How I read 200+ works in four months.
Earlier this year, I had the honor of being part of the selection committee for the 2022 Aspen Words Literary Prize in Fiction. Annually, this award honors an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.
As someone who lives for fiction in all its forms — but specifically for the “transformative” kind — I was elated by the opportunity. And it must’ve been that elation which got me over the biggest hurdle of being on the committee: How would I read so many books (204) in such a short period (four months)?
Thinking back, I remember spiraling into so many reading slumps that I worried I wouldn’t finish in time. Still, it was a great experience to get to read so widely, including exploring often-overlooked indie titles and books/themes I wouldn't normally gravitate toward. (I urge you to read through the recently announced longlist. It’s one of the best such lists I’ve seen!)
Anyway, it was truly an experience of a lifetime. In case you ever want to read a ton of books in a hurry, I’ll share some tips that helped me do the same:
- Organize yourself. I cannot emphasize enough how helpful it was to create an Excel spreadsheet of the books I needed to read and where I was in the process. I know what you’re thinking: Didn’t all this organizing take away from reading time? No, because I found myself strangely motivated to push forward and finish a book so I could update the spreadsheet. (I’m that kind of person.) The spreadsheet helped during sprint-reading, too (see below), because I could type comments about a book into the note-taking app on my phone and then email them to myself and paste them into the spreadsheet. It sounds complicated but truly isn’t.
- Sprint-read. When I first started reading for the contest, I found myself overwhelmed by the number of submissions and some of the entries’ trauma-heavy topics. So instead of sitting and forcing myself to read things that would make me anxious, I grabbed my e-reader and either walked my dog (yes, walking while reading is possible) or jumped on my stationary bike. I found that moving my body prevented my mind from spiraling into worry, so I utilized this sprint-reading time whenever I needed it.
- Know when to say when. This was the hardest lesson to learn because I’m notorious for being that reader — the one who insists on finishing every book (no matter what) just so I can say I did. It’s still hard to accept that not every book is going to work for me but moving on frees me up to (hopefully) fall in love with the next book! If you struggle to chuck a book into the DNF (did not finish) pile, recite this mantra: “I am going to set this book down for now and maybe get back to it.”
- Mix formats. This one was a lifesaver. Having multiple formats — audiobooks, e-reader, and physical copies — was incredibly helpful. If I had to cook dinner, do laundry, or clean, I’d shift from a physical book to an audiobook. If I found myself bored with a hard copy, I’d try it on my e-reader or on audio. Switching things up almost always helped pull me out of a reading slump.
- Rest. The most important tip of them all. Even though I was up against a hard deadline, there were moments when I couldn’t stand to read anymore. In those times, not reading for a bit — and resting, watching TV, or hanging out with my family instead — always put me back in the mood to read. I took these breaks as seriously as I took my reading sprints because, ultimately, they’re both what fueled me to keep going.
Before I end, I need to thank the Aspen Words team for all their support, which ensured the journey was smooth and easy. (I credit the first tip on this list to their organizational skills.)
And a profound final thanks goes to my wife for supporting me through my four-month reading frenzy with endless refrains of “You can do it” and “Don’t worry about anything else — go read!” Her enthusiasm kept me excited about what I was doing. I’d include her as one of the tips above, but she's all mine (#sorrynotsorry).
Lupita Aquino — better known as Lupita Reads — is the co-founder and current lead of LIT on H St. Book Club at Solid State Books. She is a passionate reader active in both the local and online book community through her Instagram blog, @Lupita.Reads. You can also catch her tweeting about books over at @lupita_reads.