Opinionista Ben Williams 7 January 2020

How to unhack yourself and read 20 books in 2020

Reading dozens of books a year used to be a doddle, but now, you need every trick in the book to unhack yourself from the attention economy. Here’s some advice on how to do so.

Friends, readers, internet addicts, lend me your … attention. It’s the scarcest thing going at the moment, as our Palaeolithic brains, alert to the slightest ripple of change in our social group and endlessly gluttonous for any approval that comes our way, are wrestled with and mastered every waking hour by the algorithms that have hacked us.

The start of a new decade – don’t come at me with your “when decades begin” conspiracy: it’s the Twenties now, people – seems a particularly good time to mount a fightback, though the odds are long, so tightly has the code of a handful of corporations wound itself into our prefrontal cortices. 

Fortunately for us, the remedy is within easy reach, if only we had the means to take its full dose over the days and weeks required. If you want to unhack yourself, the answer has always been: read books.

A friend of mine sets himself a single resolution each new year and it’s the same every year: read 20 books. A goal that once seemed slightly dilettantish now towers forbiddingly as the ultimate challenge. After all, when was the last year you read even five books, right through to the end? Three? One? Never mind 20.

Books are outliers, indeed outcasts, in the attention economy, but critically, they’re still here — book sales are stable in South Africa, while in larger markets such as the UK they’re slightly up — and nowhere near the lowly status of decorative prestige objects that futurists were predicting a few years ago. Further, there are more ways to read now than there used to be — no need to remind everyone about ebooks and audiobooks. The point is, if it’s a book you want, a book you can most expeditiously have.

On your behalf then, I’ve decided that adopting my friend’s resolution as your own would be quite a good idea and I’ve assembled a few tips to help you achieve your goal, so that come 2030 (the start of the Thirties), you’ll be able to look back and say, triumphantly, “I read 200 books!” My template for success is perhaps somewhat off-beat, but as lateral thinking is one of the last places the algorithms cannot follow us, why not give it a try?

First, recognise your own learned helplessness in the attention economy. Posting, scrolling and liking feels like action, but in fact is the opposite. Each finger tap teaches you more deeply that finger taps suffice when manifestly they do not. Frame your screen habit negatively (and truthfully), and you’ll want to kick it, or at least modify it so that you use your time for other things too.

Second, read like your hair is on fire. A teacher of mine once offered this advice with respect to writing, but it applies to all important activities, because each time you do it might be the last. Read the book in your hands like it’s the last one you’ll ever read. You’ll be engrossed in a heartbeat.

Third, partner up. No, I don’t mean join a book club. I mean: say your goal out loud to someone who loves you and will help you be accountable to it. Discuss what you’re reading with this person regularly. The implicit support you get may be the critical factor that pushes you over the line. 

Fourth, and I’m not joking here, start endurance or weight training — without music. Get to know the sound of your own breath again. Running and cycling long distances, lifting weights repeatedly with your leg and arm muscles – these activities are some of the few you can do where the intense concentration required is relatively painless (it’s displaced by the physical pain, y’see?). You can then apply your newfound mental muscle (and lower resting heart rate) while settled into a chair with a thick book.

Fifth, close the loop by giving yourself something nice after finishing each book. It’s important to name the reward before you start the book, so you have it in mind the whole time you’re reading. Double points if what you’re reading is a novel: good novels are the fastest way of unhacking yourself.

I hope this little guide has inspired you to give it a bash. Twenty books is not much, after all: just one every 18 days until it’s 2021.

Can you do it? ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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