The Reading Life: On the Unintended Consequences of Setting a Reading Challenge

Often with the best of intentions, we make promises to ourselves, believing in their capacity to enrich and enlarge us. Like New Year's resolutions ... or reading challenges.

This is to say, I began 2013 with an intention for my year of reading. This has not been my practice in year's past. Usually, I'm more like a bookish Ms. PacMan, chugging along, consuming whatever comes into my path, looking ahead, not looking back.

Meticulous lists that would have enabled me to keep track of whose books and how many I read, how I discovered them and what they were about were absent from my records. I preferred to trust in the implicit power of reading and leave it at that.

Not this year, though. This year, I decided to set a reading challenge for myself—I promised myself to read 100 books and document the specifics (author, genre, page number, summary, etc.).

With just about two months left in the year, I've read 92 books and could very likely meet my challenge. But I'm not so sure it matters anymore. Because I'm not convinced the reading challenge has positively influenced my book selection decisions.

It's not that I've had a bad year of reading. On the contrary, it's been a year of discovering great new books, revisiting classics ("Northanger Abbey" and "Frankenstein"), and re-reading a few childhood favorites ("Time at the Top" and "Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself"). The months of July and August delivered one great read after the next

But one unintended consequence of my reading challenge? I often shied away from books that exceed 500 pages, knowing that, as a fairly slow reader, these tomes would slow me down. I lingered with "The Art of Fielding" for at least half an hour at Barnes and Noble before gingerly placing it back on the shelf and thinking, maybe next year... In October, I thought about reading Bram Stoker's "Dracula," which I've never read, to instead re-read Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" because it's shorter. It's fantastic, but if I'm choosing it because it's shorter, well, that doesn't seem quite right.

The problem with my reading challenge is that it hardly matters whether I read 100 books or 10 as long as those books connect me to new experiences or insights, open my heart, make me think.

Many of the books I have read this year did that, but some of the books I read only in pieces did that as well—selected ghost stories by Edith Wharton, the first two chapter of "Infinite Jest," the first half of "Little Women," selected chapters from "Pride and Prejudice." None of these books will make it on my "official" list because I didn't read them from beginning to end. But does it matter, in the end, if they taught me something?

With 2014 dead ahead, I'm thinking it's time to revamp my reading challenge for next year. Anyone else set a reading challenge for him or herself this year? How did it go?

The Reading Life explores moments and experiences—silly, funny, challenging, expanding—that make up life as a reader.


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