20 Lessons Learned from 200+ books in 2020

It was quite the year, in so many ways. Amanda and Jill both read a ton of books totalling over 300 together. To help understand what that did for us, here’s Amanda’s 20 lessons learned from 200+ books in 2020. – Written by Amanda Fristrom

In the 2020 wrap-up episode with co-host Jill Berrett Given I mention that my original reading goal of 2020 was just to “read more.” This was a very easy task, since I haven’t been reading much as an adult other than picture and board books with my kids. When I hit 100 in the summertime, I wanted to see if I could possibly reach 200 books. When I was close in December to hitting 200, I knew I had to do it. What did going from reading maybe 5 books in 2019 to reading more than 200 in 2020 do? What lessons did I learn? I’ll tell you all about it.

The bullet list:

I love audio books, and when I paint I’m always listening to a book. I find that my imagination really takes flight in the painting process when I’m listening to audio books.

–Thomas Kinkade

Section one: About audiobooks

This is the year I discovered audiobooks. 2019 was all about podcasts, and 2020 ended up being focused on audiobooks. I don’t watch much TV, but I do fold a lot of laundry and when my kids were going to school I spent upwards of 2 hours every day in the car. This is where audiobooks came into play.

  1. Audiobooks are definitely still books.
    • There are many arguments in favor of reading aloud and being read aloud to. I really enjoyed several re-reads in a different way than when I read them on paper and learned different things. The content is the same in both forms, and neurologists have shown that your brain still works overtime when listening to audiobooks, so there’s still plenty of cognitive action going on. 
  2. I absorb information better when my hands are busy with menial tasks.
    • When you read from a book, your hands are busy holding the book or e-reader or phone or whatever. When I am trying to recall something from a book I listened to, I can often imagine the activity, location, etc when I heard that part of the book. Just like music can take you back to memories and certain experiences, audiobooks do that for me. Now I have memory “triggers” all around me that bring to mind certain passages or ideas from a book.
  3. Menial tasks is the key word in number 2, and I still need time to think about my reading.
    • 2009 University of Sussex study shows that immersing yourself in the world of a book reduces stress. By 1) listening to audiobooks or reading ebooks and 2) multitasking 98% of the time, I was not setting myself up for success when it comes to the beneficial relaxation that comes from reading.
  4. Fiction, especially fluffy fiction, is great for audiobooks
    • Light reads, juvenile fiction, YA fiction… These all shine in audiobook form for me. I enjoy completing a book in a day or two because I’m able to speed up the time (especially juvenile fiction is intentionally read very slowly), and I’m still able to hold onto the storyline while merging into traffic.
  5. I’m a 2x-3x kind of girl.
    • To each their own, but unless I’m listening to a very deep non-fiction, I actually best enjoy the pacing of books read at 2x speed. Some of them at the end of the year I sped up to 3x and it was alright, but only when I had no chances at distractions (which happens pretty much never). 2x also made some of the longer books I listened to less intimidating, bringing them from 24+ hours down to a more manageable 12 hours. 
  6. I love books read by the author and full-cast audiobooks.
    • I’m not sure what else to say about this. I now gravitate toward anything I find out fits one of these categories, and my kids love full-cast stories as well. It completely elevates a book to new levels of comprehension and retainment.  

The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.

—Rene Descartes

Section two: On Fiction vs. non-fiction

I feel as though I did read quite a fair blend of books for the first 100, but then when I got this crazy idea in my head to shoot for 200 I knew I needed to essentially average a book a day to make it happen. This meant the second half of my book list was determined a lot by the length of the book and how deep the subject matter is. Not many lengthy non-fictions made the cut, and I hardly *read* any tangible, paper books.

  1. I used to get defensive when I tell people I’m reading fiction. I also used to feel shame. No more, I say!
    • Why in the world is this? What makes people judge others about their reading choices? I don’t know. There will always be haters, but it was very healthy for me to force myself to read dozens of princess/fairytale retellings this year. It is the comfort that my brain needed during a global pandemic. The well-written science fiction and fantasy I read turned into a true escape, not me trying to force knowledge into an exhausted brain. I will read whatever I want to read. I won’t like every book or author, but I no longer feel shame admitting I am reading a book for absolutely no other reason than enjoyment. Reading is a valid hobby, after all.
  2. Non-fiction, while my overall favorite genre, is not as enjoyable for me when rushed through — especially via audiobook.
    • I already mentioned non-fiction as audiobooks needing to be slower for me to digest. I also feel twitches in my fingers when I’m driving and listening to non-fiction and want to take notes. While I will probably still be listening to non-fiction in 2021, I know I much prefer to have margins I can write in and pages I can underline when I get a good non-fiction. I want to pause, re-read passages, and think of personal applications to concepts.

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.

—Joseph Addison

Section three: on sequence, series and same-author books

We really ramped up our reading quota in February of 2020 to prepare the very extensive princess and superhero recommendation lists. I also felt like I was trying to play catch-up on lost years of no reading or only reading coursework. This meant I was reading a lot of series and books by the same author.

  1. Reading for a theme was kind of fun and I want to do it again.
    • I keep talking about these princess and superhero lists because my reading list consists mainly of books on these topics, starting in February of 2020. We knew we couldn’t find a list out there we liked ourselves that was thorough, so we set out to make it, reading all different books and authors under these two categories. I also joined a book club and started reading all the book candidates for each month, not just the winner. Let me tell you, holistic reading can be so much fun. I don’t know what else to call it, but reading a bunch of books on the same thing makes me feel like I’m actually studying the topic without studying. I can make comparisons, draw conclusions, connect dots, and more easily select favorites and identify unique content. This is the way I want to read all the time!
  1. I must more wisely choose what to binge.

I read/listened to all of Jane Austen’s books almost in a row, and at a quick pace. I do not recommend this. While my vocabulary morphed and I started to think in 19th century British language, the fun only extended this far. I am apparently not (at this point in my life) a devout Austen disciple, though it would be fun to read one or two of the books I read at the end of the marathon again on their own to see if I enjoy them more. Fast-paced YA novels, however,

  1. Note to self: for optimal enjoyment, do not read many lengthy books back-to-back.

I listened to Emma, The Woman in White and two of the Mistborn trilogy in succession. I was so exhausted by lengthy books, I couldn’t even start the third and final Mistborn book despite absolutely loving the first two. I need to inject shorter books between the long ones. Oh, and Emma was the last of Jane Austen’s books, I’ll remind you. Talk about needing to re-read that one!

Reading—the best state yet to keep absolute loneliness at bay.

—William Styron

Section four: On family/social impact

Off the bat, let’s hope that 2020 was an exceptional year as far as social interactions goes. My family of 5, kids ages 5 and under, were all home all day every day for a very long time. And because we lived in a high-rise in Dubai, we were quite literally confined to our apartment from the second week of March to our escape for reprieve in Finland at the tail end of July. You may probably guess what being trapped inside without even being able to open a window for almost 5 months may do to your family dynamics. With these parameters for context, here’s what reading 200 books did for my social life.

  1. Audiobooks and reading may be too good an escape sometimes.

Too much of a good thing is always possible, and when I would start a really good book late in the day before bed or get really interested in a book, I would check out of reality. This meant that during the Lunar Chronicles phase of the year, I was staying up into the wee hours of the morning, stoking the flames of my insomnia. I’d be grumpy or irritable if I couldn’t finish a book because the kids needed something from me and felt like I just couldn’t get a break.

  1. Reading a physical book is a very strong signal to those around you. 

Whenever I am in a waiting room, I pull out a physical book to read. People react very differently to you when they know you’re reading – give it a try. People are more patient, more kind, and ask me questions about what I’m reading to have a little conversation. I thought about this and decided to see how my kids would respond. When I wanted a little break, I grabbed a stack of picture books and put it on the floor next to me, pulled out my own book, sat down, and started reading. Without fail, the kids would all start to read. Without fail, however, my young kids would want me to read to them from their books instead of letting me read my own. However, I think with conditioning or with a little more age, they would actually leave me alone to read for a few minutes.

  1. I now know what books to talk about with whom

Since I didn’t read much before 2020, I have no book people beyond Jill. I have, however, gotten a few people interested in talking books with me after this year. Now I know that I do not even mention “fluffy” (defined by him as any fiction lighter than Tokein’s Silmarillion) to my husband. He is all about careful curation and productive book reading, and is great to offer very different perspectives on non-fiction. A college friend has started giving me amazing recommendations very different than any I have read before, including juvenile fiction I feel will become staples in our home. I mean, anyone with axolotls as pets surely has interesting things to read, right?

  1. I like having my brain filled with book knowledge more than internet knowledge or terrifying-news knowledge, and I like talking with people about this type of knowledge better. 
    1. Books take a long time to write. Books published through a publisher go through a gruelling editing process. Authors of books don’t just throw things on a page and click “post” as an anonymous meme for the masses. Authors do not spend the time, energy, and money writing about things they aren’t passionate about. Sometimes I forget that while resources on the internet have their place (like this website), there isn’t really a substitute for books for me. Books are more thorough, carefully worded, and particular. They are just a different caliber. I feel like the conversations you have about books are the same. So much of the talk about things on social media is about people and has a short-sided or maybe even selfish perspective. But books are written and read differently, and the conversations about books seem to be deeper, at a slower pace, less inflammatory, and with a long-term perspective. I like this more.

Reading is my favorite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.

—Anne Brontë

Section five: Miscellaneous

  1. There is a difference in my brain when I am pregnant and when I am not.

The brain being like a muscle that atrophies with disuse makes sense to me. When I started reading and listening to books early in the year, I expected to need to work my way up to the level of comprehension and focus I had before, say while being an English tutor at university. What I did not expect was that seemingly all momentum and cognition regained stopped immediately sometime during my first trimester. It’s like someone threw my brain against the wall. By early November, I had reached peak burnout. I didn’t want to read or listen to books anymore because it was too hard to focus, too hard to multitask, I was too tired, and it was like I was reading in a non-native tongue, having to stew over words and phrases that looked or sounded weird. Which, in all honesty, if you stare at a word long enough, most don’t actually make much sense. 

  1. I really, really, really need to write down something from every book or I will not remember them 5 years from now.
    • This may be another no-brainer, but I didn’t even do a very good job at regularly tracking my books throughout the year. Now as I’m trying to compile lists and go through 200 books to rate on Goodreads, I don’t remember which version of Snow White I liked the best. I don’t remember what I learned on this time through Grit that was different than last time. I don’t remember which one of those books with a super generic title was by a popular author that I didn’t like at all. Blank. I remember the stand-out books, and I may remember a main point or two of the absolute best, but that’s it. 2021 must be better.
  2. Numbers stress me out. 
    • This isn’t really new to me, since I always run as far as I can from quantifying anything, but as soon as I switched my goal from “read more” to “read 200 books,” my brain turned to a mound of anxious mush. There was so much pressure to read more, more, more, faster, faster, faster, that I was skipping parts of series that I really enjoyed because they were too long. I was not reading books in paper format before going to bed because it was too slow. I wasn’t pausing audiobooks or re-listening to a great chapter. In an effort to read as many as possible, I lost some of the best benefits of reading. Never again.
  3. It is OK to write down your list of to-reads instead of looking for them at your library or on Libby right away.
    • Here’s how 2020 went: 

Someone else: Oh, this book is awesome and perfect for you!

Me: Yay! I want to read all the books in the world this year, so I will find it on Libby right now! If I don’t have it in any of my libraries, I will check Scribd! If Scribd doesn’t have it, I will find someone with some account that has it available RIGHT NOW.

Me: I found it on Libby! I’m so excited for this book! I have two whole weeks to read it, which is good because I currently have 15 other books on Libby and 5 on Scribd right now!

Me 13 days later: Aaaahhh! The book is due in 6 hours and I am only 73% done! And there are 400 people waiting for this book after me! NO ONE EVEN LOOK AT ME UNTIL I FINISH THIS BOOK!

And this is what was happening at least once a week. Two weeks is a great amount of time to read or listen to a book. Just not when I have a dozen books with the clock ticking. Better to write recommendations down or mark them on my goodreads account so that when I finish a book and am looking for another, I can get them one at a time. Or maybe 2 at a time since that one I’ve really been hoping for has a 6-month waitlist.

  1. Reading is empowering and where I want to be spending my free time.
    • We have been running this podcast for over a year now, and even before that we knew that reading is important. However, walking the walk and reading consistently and on a wide range of topics in 2020 has proven to myself what all the data agree on – reading is powerful. It is quite possibly the single most effective thing at accomplishing the goals I have for myself and for my family. Sometimes I’ll do something that doesn’t involve a book, but I am even more convinced that there is nothing else I’d rather be focused on right now than establishing great reading habits for me and my family.

Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

—Harper Lee

Conclusion for 20 lessons learned from 200+ Books in 2020

I can now take a year in my adulthood  in which I read nothing and stack it next to 2020, the year that I read a comparatively insane amount – and during a global pandemic. I can now see the difference in myself and my family, and I will choose to read consistently and widely for every year from now on.

There is a problem for me with setting a number on books to read in a year. I feel like reading for me should stay in my areas of strength or push the boundaries just enough to remain enjoyable. I hit a wall at 175 books. I was so tired of reading/listening. I wanted to listen to podcasts again. I wanted to make dinner with my own thoughts instead of trying to focus on someone else’s words. We moved right at that time, I was pregnant, and I had decision fatigue like crazy and did not want to multitask anymore. I took a 2-week break and then hit up Libby again in a panic, so close but with so little time left. 

I do not want to read to the point of burnout or to the point of physical exhaustion. It’s not worth it to me to have a shelf full of books in Libby and queued up on Scribd if I’m stressed that I’m not going to read them all before they are due or before the new month starts.

Really, putting a number on books makes reading stressful for me, and I do not want reading to be stressful. So this year I’m changing my goal to be finishing and reading more tangible books. I will read the books I have on my shelves that I haven’t read, and I will finish series I started in 2020 but weren’t able to finish because they were too long or because I was binging on the wrong books. I have a lot of podcasts to catch up on, too. And I’m going to read whatever I want to read since there are no reading police to come tell me I’m not reading with enough sophistication or the right way – I’ll share about my reads with the people who have similar tastes if I want to talk about them.

The benefits of reading far outweigh the drawbacks, and they outweigh even more the risks you invite by not reading from opportunity cost. You really have nothing to lose by reading, and everything to gain.

I will be tracking my books as I go in two ways: Goodreads and on the 2021 reading log from Everyday Reading. Will I fill in each slot? I don’t know. Probably. But I’m not going to even start filling it out until I want to.

For my Goodreads account with links to all of the books I read, go here to my year in review.

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