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My love/hate relationship with reading challenges

The merits of quantifying literary consumption.

There is a little square widget on my phone that reads ‘Week 19’. Its intended purpose was to reduce the amount of times that I went onto Google and typed in the phrase ‘what week of the year is it.’ What was supposed to be my way of tracking a goal, is now a reminder of a benchmark that I’m not so sure I want to meet. 

I’d added the square in question because I’ve spent the last few years trying to read fifty-two books a year. Like many, the workload at the end of high school had left me a little free time and I was now desperate to read more. The first year I tried this challenge, albeit somewhat limited in its potential for success given it was my first year at university, I only made it to halfway through. It was a year of trying to read on buses, between classes, and before bed. Some of these worked better than others. While I can’t fall asleep in a moving vehicle, I can read for hours and hours in one without feeling ill. Even then, many of the books I’d counted seemed like incidental reads rather than intentional choices to fulfil the challenge.

The appeal of reading challenges makes sense to me. I’ve always loved books and I get competitive a little too easily. In primary school, I thrived on classroom reading trackers and competitions like the Premier’s Reading Challenge. I was endlessly appreciative of librarians who would let me borrow more than I was supposed to: he recommended two fiction and two non-fiction wouldn’t even last me the time between lessons. In high school, I once used an online speed reading program to read a four hundred page book in two hours because I had forgotten to read it the night before. It’s these kinds of reading practices that drew me, and to a certain extent continue to draw me, to reading challenges.

2020 was my take two. I ended up reading 52 books, yet I didn’t read the last third until December. I’ve never been able to read before bed, once I’ve started a book I can’t stop reading. This became less of a problem when I didn’t have to be anywhere the next day. But even overcoming this self-imposed challenge saw me frantically trying to finish a reread of Tina Fey’s Bossypants on December 31. At that point, I didn’t care if a reread would be cheating, I just needed a shorter read that would let me reach my goal.

This year, I tried to pick a new number that would strike the right balance between doable and challenging. I briefly threw around the idea of reading 65 books after realising that 100 as too big of a load to add to the increasing stack of weekly readings I would have to do. I could never decide on a higher number. I think this is the problem with reading challenges. There are always more books to be read, more genres to try, more authors to experience. And so, the finish line keeps moving, turning an enjoyable activity into another task to fit in our already busy weeks.

This year I’ve read four books. I’m not sure how many I will read by the end of the year. Right now, it doesn’t really matter, I’ll keep reading. Or at least, adding books to my shelves and the endless ‘to be read’ list in my mind that I don’t dare to try to write down. I’m not quite sure that I’m ready to delete the widget just yet. But, maybe next year?

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