My Bookish Friends Reading Initiative

Author Jan Carson on blogging about the joys and pains of attempting to read 100 books in a year. 'For anyone taking up the mantle of prolific reading, I’d recommend it'

Last year I read 80 books. I was a little disappointed. I’d been aiming for 100.

I’ve always been a prolific reader. As soon as I’d conquered the basics of Peter and Jane, I began a ten-year campaign of bribery and coercion, swiping library cards from any family member not making the most of their six card allocation.

Every Wednesday I’d borrow an enormous stack of books from the Ballymena library and, a fortnight later, return for another armful, making my way through the children’s section, the rather limited young adult section and arriving, far too early, at crime fiction, where I began a lifelong infatuation with Agatha Christie.

I write now because I read then and have never stopped reading. At first I fell in love with story and later the very shape and rhythm of words themselves. I read great writers and they both inspired me and overwhelmed me, provoking that little envy gland that author Glenn Patterson is so fond of referring to.

As my writing career began, I realised that what I read would shape how I wrote. And so I started to read specifically and widely as a means of challenging my own writing assumptions. Having never been formally trained in creative writing, I found books an affordable, and incredibly satisfying, means of furthering my education.

In 2012, I read an enormous amount of books and yet found myself in something of a reading rut, choosing authors I was already familiar with, reading the same style of books, staying as far away as humanly possible from poetry, which I’d always found somewhat intimidating. I decided to embark upon a year of reading outside my comfort zone.

In January 2013, I launched My Bookish Friends. 100 friends who enjoy reading had signed up for the project, recommending their favourite books and agreeing to have both their book choices and their personalities reviewed on the Bookish Friends blog. Nominations came from all over the world and an incredibly wide spectrum of participants.

The oldest nominee was 80 and the youngest, my three-year-old niece. Recommendations ran to novels, plays, philosophy text books, young adult fiction, crime, children’s books, graphic novels, biography and even the occasional poetry collection (though I have to admit that John Berryman almost proved to be my undoing). I was, for 365 days, reading well outside my comfort zone.

I managed 80 of the 100 recommendations. At times it was a terribly difficult experience. Perseverance became my watchword as I ploughed through some of the dullest things I’ve ever read. Book shops became a minefield of distraction, and several people took exception to my less-than-glowing reviews of their favourite works. However, on the whole, My Bookish Friends was an incredible reading experience.

I discovered many new authors I’d never previously read. I got over my fear of poetry. I had some of the best bookish chats of my life as reading suddenly became less of a solitary pursuit and rather something I could practice in community. I’d thoroughly recommend tackling your own reading rut in this fashion and even now, in a new reading year, am still taking literary recommendations in a less formal fashion.

I also learnt a few tricks, which helped me improve my reading habits. I carried a book at all times, tucked inside my bag, ready to devour 20 pages whilst waiting for appointments to arrive or lingering at the bus stop after work. I made a point of discussing the books I’d read with others and found fresh perspectives and an increased appetite for reading when it wasn’t such a self-focused pursuit.

I also alternated between styles of book – crime followed by autobiography or period drama – and found this helped keep my reading appetite keen, avoiding literary fatigue. I went to a lot of readings, listened to interviews with authors and read reviews online; hardcore reading is like rock climbing and sometimes you need an extra little foothold to make it through a book.

The blog also helped, and for anyone taking up the mantle of prolific reading I’d recommend journaling, blogging or establishing some concrete means of chronicling what you’ve read, otherwise individual books and authors begin to blur into an enormous wordy muddle.

I was certain I’d get to the end of My Bookish Friends’ year and slide back into literary laziness, but the habits formed last year have stuck and I’m 20-odd books down already. High volume reading isn’t for everyone, but I can definitely see how being intentional about how and what I read has positively impacted on my writing.

Jan Carson is author of the novel Malcolm Orange Disappears.