious page-turning and papercuts. 

I decided to embark on this (at first glance foolhardy) task for a number of reasons.  The main reason was because 2017 was my GCSE year, and I knew without a goal, or without a constant reason to read, I would let my appetite for books fall by the wayside.   I did not want this to happen, after reading so many great books in 2016.  Another reason though, was that reading is my happy place.  I have quite a busy and hectic life, but reading is one of the things that I use as a tool to help relax myself and to stop myself from panicking- and to switch off (which sometimes is quite hard to do when I’m always on the go).  Having to read 100 books would force me to take time to relax, which looking back on the 2017 I had (sometimes not completely perfect) was no bad thing.

I decided to record all the books I read in a journal, listing why I chose the book, my rating, and other reflections about it.  This was quite a useful thing to do, because I can now look back at this journal and look at my 2017 in retrospect.  It’s amazing how much some books have become synonymous in my mind with certain times in the year (e.g. in the summer I read Chariton’s ‘Callirhoe’ and ‘Animal’ by Sara Pascoe- which are some of the first things that come to mind when I think of Summer 2017. ) Actually reading the 100 books was pretty tough: but I found it crucial to get into a routine. I would always have a book with me on the bus, and I’d read before bed.  If you’re thinking of doing the challenge, this is the first piece of advice I’d give.  If you get into a routine don’t veer off it: you’ll find the books in the ‘need to read’ pile will start stacking up.  I also knew what books I’d read next, so I could get straight on with the next one rather than scrabble around in vain to find a book, with the time ticking away.

If there’s one thing this challenge taught me it was perseverance.  By July I’d hit 50 books, and I’d come too far to give up, but the end still seemed unreachable & distant.  This meant that I had to soldier on and keep on reading, and not pay attention to the ever-present voices (both in my head and outside them) telling me to give up.  It also taught me how to juggle commitments, because I had to a) revise b) read all these books and c) write & produce my podcast, all in one year.  This helped me become organised in other areas of my life, because I knew I couldn’t afford to waste time- I had reading to do!  In the episode of the ‘Running Commentary’ podcast (which I highly recommend, it’s excellent) with Natalie Haynes (one of my favourite people of all time- I’m a hardcore fangirl: her books made up 2% of my 2017 reading!), she talks about having to read 150 books in the year she judged the Man Booker Prize, and likens her experience to running a half-marathon.  Although I only read 100 books -and not in the short time space she had to- I certainly agree with this.  Reading 100 books in a year certainly became a marathon: pacing yourself is all important and you’ve simply got to grit your teeth and get through the pain barrier.   One of my bucket list items (perhaps not one I’ll complete soon) is to run a marathon, and maybe this 100 books challenge will give me some of the mental skills.  Judging the Man Booker prize is also something I’d quite like to do one year (hint, hint), and so it was interesting to see how hard I found reading 100 books in a year when compared to 150 books in 8 months that a Man Booker judge has to do.

However, the most valuable things I learnt came from the books themselves.  I calculated 31 of the 100 books I read were non-fiction, and of those most of them were about Classics in some form or another.  I read some really fascinating books, most of them recommended to me by my school’s classics reading list.  I’m entering 2018 a lot more informed about the area of study I find so enthralling than I was upon entering 2017, and that can only be a good thing. For example, I learnt about the role of Athenian women (in Goddesses, Whores, Wives & Slaves by Sarah B Pomeroy), I learnt about the life of Catullus (Catullus’ Bedspread by Daisy Dunn) and I learnt about how amphorae were used in Roman Britain (Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain, by H.E.M Cool).  I want to try to read more books off this list though, as I’m always trying to find out more & discover new angles to look at the Classical world from.

However, in some ways this challenge was counterproductive.  The time pressure meant that I found myself unable to read quite long books, and it meant that some books I wanted to read were simply too long (‘Istanbul’ by Bettany Hughes, ‘SPQR’ by Mary Beard), so I had to put them off until 2018.  It also meant that my reading became somewhat mechanised.  I noticed a pattern in about June- I would start off a book with excitement, and then somewhere near the middle of the book my excitement would tail off & I’d start page counting and wondering what my next book would be.  However, borne from this necessity to read short books, I have a newfound love of some Greek plays I’d not thought to read before.  Hecabe, the Trojan Women and Ajax were all plays I read in order to save my monthly quota, and I ended up loving them!

The challenge also sometimes meant that even if I wasn’t enjoying a book, I’d have to finish it anyway because the time lost in starting a new book wouldn’t be worth it.  Luckily, I chose most of the books I read with this in mind so I didn’t actually have to struggle on with any dreadful books very often.   It did feel quite constraining at times, though, because I knew that any book I picked I’d have to persevere through, and persevere fast.  I’ve learnt that some books you have to read slowly and savour, but in 2017 that wasn’t possible because I had to read a book every 3.65 days to hit the target.  Hopefully this year I’ll be able to read some of the books I blazed through but didn’t enjoy all that much (Petronius’ ‘Satyricon’ being an example of one of these) and read them more slowly & carefully.  Hopefully this will enable me to enjoy them more.

The lack of reading-urgency this year has come as somewhat of a shock, though.  I acclimatised to the constant panic of keeping to monthly quotas, and now it feels like something’s missing.  I spent the first few days of 2018 reading ‘The Secret History’, book 7 of 2017, and really enjoying not having to read 200 pages a day.  I have a long list of lengthy books I wasn’t able to read in 2017, and I’m so excited to gobble them up (not literally- don’t eat paper: it’s not very good for you).  Here’s some of them:

  1. SPQR- Mary Beard
  2. Istanbul- Bettany Hughes
  3. The Luminaries- Eleanor Catton (one of my favourite ever books! It’s great- it won the Booker Prize in 2013 (incidentally the year Natalie Haynes judged it) and combines ideas about astrology with the New Zealand Goldrush.  If you stumble across a copy certainly give it a go, even though it’s a pretty lengthy book.)
  4. Empires of the Word- Nicholas Ostler (I actually managed to get halfway through this in 2017, and I’m looking forward to finish it off in 2018.  It’s about the history of languages- & indispensable if you’re interested in history/languages/geography!)
  5. The Histories- Herodotus (I’ll have to steal it back off my Mum first though)
  6. Mythos- Stephen Fry
  7. Courtesans and Fishcakes- James Davidson

To conclude, I’m certainly glad that I did this challenge, and even more glad that I succeeded rather than bottling out at no.45, or worse failing with only 99 books! I’d definitely encourage you to take the challenge, even if perhaps you only challenge yourself to read 50, or if you think 100 is for rookies, go for a bigger number like 125 or 150.  You’ll learn a lot, endure a lot of papercuts from page turning, and most importantly discover some lifetime favourite books.  What’s my new year’s resolution for 2018 you may ask?  I have two: I want to improve my Italian, and I want to write a screenplay.  I’ve got a novel on the (very slow) go as well, so hopefully I’ll be able to write a bit more of that this year too!


(If you are going to embark on the challenge, I found this Mashable article invaluable in helping me pace my reading in the first few months.)

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