One of the most popular New Year‘s Resolutions we hear around the library is “I want to read more”. And yet, like any good New Year‘s Resolution, many of us find it impossible to stick to by the third week of January. Adult life is hectic, and those small moments of peace in a day can become another source of stress when you feel the need to maximize your enjoyment of them. Say you’ve got a couple of hours to yourself one day. How should you spend it? Well, you could crack into that book that you keep renewing. Or you could catch up on your favourite show on Netflix, or watch that movie everyone’s been talking about. Or you could throw out entertainment altogether and run some personal errands, or maybe meal prep for the week. And now, no matter which option you pick, you’ll be missing out on something. See? Stressful!
One of the ways people work around this battle for productivity is to set themselves a reading challenge. If you’ve never heard of one, they come in a few forms. The most well-known—and possibly the one that popularized the very concept—is the Goodreads Reading Challenge, which asks users to set themselves a target number of books they’d like to read. The 2020 challenge is currently sitting at an average pledge of 44 books read in a year, working out to about 3 and a half books a month. I think most busy adults would balk at this number, but keep in mind that this average is being thrown off by ambitious teens. A more sensible number like 20 books a year, or 12 books a year, or even 5 books a year is just as valid to Goodreads! The great thing about this challenge is that it is super easy to keep track of; Goodreads allows you to catalogue your “Read” and “Want to Read” shelves, as well as offering an endless number of personalized shelves. In short, it’s fun. It is, however, public.
For the even more ambitious, the internet is full of reading challenges that present in the form of monthly guided lists or bingo cards, with challenges like “read a book by a woman of colour” and “read a book more than 100 years old”. These are more personal challenges, in that nobody is necessarily watching you work your way through them. They can be quite helpful if you’re stuck for something to read and need quick inspiration. But sticking to them religiously can be stifling.
Whether you find a reading challenge to be helpful or off-putting entirely depends on what you find motivating. Setting yourself goals is never a bad idea, but how well do you personally respond to pressure? A survey by The Atlantic found that while some people do indeed find a numerical challenge helpful—especially “numbers people” like accountants and what have you—plenty of others find it demotivating. There’s a psychological factor of seeing a number glaring at you, telling you you’re a failure. Goodreads also has an unfortunate tendency to throw this perceived failure back in your face, sending you messages reminding you that you’re behind in your goal. I can’t imagine anyone being told repeatedly that they’re behind in a task without it manifesting into yet another anxiety! The important thing to remember about reading challenges—even the domineering Goodreads one—is that they should be fun. You’re doing this for your own enjoyment, after all! Let’s not turn it into homework. And of course, keep in mind that just because people are pledging certain numbers of books to read, they’re not necessarily achieving that number. In most cases, it’s not even close. According to The Atlantic, only 16% of Goodreads participants completed their challenges in 2018, with only 21% of the cumulative pledge being reached. So, if you’re failing to reach your goal, you’re in good company. The mark of a successful reading challenge doesn’t have to be hitting that final number; as long as you’re reading—and enjoying it—you should count yourself successful.
If you really do want to strive for a higher book count this year, it doesn’t have to be some arduous undertaking. A simple way to read more, numerically? Diversify what you count as “reading”! Plenty of library staff populate their “Read” lists with picture books, graphic novels, YA novels, and poetry. These all absolutely count toward reading challenges! In fact, if you’re basing your challenge off a list of prompts, these various formats are an excellent way to start checking some boxes. And a little time-saving advice: if you don’t like what you’re reading, put it down. Pick up something else, and keep picking up something else until it sticks! It might be blasphemous to some completists, but putting down something you’re not enjoying is just fine. Life is too short to struggle through a book you’re not connecting with, when you’ve no doubt got plenty of others in your TBR pile just waiting for a chance.
Finally, don’t rule out the option of reading more than one thing at a time. It sounds like a bit of a headache, but if you’re reading a serious novel and you’re not always in the mood for it, go ahead and pick up something lighter in the meantime. There are no rules on how to read! I tend to have classics on the go in the background, since I don’t always feel like I can commit to them fully. I read James Baldwin’s Another Country over the course of six months, not because I didn’t love it (I did), but because it was my “insomnia book”–the book that kept me company on those nights I couldn’t sleep. I read plenty of others in the daytime hours, but I loved having that one to go back to at night. I’ve done the same with The Age of Innocence, which I am currently still working through in small installments. Basically what I’m saying is, make your reading habits whatever works for you. Everyone is different, and working off someone else’s model might make you feel sub-par. So do whatever you want!
What are you reading now? If you’re participating in a reading challenge this year, let me know which one! And if you have any personal tips on how to increase your reading, feel free to share them as well. Happy reading, everyone!