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Hello Reader!

My aim with Make America Read is to encourage people to read more and more widely, and that's a reading resolution I take on myself every year. I read a great deal — but spend more time than I'd like thumbing through my phone. (Seriously. I downloaded a screen-time tracking app this month and whoa! My estimate of time on my phone was off by nearly two hours.) And because reading is comfort for me, I default to familiar, easy reading. (Ask me how many times I've reread L.M. Montgomery's novels.) Reading expands your perspective, builds compassion and critical thinking, and encourages civil discourse around hard questions — if you let it, if you read beyond your default. 

But I don't do well with vague resolutions. I need specifics. If you do, too, here's some help for getting more out of your reading life in 2018. 

First, set a reading goal. Consider how much you read this year and pick a number that's reachable. It's not a competition. It's accountability. If you don't know how much you read, a couple stats that might help: The average American reads 12 books a year. The median is four. My 2018 goal is 100 books, which is my annual average. 

Nowset up plans to reach that goal. I've shared before how I read about 100 books a year. (Key #1: Always carry a book with you. Key #2: Start and end your day with a book, not your phone. Also: Keep a list.) These tips shared recently on Book Riot echo my advice and offer a few other good suggestions. My 2018 plan includes daily screen-free time, set up with the help of that app, Moment, and daily screen limits. Maybe yours includes a weekly library trip, or finally using GoodReads consistently. Aim for three things to make it easier to have books at the ready and time in your day to enjoy them. 

Reading more is a good start to reading more widely. Once you're working with more quantity, you've more room to mix up content. Which brings me to my favorite tip from that Book Riot article — genre hop! — and the next step to achieving our goal of reading more widely: Set reading challenges. 

My rule of thumb: Reading challenges shouldn't eat up more than 25 to 50 percent of your annual reading goal. You want room for serendipitous library finds and recommendations from friends. I really like the Read Harder Challenge because it offers a wide variety, asking you to read everything from an Oprah Book Club selection to an assigned classic you never finished, and is a manageable size — for me. Twenty-four books might overwhelm your list, but that's OK. Just pick some of the tasks. Or find a list that suits youOr, better yet, create your own reading challenge with the help of this list.

Some challenges to consider: 
  • Set aside 10 percent of your reading goal for books recommended by others. 
  • Pick an issue and read two books about it: one by someone whose views are similar to yours, one by someone whose views are not the same. 
  • Read a nonfiction book chain. Read a book about a subject that interests you, then use the references/bibliography to find a second book. Let the second lead you to a third.  
  • Have kids? Read one book together each quarter. 
  • Read a book set in every place you'll travel to this year.
  • Think of five states or cities you've never visited. Read a book set in each of those states. 
I'll be taking on the Read Harder Challenge again this year, and would love to hear what challenges you tackle. For some inspiration, scroll down for the story of a massive reading challenge completed.

Happy reading!

— Hillary

Reading Links

Recent favorite: Fresh Complaint, Jeffrey Eugenides
Solid short stories. Eugenides always manages to capture both the weirdness and ordinariness of people. My favorite was "Air Mail," which was a selection by Annie Proulx for Best American Short Stories. Eugenides is a sharp observer of culture. 

Up Next: The Changeling, Victor Lavalle 
It's described as a fairytale; I have no choice but to read it.  

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Real-life reading challenge: All The Presidents' Bios
Presidents always have fascinated Seth Walsh, executive director of a community development corporation in Cincinnati. While studying at Xavier University, inspired by a biography of James Polk and a fellow intern, Walsh embarked on a mission to read a biography of every U.S. president. After six years and 19,870 pages, he finished the presidential reading challenge in December. 

Seth took some time out during the holidays to talk with Make America Read about how and why he tackled this reading challenge. He shared his favorite president and his favorite presidential biographer, as well as how the lessons learned from this massive reading list have affected his own life. 


Did you ever feel like scrapping the project? How did you move past that? 
Yes, all the time. I read books from Washington to Obama (obviously Trump is still a work in progress), going through spurts 10-15 books before I needed time off. The longest time off was about 18 months. Usually breaks happened after seismic events in American politics (Jackson, Civil War, Great Depression).

By the end, I created a system of reading one presidential book, then reading a different book off-topic. Around Thanksgiving, the end was near, I just read the final six presidents straight.

Early in the challenge, the intern who inspired me kept tally of his books with me. He burned out, but it was fun to have someone to compete against.

In six years, your life changed pretty considerably — from a student to a young professional, from being single to being married. Did those changes affect how you approached the books? Did the challenge affect how you approached major life decisions? 
Interesting question. On an intellectual level, I know I got stronger with each book and was able to retain more knowledge. That’s helped obviously in a professional level as well.

On a critical level, it taught me what I appreciate and look for in authors. Historical books should read like a good novel. They have characters and plots, just like any story. The only difference is that authors can't control the outcome. Authors that can do this and make it seem easy earn a lot of respect from me. 

On a personal level, it taught me how ordinary presidents truly are. We have a tendency as a society to revere these men without truly understanding them, their decisions, or their personal philosophies. Learning that has helped me better understand the world I live in and has helped me understand that I already have a lot of the skills necessary to lead in my own community.

A lot of people my age grapple with the question of what to do with their lives. In a weird way, reading the books took that pressure off of me because so many presidents weren’t heading toward the presidency when they were my age, and they turned out OK. Lose a political race? Nixon turned it around afterwards. Suffer a crippling disease? Roosevelt is widely revered and managed to overcome his illness. Get written off as a wash-up loser? Grant turned into one of our greatest military generals.

How did you select each book? 
Lots and lots of research. I set some rules for myself: (1) must be one all encompassing book; (2) must be a biography, not an autobiography; (3) must contain their entire presidency; and (4) ideally unpartisan.

From there, I would research via Amazon, goodreads, and any other online publications I could find. For rarer presidents, I would visit the Ohio Book Store on Main Street in downtown Cincinnati and look at its collections. The people working there are always good for giving feedback on books.

I acquired the books by making it my go-to present list. People ask me what I want for my birthday or Christmas? Here you go, here’s my list. 

What percentage of your reading time did you devote to the presidents? 
Roughly 50 percent of my reading time over the last six years. (I read) probably 15 books a year. 

What are three key lessons or takeaways you learned from reading about all of our presidents? 
1) History rarely changes its mind. Presidents are often viewed historically as they are viewed in their time. It’s unfortunate because some presidents deserve more praise (Fillmore) and others deserve less praise (Jackson).

2) Change takes time. One of the cool items of reading the books in order was that each book built on one another. Some items would pop up 50+ years before they really reached their historic moment. For example, the Panama Canel popped up in 1852 under Pierce before Roosevelt built it in the 1900s. It was still being mentioned in books about Carter and Clinton.

3) Being president is really hard. Easy decisions don’t make it to the president's desk. Presidents are graded by actions so often outside their control and almost all of them had internal personnel issues with their staff that hindered their agenda. We should respect every individual who's had the job just for trying their best because more often than not we get the benefit of hindsight that was only possible due to their decisions.

Favorite President?
James Polk will always have a soft spot in my heart because he got this started. But Polk wasn’t necessarily a great president. Monroe really impressed me as a leader and as someone I would want to emulate in life.

Favorite Biography?
The Man Who Saved the Union, about Grant. It does a wonderful job of telling the whole story of Grant's life from failure to improbable general, to the struggles of his presidency.

Favorite author?
H.W. Brands. He’s is a master at making history read like fiction.

What advice would you give to someone starting this challenge? 
Don’t give up. Let it take time. It’s not a race to finish, just enjoy it. It’s all a challenge you’ll never complete as there will always be another president, so take the pressure off and enjoy the challenge.

And if you're in Cincinnati and want to get going on this, the Mercantile Library is doing a seven-year Presidential Biography Reading and Discussion Series. It looks like it'll be a blast, and I'll be participating. I know they used my list of books to help guide them on selections.

Do you have another reading challenge to tackle?
Not yet, but I’m pondering what to do next. Previously, I’ve read almost every book on the NASA moonshot astronauts. I’m thinking it might be time to learn about some foreign countries, but I haven’t gotten much further than that thought. I’m always open to ideas!
Housekeeping note:
I am not paid for any reviews or opinions. I use Amazon affiliate links all through this newsletter, which means I get a very small financial benefit if you use the links to buy books.
Any money I earn through affiliate links likely will be spent on more books. 
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