I am one of the 5 million participants of Goodreads’ annual reading challenge. As of the writing of this post, I’ve read 56 books in 2021. My goal is to complete 80 books before the year is over. With 12 weeks left in the year, I need to read two books a week to be able to pat myself on the back for a job well done.
This is what my reading challenge has been reduced to - math. I calculate my progress weekly. Count the pages I have left to read. The hours left on an audiobook. I reach for thin poetry books over daunting 400-page adventures.
I began participating in these challenges with good intentions. I graduated from college in 2014 and no longer had study sessions, sorority life, or a collegiate magazine to keep me from reading for pleasure. By 2015, I had a stable big girl job and a growing TBR pile. My 6x5 Kallax shelf from IKEA was bursting with books I intended to read, someday, when I had time. Not realizing, of course, that the time was the present. I was single with no kids, had few social commitments, and had a 9–5 job. I had the time, but not the motivation.
By 2017, I discovered that the main reason I struggled with motivation was that my taste had changed. As a teenager, I enjoyed young adult and literary fiction. As an adult, I’m interested in nonfiction: memoirs, essays, politics, occult texts, journalism, and more. Once I accepted that fiction would have to wait until my next wave of interests, I was able to read what I wanted guilt-free. Without a goal, I read 22 books in 2017 and 2018.
In 2019, I smashed my first official reading challenge goal of 60 and completed 86 books instead. That gave me the confidence to challenge myself to read 100 books in 2020.
But we all know what happened in 2020. A pandemic. I thought that the curtailment of social responsibilities would work to my benefit. But, as it turns out, instability at work, death rates climbing worldwide, and no solution in sight is not conducive to reading. At least not for me. There was no plot or hook that could compete with the drama of the real world.
But this year was different. This was 2021. The novelty of the pandemic was wearing off. We were stretching out of our quarantine cocoons. The COVID-19 vaccine was a viable possibility. There was a semblance of hope sizzling through social media with “new year, who’s this” memes.
All of that to say that my goal of reading 80 books this year felt reasonable at the time. What I hadn’t accounted for was another byproduct of the pandemic. You must know what happens when people are forced to spend time on their own. They reflect. The pandemic caught me at the end of some major life changes. Some of the questions I had related to reading were:
Who am I trying to impress?
Why am I still trying to be a star student when no one is grading me?
Why do I finish books I don’t enjoy?
Is it fair to measure the success of a reading challenge by the number of books completed?
The number 80 is a finish line at this point. Any book that gets me closer will do. I’ve read through some bad poetry this year, as well as short self-help books that nearly cost me contact lenses from the fervent eye-rolling they provoked. Similar to bad sex, the goal is not a good experience, but completion. What started off as a way to work through my TBR pile landed me in the realm of speed reading and reduced reading comprehension. It’s become another way for me to compete against myself and for what? For who?
I don’t think reading challenges are bad. They did get me to read more. What I’m saying is that people with a competitive nature like my own might have to check in with themselves more often and make sure that they’re actually enjoying the process. Reading is a beautiful endeavor, but right now it feels tainted by the shortcomings of my personality.
Am I going to quit this year’s reading challenge? Hell no, I’m too close. Did you think this piece was going to be a clean-cut “this is what I learned and this is the change I’m implementing today?” Change doesn’t happen quickly around here.
I’ll complete the challenge this year and vow to never set the goal to a number that threatens the enjoyment of reading ever again. I managed to read 22 books in 2018 and 2017 comfortably. And 22 is a good number. A master number in numerology even. Next year, I will pick up the longer books I’ve neglected and take my time.
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