Last semester, I asked students in a professional program to read fiction as part of an experiment. I wanted to see if fiction would prompt discussions relevant to leadership/management in new or different ways than when we read more traditional reading assignments–like a textbook directly related to the topic.
The results were fascinating and heartening. It turns out that when smart people read and discuss fiction together, the conversations are rich, nuanced, thoughtful, and generous. The students had no trouble applying what they read to contexts beyond the page.
If you are a reader of fiction, file this under duh. We’ve always known what wonderful things fiction can do for us.
The pandemic really upended my writing schedule in 2020, but it definitely gave me plenty of time to read. I set out to read 100 books in 2020, and I did it–by the skin of my teeth. (Shout-out to audiobooks; they got me over the hump).
My 100-book-challenge only had one rule: I had to read whatever I wanted to read. If I didn’t like something, I quit no matter how far in I was (and didn’t count it). For whatever reason, I read a lot more nonfiction than usual. I also went down several rabbit holes, reading several books on the same topic. And I reread more than ever as I searched for comfort in books during a year that felt endless.
We’re 40 days or so into 2021, and I’m finally getting around to looking at my 2020 booklist to see what stood out. Here are my top 10 books (in no particular order) from the year of the plague. (Not all of these books were published in 2020. I chose from the list I read last year).
Wantby Lynn Steger Strong A novel about the anxieties of being a woman, an academic, and a mother in a world that isn’t built for any of those things.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko A novel that paints a tragic picture of what life is like for an undocumented worker and her son.
A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum A novel about Arab-American women trying to find space in their families and communities.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld An alternative history of Hillary Rodham. Hillary without Bill is awesome.
Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump A memoir by Donald Trump’s niece with just enough detail to confirm that Donald Trump is exactly the narcissist his narcissistic parents raised him to be.
I’ve always been a meticulous record-keeper when it comes to keeping track of what I read and when. I use Goodreads (and a spreadsheet) to do that. While I always set a yearly reading goal, I usually pick the number I know I’m going to read anyway.
This year I’m attempting to read 100 books. I set this goal not because I care that deeply about quantifying my reading but because I want to change some bad habits. Late last year, I realized I’d fallen into the rut of using my pockets of free time to skim news headlines or scroll through Instagram for the hundredth time. Having a yearly reading goal that’s big and bold is a reminder to use my found time to read instead. So far, it’s going well. (Admittedly, the last couple of weeks have been difficult since I went back to obsessively reading the news for COVID-19 updates.)
Because I don’t want to turn reading into a job, I set some rules for myself when I started this journey in January:
No selecting books based on how long they are. I don’t want to try to “trick” the system by purposely seeking out short books or avoiding long books. I read what I want without regard for how it will impact my goal.
Quit books that aren’t working for me. I’ve always been a joyous and enthusiastic un-finisher of books I don’t like. I never count unfinished books in my yearly lists, and I won’t force myself to keep reading a book I’m not enjoying just to put it on this year’s list. When I force myself to keep going on a book that isn’t speaking to me, I end up reading less because I avoid reading altogether!
Don’t stress about monthly goals. In order to reach 100 books in a year, I need to read about 8.5 books a month. But tracking that closely stresses me out. I’m avoiding looking at numbers and instead focusing on using any extra free time I have in a day to read. Some months are going to be busier than others. I’m okay with that. (March has been a splendid reading month so far because of Spring Break and because I can’t go anywhere.)
Celebrate the positives. If I don’t make it to 100 by the end of the year, I’m fine with that. What I care about is renewing my commitment to books (and breaking some of my bad technology habits). Part of the fun of setting a goal is the time spent working toward it. So far, it’s been a fun little project.
Do you set reading goals? How many books do you read a year? How do you find ways to read more?
I wrote about the benefits of reading literary fiction for Harvard Business Review last week. I interviewed some really interesting people who are bringing guided literature discussions to a place you’d least expect: corporate America.
You can read my article, “The Case for Reading Fiction,” here. Come back and tell me you always knew reading fiction was good for the soul!
Do you think you could talk your organizational leadership into doing reading groups?
I’m an achievement addict, and I’m working on breaking that addiction.
Before I go on, I want to be clear that this isn’t a humble brag. This is not the equivalent of the person who walks around fake-lamenting about how they wish they weren’t so talented at absolutely everything! This isn’t about talent; it’s about a deep emotional attachment to defining myself by what I produce.
I’m talking about a mindset where the search for achievement overrides everything else. It’s a kind of obsession that drives every decision you make. It’s exhausting and it’s dangerous. It sustains ideologies about work that are bad for everyone. It’s a monolithic goal that stands in the way of happiness because it clouds judgment and overvalues production.
I’m pretty convinced these days that productivity often functions as a cult. Do you ever feel like you are committing a cardinal sin if you aren’t constantly trying to maximize your output and produce as much as possible? Do you feel guilty about not doing something productive? Do you fetishize being busy as a way of feeling important?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might be in the productivity cult. And once in, it’s so hard to get out. So hard!
When your productivity practice becomes the goal — and you are no longer thinking about what you produce, how you produce it, and whether or not you should produce anything at all — you might have become a productivity cult member.
Don’t feel bad if you are card-carrying member because you are not alone. Let’s practice un-brainwashing together.
Tell me how you will resist the productivity cult.
After Dinner Conversation publishes short stories about ethical or philosophical questions. It’s been fun to dive into fictional worlds that explore questions about what it means to be human. If you like short fiction, you should definitely check them out. They include discussion questions along with each story.
My story, “Survival Kit,” just hit #1 on Amazon downloads. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it or any of the other stories. Better yet, write your own and share it!