By Jeff Ryan
— Like many of you, I have a nagging problem: I'm not a heroin user. Nor am I a knuckle-cracker, a nail-biter, or a thumb-sucker. I (usually) pay off my credit cards every month. I travel, I see my family, I'm not stressed. And the big three — drinking, dieting, and smoking cessation? I'm good.
This is all great for my insurance rates, but not when trying to determine a New Year's resolution. So what can someone like me do for 2013?
I had the same dilemma last year, and my solution, while ingenious, turned out to be quite a challenge. I decided that I would read more. Not a book a month, or even a book a week. One entire book every day. Three hundred sixty-six books by year's end. "Challenge accepted!" the Barney Stinson of my soul boasted. No sweat.
If you're like me, the list of books you want to read is a hydra. Cutting one head off (that is, reading a book) just scribbles new titles onto the list. I'm never ahead. My whole life I've been fighting this hydra tactically, trying to bleed a head dry by reading, say, one of Bob Woodward's or Neal Stephenson's books every year. But they keep writing more books! Time for a new solution: overwhelming firepower. Force-feed my eyeballs like every tomorrow was a final exam. By year's end, my 366 books would have that hydra on its knees.
And, believe it or not, it worked.
In the cold light of New Year's morning, my challenge seemed a bit daunting. So I gave myself a week. If I didn't have seven books finished by Jan. 7, I obviously wasn't going to be able to keep such a meth-addled pace.
The resolution almost didn't last 24 hours, but New Year's night I forced my eyelids open and read a short horror novel. The following day I finished "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," which, despite its title, was not a horror novel but a pop-culture history I'd been working on for a few days. The day after that I peeled off a "Walking Dead" collection. Driving to work, I hit the final disc of a Nelson DeMille audiobook. The night after that, I read the final chapter of a Narnia book to my daughter at bedtime.
Seven days, seven books. So far, so good. A good six of those books were timing and luck — it can take me three weeks to finish an audiobook, and more than a month to finish a bedtime story. But I gave it another week. And another. Soon my every waking thought was on reading.
The prime directive for this sort of project, you might think, is to pick short books. I don't deny that 2012 was not the year for me to launch into Terry Goodkind. Want some Tolstoy? "The Forged Coupon," not "War and Peace." But as it turned out, Read Short Books was rule No. 2.
No, my prime directive was: no min-maxing. In "Dungeons and Dragons," "min-maxing" is focusing on one character attribute to the exclusion of everything else. (Sheldon Cooper from "The Big Bang Theory" is an excellent example of someone who min-maxes intelligence, stealing points from charisma and dexterity.) If you've ever been in a team sport, school play or med school, you know how that commitment supersedes all others. Parties are missed, sleep is skipped, emails go unreturned. "I can't — I have practice/rehearsal/a corpse to dissect."
My plate is already pretty full: I work full-time, try to be a good husband, and am always up for a good game of Pretty Pretty Princess. Mine isn't a tougher schedule than that of other working parents, but it is tough. So the challenge was to see if a heavy-lifting year of reading could be done almost exclusively in the crumbs of found time in my life. The oil-change can wait, I don't need those sick days or lunch hours. My test for this was my wife: I didn't even tell her I was tackling a book a day until six weeks into the project. If she suspected I was slacking — dishes undone, litter box a ruin, laundry growing sentient — then I was failing my prime directive.
The idea of a full book a day — going from title page to back-jacket blurbs — went quickly out the window. I read lots of books at once, and can go days making progress in five or six volumes without technically finishing any of them. Then there are flat-out busy days, where the actual drop-dead demands of my job and parenting mean there is not a second to spare for reading. My worst lull was during a Florida trip, when I barely plowed through the 300 pages of John Irving's "The Fourth Hand." And that was during a whole week of family vacation — the time when normal people read more. It took a month of catchup to get back at pace.
But for every period behind the eight ball, I had weeks when I was days or even weeks ahead of schedule. A slack day at work, an hour doing yard work with the iPod, a solo plane ride or overnight stay — these were my moments, and I seized them. Believe it or not, I grew so far ahead of my pace that I successfully read all 1,016 pages of George R.R. Martin's "A Dance With Dragons." It took me three full weeks, but I slew that Dragon.
I did have to give up some things. I listened to audiobooks exclusively — no music for me. I gave up video games, which wasn't as big a deal for me as I expected it would be. Mainly, though, I decided that "Starship Troopers 2," "Lost Boys 3," and "Saws V-VII" weren't worth the midnight oil I was expending on them. Yes, you, too, can read a book a day, just by giving up direct-to-DVD horror films!
If you're hoping to read a book a day, I also encourage shamelessness. You don't see salad-eating contests on the Fourth of July; you see hot dogs. So I grabbed as much literary junk food as I could stomach for the days when I wasn't reading a "real" book. For you, that might be erotica, or category romances. It might be fan fiction or "Star Wars" novels, pulps or New Age tracts. Whatever floats your boat. Reading is reading. My particular boat, by the way, was floated by the following, each of which I read to a double-digit degree: zombie novels, books about Old Hollywood, books about video games (I can't play you anymore, but I can read about you!), comedians' memoirs, and essay collections.
Here's another not-so-shameful secret: capes. Superheroes have saved me so many times I might as well be Lois Lane. I can start and finish a six-issue collection of "Captain America" or "Green Lantern" comics in less than an hour. That's a book, or at least it is under my definition of "something printed that cost about $20." Don't blame me, blame Marvel Comics.
And lest you think all I did was splash in the literary kiddie pool, I also read works of Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Nicholson Baker, Thomas Hardy, James Baldwin, Umberto Eco and Weird Al Yankovic. I have now read everything by Mary Roach and Alice Sebold, and am [begin ital] thiiiis [end ital] close to having the complete set of Bill Bryson and Sarah Vowell.
If you follow my path and read a book a day in 2013, you'll find that you truly, truly will not be reading more than usual. Right now, you are probably reading a comparable amount to me — but you're reading newspapers, Facebook, Twitter and Slate. I let that stuff go for a year in the interest of making my quota. I always dreamed that in retirement I might be able to knock off a book a day: Turns out, I didn't have to wait.
Jeff Ryan is the author of "Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America."