What I learned from reading an 1124 page book

I began tracking my time continuously in April of 2015. When I tallied up how I spent my first year, I learned that I had devoted 327 hours to reading. That sounds good — almost an hour a day — but I also realized, looking back, how few good books I had read in those hours. Much of the time was devoted to reading magazines and online articles. These were easy and accessible, but they represented an opportunity cost. I’m a swift reader; if I read 50 pages an hour,* I could have read 16,350 pages in that time. Many pretty epic books — War and Peace, Kristin Lavransdatter, 1Q84 — clock in at 1000-1500 pages, depending on edition. I could have read all of these and 50 shorter books too.

I hadn’t.

This year, I resolved to change that. I wanted to read 100 books this year, with a lot of that being fiction (I read a reasonable number of business and sociology books for work reasons). Once I realized that I would definitely hit that number — with one method of counting, I already have — I decided to nudge myself to read longer books. I tackled Annals of the Former World in June. I read Team of Rivals in July. But those are non-fiction books, and I know I can read those. I wanted to prove to myself that, in my distracted life, I could stay with a story for 1000 pages.

I picked up Kristin Lavransdatter about two weeks ago. This epic about a headstrong woman living in medieval Norway won the Nobel Prize for literature for its author, Sigrid Undset. It was originally published as three books, but in the US market, it’s generally sold as a single volume. It is 1124 pages.

The reviews were glowing, and indeed I quickly got into the story of Kristin and her bad boy husband Erlend, their seven sons, and the interplay between Catholic and pagan forces in this beautiful but harsh country (I have visited Norway twice and love it).

Of course, good story or not, it was still 1124 pages. I realized, as I was 400 pages in and not even at the halfway mark, how impatient I often am with stories. I like the feeling of being done with something. I simply could not be done with an 1124 page book for a long, long time. At 50 pages an hour, that is almost 23 hours.

But here’s the thing: 23 hours is a finite amount of time. If you just stick with something that takes 23 hours, eventually you will be on the other side of those 23 hours. You get through it bit by bit, just as with anything. In my long runs, I have tried to focus on just one mile at a time. I run the mile I am in, trying not to think about the 10 miles left to go. Likewise, I set a goal to read 100 pages of Kristin Lavransdatter a day, often in 25 page chunks. Given that I was reading much of it over vacation, I could use much of the 2-year-old’s nap time to read, and I often did a little more than 100 pages. That’s how I got through it in 9 days.

I am happy I read the book for the story itself. It was a good read and it will stick with me for a while. But reading an 1124 page book did other things for me too. I think it has changed how I view reading. Everything else seems so incredibly doable. I read two 250-ish page books quite quickly after KL. I decided to tackle 1Q84.** I am reading it on the Kindle app, and am 48 percent in. Much of that has just come from reading a little bit at a time. According to Kindle’s predictor, it would take me 16 hours to finish the book. That’s 960 minutes, so reading about 10 minutes means getting another 1 percent in. Yesterday morning, I was up with the 2-year-old for 75 minutes before the others got up, so I let him watch cartoons and I read another 6 percent (which comes out about right; it’s 10 minutes x 6, with accounting for various 2-year-old distractions). Eventually those percentages add up. Since I am enjoying the story so far (with some major caveats BUT I’ll write about that in my Books Read in August post), they’re adding up quicker than I might once have thought.

In other news: Part of devoting serious time to reading is keeping digital distractions under control. I am writing a short piece for Verily on tips for keeping such distractions from derailing your goals. Got any ideas for me? Feel free to post here or email me (lvanderkam at yahoo dot com — and yes, I recognize the irony of asking people I’m interacting with ONLINE about how they avoid digital distractions!)

* My actual page per hour rate varies a lot based on the book. Fifty is probably on the low end, but Kristin Lavransdatter has large pages with a lot of text.

**Fun fact: I really thought this was “IQ84” not “1Q84.” That’s how I had been referring to it ever since I heard about the book. Sarah, my podcast co-host, had to correct me!

32 thoughts on “What I learned from reading an 1124 page book

  1. I’m commenting right now instead of reading because I’ve given up (temporarily) on getting my kindle to sync my new book and my phone is too full to download to. I love the perspective of 23 hours being finite – it may be a long amount of reading, but it does have an end. I remember comparing reading Vanity Fair to a half marathon in the same way many years ago, but had forgotten. Maybe it’s time to pick up a new long read!
    For digital distractions, I have levels of control. The lowest is just putting my phone in my purse or its charging pigeonhole in my desk and turning on Do not Disturb on it and my computer. Level two is quitting Mail and Safari on my computer, and then comes using blockers like Freedom. I tend to not even try willpower – making it inconvenient is easier! I’ve quit Facebook and twitter, which helps, but Instagram is a persistent siren.

    1. Oh, I forgot to mention — I go analog for as much as possible. I keep to-do lists and notes on paper, a paper calendar and project tracker, and usually draft outlines or just work through initial project ideas in a notebook. That way, I’m not reaching for my phone to be productive and then getting distracted.

  2. Whoa, that book set in Norway looks awesome. Personally I find that getting too “quantitative” about the books I read, like counting them, trying to finish x pages in y time, etc. sucks all the joy out of it for me. I love the idea of getting lost in a book and not paying attention to time, which is why reading on my phone with the Kindle app works so well – it makes me forget I’m waiting in line or whatever 🙂
    Re: digital distractions, I turn off ALL notifications on both computer and phone as soon as I get a new one. I only get notified on my phone for new calls and texts in case it’s my kids’ school (and those are visual only, not sound). Literally everything else requires me to check the app for it. I turn off all sounds, pop up toasts, banner notifications, etc. It makes things SO MUCH “quieter” and easy to focus.

    1. I’m inclined to agree with this — quantifying it sucks the joy out of reading for me as well. I read because I can, not because I want to prove to myself that I can get through X pages or books by the end of the year.

    2. Omg, yes, on the notifications! I honestly don’t know how people who have notifications on are sane. And also, why does the CVS app need to send me notifications??

  3. IQ84 was interesting. I wonder what you’ll think! I may skip the Norway one since I have no connection to the place. I read somewhat indiscriminately to length. I just read when I can and eventually get through it. I think reading digitally makes long long books seem less daunting. It’s very different to actually see and feel the heft in your hands and see how slowly it is going!

    1. @Ana- one reason I did wind up getting 1Q84 on kindle is that I knew I’d be reading it in bits and pieces while running around a lot. KL I was in one place (the beach house) so heft wasn’t an issue.

  4. Thanks for sharing this – I think devices make it easier for us to read more. As a librarian people assume I spend all day reading (ha!). For a recent study at church we are supposed to read two chapters of a book a week. I gave the moms there my tips on how to read more. And one of them was using those small chunks of time. I also realize I am a quick reader too. I also told them I don’t clean! Reading is my primary leisure activity and I don’t watch much TV (some has crept back). People told me I wouldn’t be able to read so much when I had kids – thanks to 168 Hours I realized that wasn’t true. I’m LOVING your new podcast. If you do a reading episode I’d love to be a guest!

    1. @Alissa – yep, the time is there. Even if someone can only find 20 minutes a day to read, maybe in 2 10-minute chunks, that’s 140 minutes a week, or 2 hours and 20 minutes. At the 50 pages/hour rate, that’s 116 pages a week, and a lot of books are in the 200-300 page range. Someone could get through 2 books a month at that pace, or 24 per year. And yet the number of people who get through 24 books a year is fairly small as a percentage of the population!

      1. I’ve recently restarted using my audible account for this reason, I find between driving or walking to the office on days I’m there & odd household chores I’ve been able to read about a book a week without any real effort.

  5. Laura, I just ordered Kristin Lavransdatter Part 1 only from Better World Books–used, very good condition–and fewer than 300 pages. Somehow that seems so much more doable for me. I can decide later about parts 2 and 3. I have plenty of time to read these days, but get intimidated anyway!

  6. I’ve been reducing the amount of time I spend frivolously online recently and I’ve implemented a number of strategies to help me.

    1. No online games before work. I used to play them whilst drinking my coffee but I’d find it hard to stop and move on to something else. Now I will do this on holiday (vacation) and weekends, but on work days I won’t play games then, only check Facebook, emails, Instagram, or the news and weather whilst having my morning coffee.

    2. After 7pm is my time. Any chores or goals for the day must be accomplished before this. This way it stops me procrastinating on my chores and have them hanging over my head all evening. It means I enjoy my leisure time more. Also the chores I have planned rarely take me till 7pm. I’m usually finished before than and can move on to “me time” early.

    3. I have an alarm set for 8pm and I’ve designated 8pm to 9pm as crafting hour. at 8pm I’ll stop what I’m doing and go craft. If I’m out or busy doing something else enjoyable that’s ok, but if I’m just mindlessly flicking through Facebook or crushing candies then it reminds me to move on and do something else that I enjoy more.

    1. @Katie- I love the idea of designating a time for crafting. It’s not a decision, it’s simply a habit – that’s what you do at 8! People can do that for favorite shows (or used to, back when live TV was a thing) but it’s so much harder to do it for other things.

  7. This is one of my favorite studies by you. I always set my goal for number of books in a year, and then stress myself out when I get behind schedule. I think I will change my goal to a certain number of pages per year. I too have kept myself from reading certain longer books, mostly because I know it will lessen my chances of reaching my yearly books read. Thank you for a new perspective!

    1. @Melanie – pages is a perfectly good goal! Yes, the temptation with the # of books thing is to choose short books because hey, numbers go up. I don’t think I was doing that but I could see it happening. Another metric would be number of hours spent reading. Or ratio of reading hours to TV/online hours.

  8. I picked up a book on Kindle about speed reading. I haven’t done the reading speed tests but Just the first chapter has increased my speed (if I want to read faster–sometimes I don’t).

    As for distractions, I’m struggling with that one, but my urgent workload is less than usual. Normally, my hint for avoiding distractions would be to dig in right away before distractions can catch up with you. There are two problems with this approach: 1. I found out recently that part of my physical issues has been adrenal fatigue. Digging in first thing puts me in an adrenaline mindset and that guarantees a crash. For me, the crash will be pretty immediate. For others it may take a few years, but the crash is still likely to come. To work from a less frantic, more mindful place, I have to have centering time (prayer) first thing or I go zipping ahead of myself. 2. Define distraction: FB and social media are probably real distractions, but that’s not what I’m faced with first thing in the morning. What I’m faced with is my two beautiful children, one of which will not be around for that much longer. It feels like a distraction, but it’s actually the main thing. Ooops!

    I suppose my post CFS tip is to identify what is really important and spend your energy there. Rest frequently, but be willing to use every available minute toward the important stuff. Keep reminding yourself of the frogs, but remember that kids aren’t frogs.

  9. This post was a reminder to recheck whether Audible had finally released KL on audiobook (been waiting for this for s few years). They have!!! It’s 40+ hours, which is exciting. While hefty physical books may seem intimidating, long audiobooks always seem like a treat – a chance to dig deep into a narrative during time that would otherwise be wasted (here, commuting), for the cost of just one Audible credit.

    1. @Kathleen – 40 hours! But I guess if you’re commuting, why not? 10 hours/week would be 4 weeks. And now we have another reading metric: commutes per audible credit. I like that one!

  10. Laura, do you and Sarah plan to offer a scripted version of your podcasts? I’d love to read the one on why you chose to have more children, but am more a reader than a listener.

  11. I’m really looking forward to your article about how to reduce digital distractions! Earlier this summer, I needed to free up space on my iPhone to download an update and ended up deleting the Facebook app. It was incredibly liberating! I ended up having to redownload it because I use it for my part-time job (with an au pair agency). Now that I’ve discovered they all use WhatsApp (and prefer it), I may go delete Facebook again.

    One strategy I’ve backed into is turning off cellular data for some apps, so I can’t just browse Facebook in the grocery store line. I also use a different browser for work on my laptop (chrome) and I don’t have my Facebook credentials saved in that browser, so I have to launch a new browser (Safari) to log into Facebook. This is occasionally annoying (when I “need” to get on for au pair stuff), but is mostly curbs the social media use.

  12. I am at home with kids all day which makes it impossible to do much deep thinking during the day. So when the kids are around (and I am only supervising indirectly) I allow myself to be online or do piddly tasks. When they are not around, I am NOT online nor am I on Facebook. I get up early and read for an hour before anyone else is up, and then I read an hour at night after the kids are in bed. Audiobooks get sprinkled in here and there during the day (car, walks, chores, cooking, etc.). I average about 40 hours of audiobooks per month plus 20 hours of early morning reading (weekdays) and at least 20 hours of reading weekend mornings and not-so-abundant evenings at home. Audiobooks take twice as long as reading a book, so all together, thats 60 hours equivalent of reading a month. At 50 pages an hour, thats 3000 pages. I used to spend my evenings surfing the web but now that I track my reading (since last November), I’ve become far more aware of my “best times” for reading and now put them to good use. My Goodreads tally at the moment is 142 books so far for 2017.

    1. @Tana- that is impressive! 142 books as a homeschooling mom is no joke. But yep, if you’re reading 2 hours a day plus doing audio books, it’s a lot of time, and a lot of pages, and it will add up.

  13. I just wanted to know if you keep track of the books that you’ve read (or any other documentation).
    Also, do share your tips on curbing digital distractions. Everyone needs it (don’t just write an article, write a whole new book on it :P)

    1. @Hardik- I do! If you look back through my archives, I write a post called “Books read in July” or “Books read in June” back through January, I think. Also, I have a running list in my planner/notebook.

      I will share the article on digital distractions when it runs. But it’s going to run ONLINE, which is of course a wee bit ironic 🙂

  14. Wow… thank you for posting about this book! After one month of toting Kristin Lavransdatter to every doctor’s appointment, business trip, and family vacation, I finished it this morning, entirely enchanted. Thanks for the recommendation and the encouragement to dive in to such a long novel. Did you read the intro to it? I love the last few paragraphs, about the poignancy and enchantment of a long novel you may never return to, and that experience inducing you to approach a stranger to say “I once read that book.”

    1. @Marie – I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I wasn’t worried about recommending it because, hey, it won the Nobel Prize! So even if someone didn’t like it, they probably would recognize that it was important literature. But so much the better to *enjoy* the literature as well!

  15. Dear Laura,
    I thought about this post as I started to read The CRUSADES: CONFLICT BETWEEN CHRISTENDOM AND ISLAM by Matti Moosa. It has 1164 pages. It is the first long book I have read since my twenties after War and Peace. After two weeks, I finally finished it! It was a great read and now its time to write a review! I have such an appreciation for what happened back then!

    Thanks for the inspiration!

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