The Challenging Thing About Reading Challenges

photo credit: ginnerobot via photopin cc

photo credit: ginnerobot via photopin cc

Oh, reading challenges. Bookish people either love them or hate them. I have never once heard someone say, “Meh, they’re just okay.” What readers either love or hate about these challenges tends to be related to numbers — the feeling of success when you read x amount of books in a week or a month or a year.

For a long time, I stayed away from them just for that reason because I am a s.l.o.w. reader. I mean… painfully. I get really anxious that if I start reading too fast, I’m going to miss something. Like many others, I also operate on “found reading time.”

Still, while the numbers are certainly a challenge, they feel more like a checklist. A quota that needs to be met. And I don’t know about you, but I know how I am with quotas: once I’ve reached the goal, I feel burnt out and like I just want to take a break. Or a nap. Or one followed by the other.

So… it feels like work.

This is where I start to get to the root of what is, at least for me, problematic about reading challenges. If challenges are going to end that way, what have we really learned from them? Sure, it’s a challenge to meet a quota, but if you’re going to put in all the work, shouldn’t you at least get something out of it?

In the last two years, challenges have caught my interest again (largely because Goodreads was like, “Hey there, what’s your reading goal?”). At the beginning of 2013, I set out to read 20 books — a lofty goal for me considering how slowly I read. To add to that, I decided I was going to read my authors alphabetically. The idea here was a challenge in and of itself: I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and explore some new authors and genres. It was simultaneously easier and more difficult to choose my next book each time because the selection was limited. Amongst a lot of forgettable books, I found gems like The Blue Hour by Joan Didion (which I loved almost as much as The Year of Magical Thinking) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (which I had somehow never read).

I was about 1/4 of the way into Author L when 2014 started. So I failed pretty hard, but didn’t beat myself up. I had a lot of things going on in 2013, not the least of which was moving and settling into a new place (including re-organizing my books!).

At the start of 2014, then, I scaled my goal back to only 11 books and ditched the alphabetical thing. By this point, I’d started listening to a number of wonderful bookish podcasts that introduced me to new authors and genres, and my list of books I wanted to read was growing by the week.

In other words, it was no longer a challenge.

This time, my “sub-challenge” became breaking out of my idea of what it means to read and be a reader. For the longest time, I didn’t believe I’d actually be reading if I listened to audiobooks. So, as I discussed in a recent post, I challenged my own ideas there and started listening to them.

The result? I’ve read 9 books so far this year (fantastic for me) and 4 of them have been audiobooks. I’m liking it, though it presents its own challenges (but that’s for another day).

The Infamous ‘Reading Increases Empathy’ Study: The Real Challenge? 

Back in October (2013) the literary world was atwitter with the news of a study that found reading literary fiction would increase our capacity for empathy.

Or, to put it in plainly: the study, which was conducted by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, said that reading makes us better people.

But Mark Liberman, a contributor for Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog, wasn’t having it. He encouraged readers to think critically about the study, and pointed out some of the methodological flaws in it that render it useless.

So are we or are we not better people if we’re readers?

With that in mind, let’s go back to reading challenges here.

Take away the quotas and the TBR lists. Take away the guilt you feel when your friend talks about reading four books this month and you’re struggling to read a few pages at night. Take away the numbers, data, and studies.

Take all of that away. Why do we read? 

As readers, we love stories because we love to relate or to feel like someone relates to us. The more we read — whether it’s one book a week or one book a year — the more we feel ourselves transported to another world in which we get to interact with different people, explore different locales, and learn more about how someone else lives. And you get this whether you’re reading nonfiction or fiction. There might not be scientific evidence that supports it, but most readers will tell you that reading has helped them to learn about the world and how to deal with other people and problems in it. All of that translates to real life.

Quotas Be Damned

Here’s my challenge to you: The next time you’re thinking about participating in a reading challenge, don’t let your mind immediately go to quotas. Don’t put a number on winning (and yes, I know this goes against basically everything you’ve ever learned about winning, especially if you’re an ultra-competitive person).

Instead of how many, think about what you can read that will open up your mind and help you to challenge your belief system. What will help you get outside the box? Which books, authors, and genres will help you to think about the world in a different way? What can you read that will have you feeling the feels like you’ve never done before?

Because those are the actual challenges — the kind that really help us grow from them and see the world beyond our own backyards. And the results will have a much greater lasting impact than merely tearing through books to check them off a list.

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2 thoughts on “The Challenging Thing About Reading Challenges

  1. In other words, focus on process, not product; the reading, not the read (past participle). Here’s a challenge that doesn’t make you count: spend a year reading literature in translation, each book from a different language or country. There’s more and more of it available – and if more people start reading it, translations will become increasingly available, helping us connect on a human level with people across the world.

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