3,600 hours of reading

May 30, 2020

For as long as I can remember, I’ve read a book before going to sleep every night.

There are a few exceptions, such as vacations when I’m pooped from diving a few times a day and my eyes close involuntarily. Even if that were to happen a few times a year on long vacations, though, I’d still be left with 300+ nightly reading sessions a year.

I normally read for 15–60 minutes. Occasionally I’ll fall asleep within a few minutes or go on longer and read for two hours. But let’s take an average of 30 minutes per night. I am 30 years old now and I’ve been reading nightly since I was six. That’s 24 years.

Let’s multiply 24 years by, conservatively, 300 days a year and let’s multiply that by, conservatively, 30 minutes a day. That’s 24 × 300 × 30 / 60 = 3,600 hours of reading. And that’s just the reading I’ve done before going to bed; never mind the many days where I read for hours and hours just to relax.

If your average book takes six hours to read, 3,600 hours of reading comprises 600 books. What could you learn from reading 600 books?

They don’t have to be “useful” books. These days I mostly read World War II history and science fiction (especially space opera), with the occasional book from another genre. I like to read other books too, such as books about contemporary politics, or books about scientific discovery. But I don’t usually like to read those types of books at night.

I suppose this is when I could share some message about “the power of habits” or about how little things add up. But while my nightly reading is definitely a habit—after all, I’ve done so for 24 years now—it doesn’t feel like the kind of habit that we usually talk about when we say “I’d like to build better habits”. There’s no decision involved here. Before I sleep, I read. I do so because I enjoy reading and because it’s just what I do every night.

Reflecting on how many hours of my lifetime I’ve spent reading got me thinking. If you want to make something a habit and it’s taking you a lot of willpower to do so, how can you make it more fun?

If I were to force myself to read “useful” books, even if they’re books that I would sometimes be in the mood to read, my nightly reading would start to feel like a chore. I’d want to skip it or I’d want to cheat by reading something else. But because I read what I want to read, I’m looking forward to it.

Similarly, let’s say you want to make some form of physical exercise a habit. But you hate making yourself go out for a run, doing yoga at home bores you, and you’d rather watch a 10-hour loop of Donald Trump press conferences than lift some weights.

If that’s you, then find a way to exercise that you enjoy! Try bouldering or cycling or CrossFit or pilates or water polo or karate. It doesn’t have to be the most efficient or optimal form of exercise. Chances are, if you try enough different activities that involve breaking a sweat, you’ll run into something you like.

When you do, it won’t be one of those “habits” you tried to guilt yourself into doing. Instead, it’ll just become fun, in the same way that reading books about the six worst years in human history or about fictional drama in space is fun for me.

P.S. Some book recommendations: A Higher Call, The Emperor of All Maladies, With the Old Breed

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