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My Year in Reading, Part 1: How I Read

When we tell our stories about 2020, we might focus on the big moments: the silent streets, protesting, voting, waiting. The little, repeated moments might stand out the most: staring out the window; a bay of faces not quite making eye contact on Zoom; our gut churn when reading the news; lying in bed, staring at our phones; the delicate balance of moving through public spaces, trying to maintain distance without getting too close to anyone.

For me, 2020 was a year of reading. I read and listened to more books this year than any other year of my life. Reading was my one surefire escape from this world. I couldn’t really leave the house, see any friends, or even go for a walk. This year, I eschewed almost everything gritty, dark, or “realistic,” unless it had some fantastical or supernatural element.

2020 was a year of seeking escape: from reality, from isolation, from what felt like an increasingly insane situation. I’m very glad I had access to several enormous digital libraries to help me stay sane in the midst of insanity.

How I Read

An image of a woman crying with the caption, I downloaded so many audiobooks from the library, I have no time for the audiobooks I actually bought.
My year of reading in one image.

I “read” most of these books as audiobooks, mostly on the three major library apps: Overdrive, Libby, and Hoopla. You need a library card to sign up for these apps, but once you have that, you can borrow ebooks and audiobooks for free. The books automatically return once they’re due. No late fees.

All three apps have in-built ebook readers and audiobook players. Overdrive and Libby (they’re made by the same company) let you send ebooks to your Kindle account, though some ebooks can only be read within the Overdrive and Libby apps. On Hoopla, you must read whatever books you check out within Hoopla; no sending your books elsewhere.

You have to download and listen to your audiobooks within these apps; no sending them to Audible or any other audiobook vendor (although Overdrive lets you download audiobooks to your Mac or PC). All three apps offer mp3 audiobooks, so the quality is a little lower than what you’d get on an app like Audible or Libro.fm. Each app allows you to set a sleep timer, change your reading speed, and add bookmarks to keep your place. You can also go back and refer to your previous bookmarks if you get lost.

Overdrive and Libby allow libraries to buy digital copies of every ebook and audiobook. If your local library bought three copies and they’re all “checked out,” you’ll have to place a hold on the book and wait until it becomes available. With some popular books, the wait time stretches into weeks or even months. Both apps allow you to add multiple library cards to your account. Libby also allows you to add multiple accounts for the same library. This can lead to shorter wait times, since a book that’s checked out at one library might be available at another. Any books you check out on one app will transfer to the other–provided you enter the same library cards on both apps, of course.

Unlike Libby and Overdrive, every title Hoopla is available whenever you want to check it out. No waitlists involved. That said, you can only check out fifteen titles per month. Your account is attached to one library card, so you can’t add any other cards to get more checkouts. Audiobooks and ebooks can be checked out for 21 days at a time, while movies, tv shows, and songs are limited to 1-3 day checkout periods. Unfortunately, Hoopla has the worst audiobook interface of the three. There’s no way to skip from chapter to chapter, or to even see a chapter list. Like Overdrive, it only plays up to 2x speed. I tried to listen to a few shorter audiobooks through Hoopla, e.g.  plays, lectures, and mini-courses, but I mostly used this app to read comic books, which I never finished.

An audiobook screen, showing the book cover of Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, plus the audiobook controls, including the play button, skip forward/backward buttons, controls for the speed, sleep timer, and the bookmark button..
Libby’s audiobook player, here playing Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater.

Each of these apps has its strengths and weaknesses. Overdrive has the most functional, easy-to-use interface of the three, but it only allows you to play audiobooks at up to double speed. Libby has the best controls for audiobook listening. You can adjust the reading speed by 0.05x increments, allowing you to listen from anywhere to 0.6x speed to 3x speed. However, Libby is likely to crash or freeze up, especially when you download 10+ audiobooks at a time. It’s made to be “slick,” but I find it a bit clunky and buggy compared to Overdrive. Since it’s the only library app that allows you to listen above 2x speed, I used it almost exclusively once I got used to the interface.

This was not the year of physical media for me. I read a few passages from actual, physical books, but only as a supplement to reading the ebook or listening to the audiobook. I read a few ebooks that didn’t have audiobooks, such as Thorn of Rose and a few of Michelle Kulp’s books. These were the exception; there were no physical books that I read without referring to the ebook or audiobook. Every book I finished reading last year was primarily read or listened to on a tablet or smartphone. I occasionally bought or borrowed a physical book and then finished the audiobook without ever opening the actual book. I’m just one person, so I’m not sure what the takeaway is, except that you should invest in audiobooks if you’re an author.

I also didn’t finish many comic books or manga this year. The closest I got was reading a “light novel,” i.e. a short, dialogue-heavy young adult novel with manga-style illustrations. This type of novel was invented and popularized in Japan, though it’s since spread across East Asia and into the English-speaking world. There aren’t many audiobooks for light novels, which might explain their popularity on Google Play’s bookstore. Google has a good text to speech engine on their book app, so you can create a free “audiobook” just by downloading the ebook and choosing to listen aloud.

The next post will detail all the series I read, either in whole or in part, in 2020. There are a lot; I didn’t realize how many until I started writing the post.

Feature photo by Nguyen Thu Hoai on Unsplash.

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