Why I’m Not Doing A Reading Challenge in 2017, Or Possibly Ever Again

Today’s post by Ariel Lawhon | @ArielLawhon

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I read twenty-five books in 2016. Twelve fiction and thirteen non-fiction (most of them Romanov biographies, several of them in excess of 500 pages). But, according to Goodreads and the blogosphere and various websites I “failed” at reading last year. If you were to pay attention to all the reading challenges and lists, I didn’t read “enough.” Or widely. Or with enough intention. I am, apparently a lightweight.

And I have to wonder when reading–this thing that has been one of the great loves of my life–became a competition. I wonder when speed reading two or three hundred books in a year became a badge of honor. When quantity took precedence over quality. When numbers started mattering more than joy.

I’ll be honest with you: I don’t like the pressure that comes with these reading challenges that crop up every year about this time. I hate feeling like no matter how much I read, or how much I enjoy a book, I’m not doing enough. Reading enough. That I’ve left something (or someone!) on the table. That I am missing something vital.

Yes, I believe in reading widely, with intention, and outside of my comfort zone. I want to read the classics and the new hot literary thriller. I want to find new authors that have important things to say. I want to be exposed to new voices and new cultures and new stories. I want all of this. And I pursue it the best I can. But the truth is that I simply can’t keep up. There are too many amazing books being published every single day. I am overwhelmed.

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Was late reading this novel but came to it with my eyes open, knowing how it would end before I even started. I wanted to understand what all the buzz was about. And I do. I get it now. Though, if I’m being honest, I loved the sequel more. I think that Lou’s life in the aftermath of her relationship with Will was far more interesting, and easily some of Moyes’ best writing.

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Read it and weep. Literally. I dare you to pick up this book and not be gutted. One of the most moving books I read in 2016.

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Utterly gobsmacked by this one. It has set the standard for all literary thrillers going forward. I wish I could read it again for the first time. But, regardless, I’ll be reading everything else Pavone has written. Just…brilliant.

So here is the reading challenge I have given myself for 2017: read without a plan and without pressure. I will read for the love of story. I will read because a novel sounds compelling. I will read narrative non-fiction and memoir because there are people who have lived extraordinary lives and done extraordinary things and I want to know their stories. I will read because I have previously enjoyed an author and there’s a high likelihood I’ll like their next book. I will read to learn something new. I will read with intent–the intent to enjoy, to be challenged, to be delighted, and amazed by the work of another author. I will read authors that are unlike me, from places I’ve never been. I will read because I want to, not because I have to.

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I gulped down this YA thriller in less than a day. Not at all my typical kind of read but I know the author and she has a twisty brain so I guessed the book wouldn’t disappoint. It didn’t. Highly recommended. And, you’re in luck, the sequel releases soon.

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I’m pretty sure I’ve read every biography about the Romanovs written in the last thirty years. This one, however, is a masterpiece. And a doorstop. It is 600+ pages and covers the Romanov dynasty from beginning to end and is filled with enough drama and detail to inspire fifty novels.

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My friend JT Ellison wrote this novel and it’s dark and gritty and twisty while somehow being hopeful and redemptive as well. There’s so much here you’ll never see coming.

One of my favorite things about my particular job is that I have to maintain an ongoing education. I must research. I must dig through libraries and archives and used bookstores for little-known tomes about my subject matter. Because I am a writer I have had to educate myself about Jazz-era New York City, World War II zeppelins, and, now, the Russian revolution–none of them subjects I would have signed up for until I was inspired by some bit of history. I’ve read out-of-print biographies, newspapers, blueprints, memoirs, schematics, court transcripts, coffee table books, and thousands of pages of biographical information. While working on a new book I learn everything I can about my subject. And then my brain melts and the last thing I want is more information. I want a story. And that is typically the point in the process when I seek out a novel that has absolutely nothing in common with what I’m writing (I devoured two YA fantasy novels this month, and they were so good).

What I’m saying here, I suppose, is that it’s okay to read whatever you want for whatever reason motivates you and to not keep track along the way. There are no rules. Your reading counts when it’s for work and when it’s for pleasure. Novels count. Biographies count. Medical journals count. So does that Minecraft manual you’re reading so you can understand this strange new language your kid has started to speak. It’s all good. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

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My first Pat Conroy novel and now a book that will forever stay on my “keeper shelf.” I still can’t really talk about how this book made me feel. It’s one of the ones that changed me and those books are few and far between.

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Lindsay Faye could write circles around me any day. She’s brilliant and clever and impossibly entertaining.

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This novel single-handedly ended my reading drought in 2016. I loved it completely. Thought about the characters–dreamed about them, actually–when I wasn’t reading. It meant so much to me, in fact, that I wrote the author when I finished.

If reading challenges are your jam, then by all means have it. Tick off those boxes to your heart’s content. Of all people, I understand the need to have accountability and a plan. No judgement here. But I probably won’t be doing them again. I’m going to take the free-spirited approach for my own sanity. I’m going to let books find me. I’m going to pluck them randomly out of the library sale pile and off the “blind date with a book” shelf at my local bookstore. I’m going to look at the pile of unsolicited books that have shown up at my house and pick the one that–on the surface–interests me least. I am going to make room in my reading life to be surprised.

And yes, you could argue that all of this is its own sort of challenge in a way. But it doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels like freedom.

I’ve already read three novels this year so my guess is my numbers will be higher than 2016 (to be expected since I’m almost finished writing my new novel) but if I don’t, then I refuse to feel like I’ve failed. I might not even count this year.

What about you? How do you feel about reading challenges? Are you doing one this year? Am I just the contrarian in the group?

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). She is the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS and the forthcoming HINDENBURG (both published by Doubleday).

30 Responses to Why I’m Not Doing A Reading Challenge in 2017, Or Possibly Ever Again

  1. Melissa Crytzer Fry January 25, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    I hear what you’re saying here, Ariel, about the pressure of reading challenges. I do the Goodreads Challenge each year, but honestly have never felt it to be a ‘challenge’ or competition. It’s just a place where I list he books I’ve read for the year. I can usually read 20 or 25, and that’s ok for me. One year it was 30. Like you, I read with intent and purpose. If others can gobble up hundreds for books and still remember their plots and characters, then I’m jealous the MOST of their memories — not the quantity of consumed books! I have a hard enough time remembering 20 plots and endings. :-).

    I think what you’re doing is great. Reading is personal, and perhaps our ‘goals’ or ‘non-goals’ about reading should be, too. We read to be be moved, for research, for entertainment — it’s ALL good.

  2. Kay January 25, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    Loved this post. Truly. I remember what it was like to read before the internet. I used to go to the library (didn’t buy books as no money for that) and just roam the aisles. I didn’t read strictly in order (mystery series) and I loved it. Blogging and sharing our reading via social media has been wonderful in some ways – there are people like me in the world! And it has been overwhelming and tough. It feels like a lot of pressure at times. When I became a blogger and then the advance copies of books came and, and, and…pressure! I’ve gone back to reading what I want when I want. Think many have done that. With all the ‘current events’, I’ve hidden away in my little reading cubby and just enjoyed story after story. I’m much happier for it. I have kept track of the books I’ve read for many years – since 1993 – and I’ll still do that, but the numbers don’t mean anything. Me – I’m all about the books and my reading groups and wonderful, fascinating stories. Take care!

  3. Bloomin'ChickJoW January 25, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    THIS!!! I’ve been seeing all of these challenges pop up over the last couple of years, plus those personally challenging themselves to read oodles upon oodles of books, and while it fascinates me, (as to why they do it) it doesn’t interest me because it doesn’t and won’t work for me. I never want reading to become a chore for me because I’ve always loved it so. Slumps are painful enough for me, and my physical issues often make reading complicated, so I just want to continue reading for the love of reading! There are SO many books I want to read – if I’m not enjoying it, I’m onto the next! XO

  4. Susan January 25, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    Yes! I read a few book bloggers who issue a challenge this time of year, but I don’t partake. I am interested to see what books those bloggers choose for some of their categories as I’m always in the market for a new to me book or author, but i have no interest in taking one of my simple, personal pleasures and adding a compulsory element to it. Sucks the joy for me.

  5. Melinda K. Taylor January 25, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    I agree with you. I like to read books by different authors and I go to the Dollar Store a lot. I find different books by different authors and I find some really good ones and very few bad ones. I find a grow in my own writing as I explore different genres. I would like to find more places that publish Christian short stories and poems.

  6. Carol V. January 25, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    I so agree with you Ariel. These days everything seems to come with a challenge, until life itself becomes a contest. Reading has long been my go-to pleasure and I’m not willing to reduce it to one more measurement of my abilities. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

  7. Phaedra January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    This! I do participate in Goodreads Challenge, but for me that’s more about just keeping a running list of what I’m reading and I always set a number of books that’s my yearly average. I’ve decided that I read for entertainment and I’m allowed to like what I like and if my preference is Nordic Noir then I will embrace it and not feel guilty. Other things make their way in to the pile when I’m ready, as does nonfiction. No more guilt! woo hoo! Following along with bloggers is still fun because I see things that may have never been on my radar and I’ve vetoed guilt about not reading everything recommended.

  8. Ariel January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    Phaedra, I completely agree. We should never feel guilty for failing to read “enough.” We should simply find the books that bring us joy. Happy reading to you in 2017!

  9. Ariel January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    I think life is challenging enough as it is. No point bringing unnecessary tension into our reading lives. I hope you find a new favorite book in 2017, Carol!

  10. Ariel January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    Finding bad books is part of the process. And, I think, it helps us appreciate the good ones all the more. Happy reading this year!

  11. Ariel January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    It does suck out the joy, Susan! It becomes another form of homework. And none of us want that. Read for the love of reading. That’s my motto!

  12. Ariel January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    I think the older I get the more allergic I become to numbers (whether on the scale or in my reading life). There comes a point where we just need to allow ourselves the simple joy of finding a great book. Thanks for chiming in, Jo!

  13. Ariel January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    I used to do the same thing, Kay! I’d wander the library aisles and pick books based solely on the title on saw on the spine. I distinctly remember checking out one by Tom Robbins called “Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas” simply because the title made me laugh. Can’t remember the book at all but I remember standing in that aisle giggling. It’s about joy. And I don’t want to lose that in some arbitrary pursuit of numbers.

  14. Ariel January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    It is all good, Melissa! That’s what I tell my kids all the time. Everything they read (Minecraft books and all) counts. Sometimes we need the reminder too, ya know?

  15. Penny _ Literary Hoarders January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    I understand what you’re saying here. I have signed on for reading challenges, but I’m not the person that goes into panic, competition or anxiety mode about them – trying to beat everyone, trying to be better and read more type thing. I like it for the expansion of my reading I suppose, or to get me to grab the books I already own and try to make sure I get to those! But I completely understand, and I agree with all your points made above. 🙂
    Also — PRINCE OF TIDES. Right?! Right?! I think I credit this book for having my reading life explode over the power of reading. Does that make sense? And The Romanovs – I am completely eager to get to this one. Montefiore is fabulous – I loved One Night in Winter which got me to buy Sashenka (all doorstoppers) and of course this Romanov book was added to the pile.
    Great post!
    🙂
    Penny

  16. Lauren denton January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    Totally with you. I’ve never done a reading challenge or given myself a set number of books to shoot for. Probably for the same reason I don’t make formal new year resolutions. So much pressure! Reading is one of those pleasures in life that asks nothing of me in return and I intend for it to stay that way!

  17. Mary Lou January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    Yes, yes, yes! I have attempted reading challenges for the last couple of years and failed…and felt like a loser and wondered why I’m not as smart, organized, well-rounded, whatever as those people that can read 2,000,000 books in a year and complete 72 reading challenges (slight exaggeration). You’ve given me permission to read what I want to read whether it’s 5 books or 500 and whether it ticks a reading challenge category or not.

    I’ve started another reading challenge for this year, but I’m not going to sweat it. If I find books that I really want to read that match the categories on the challenge, then I’ll read them. But if December 31, 2017 finds me only halfway finished with the reading challenge but excited about the great books I’ve read, then I’ll consider it a great reading year.

  18. Julia Boose January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    Ariel,
    Many thanks for this. I belong to two book clubs (don’t ask), and find myself often feeling overwhelmed and the pile of books I’m dying to read is just languishing on my night table.

    However, I’m really happy to say that I have added three books to my ‘gotta read’ list from your list, and am pretty stoked to read ‘Prince of Tides’. I have never even considered reading that book, but that movie is my all time favourite movie to this day.

    Happy 2017 – cheers!

  19. Susan G. January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    Heck no! You aren’t the only one…count me in too!
    I would never take on a reading challenge. I love that slow read, taking it all in, remembering what I read…reading for the love of reading and books!
    I do love to read! As soon as I finish one book, I will start another…and I’ve finally learned how to enjoy reading two books at once. 😉
    I don’t even know how many I have read this month (year) already, but I do enjoy a good book.
    She Reads adds to my book list every month…and I’m sure I will never read all those books on my book list before I pass into Heaven…but I’m sure gonna try!! 😉
    Thanks for this Ariel… and love, love, love She Reads!!

  20. Ariel January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    I’m so glad I’m not alone, Susan! And we love you back.

  21. Ariel January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    Two book clubs is impressive, Julia! And I’m dying to know which books you added to your list. 🙂

  22. Ariel January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    I’m all about giving people permission to read what they love, Mary Lou! Reading should always be our happy place.

  23. Ariel January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    I don’t do resolutions either, Lauren. But I do pick one word to focus on each year. Something I want to build into my character. But with reading I need it to be a surprise and a joy.

  24. valorie grace hallinan January 25, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    I am mystified by all the reading challenges, and I’m a book blogger. Fortunately, I’ve never had any desire whatsoever to participate in them. It would take all the fun and joy out of reading, which I don’t want to turn into a competition or a goal. And if I were to participate in a reading challenge, which one? They seem random, to me, and out of sync with my own personal and professional reading. To devote myself to someone else’s reading list – and many of these lists seem arbitrary to me – would not allow me time enough to do the reading I need and want to do. It would be like turning over my reading life to someone else’s arbitrary choices. I’m also surprised when I see readers lamenting that they did not reach their goals or that they are not reading enough. For me, reading has nothing to do with our relentless pursuit of productivity. I’m a writer, too, so endless reading – endless “consumption” – would allow me no time to write.

  25. Lee D January 26, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    I gave myself the challenge last year to get some book lists of 100 books I should read before I die. My list has expanded to 3-4 lists now. I did it to expand my reading. I have no time limit and I don’t exclusively read the books on the list. I have had lots of fun looking for some of the books in the local library, second hand book stores and Lifeline book sales. It is like I am on a treasure hunt and every time I find one of the books it is like I have found treasure. Some of the books I have loved and some I have hated but it has opened my eyes to new authors and new ideas. What I am enjoying is the whole journey and experience.

  26. Glynis January 26, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    I’d never done a book challenge before but my teenage daughter and I started one at the beginning of last year. By April I had abandoned it. But she kept it up, even with her class work and everything, she made it through. I was proud of her for spending her Christmas vacation reading Julius Caesar by Shakespeare just to complete that challenge! But when I told her about this article, she agreed that every few years she might, but she’d rather just read whatever she wants. To tell the truth I’m even feeling confined by the book club I belong to–and I’m the one who started it! I’m busy and don’t read more than one book a month usually, so if it’s not enjoyable to me, it’s work, not pleasure.

  27. Lisa of Hopewell January 26, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    A. Loved Flight of Dreams! B. Challenges–I do them after the fact. When I’ve read a bunch I match them up to interesting sounding challenges. I DO use the challenge suggestions to get out of my reading comfort zone. I’ve found some great stuff that way–often I find the actual book thru one of the many book blogs I love. c. I’ll get the Romanovs. I’ love Robert Massie’s classics Nicholas and Alexandra and majored in Russian Studies so I’ve also read tons and tons. Glad to hear it is well worth it. I’m also curious about the Mitchard book, I devoured Deep End of the Ocean years ago. Prince of Tides…ah….scared me, thrilled me, I still love it. I loved Great Santini so much!!! And Lords of Discipline and Water is Wide (Conrack). He was such a talent.

  28. Melissa Mc January 26, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    I loved Jane Steele! I’m glad I know someone else who read it!
    As far as challenges go, I’ll echo what other posters have said, I like to keep track with Goodreads, but I’ll never be a quantity over quality reader. If I read 10 500 pg+ books a year, so be it.

  29. Just Julie February 10, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    I totally agree with you on not setting a reading challenge. I’m on Goodreads but I didn’t set a challenge number for last year or for 2017. Instead I have a shelf for the current year “2017 read”. Anything I read this year gets shelved under it and other appropriate shelves. Whenever I like I can look at the books that I have read in 2017 but there is no pressure on me to read a set number of books.

    I’m not doing any other challenges either as I would never complete them. Instead I’ll continue being a mood reader and just pick up anything I feel like, having a free-spirited approach to reading like you.

  30. MsG February 18, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    Thank heavens for your honesty. I am forever planning my monthly reading schedule. Last week I had enough. I plotted and planned and planned and plotted; reserved books at the library; made decisions and commitments. I went to bed with a headache. I tried to wind down and rest my mind but the schedule kept me thinking. After 10 minutes of clenching my teeth, I decided I had enough and if this was indicative of the rest of my reading year, well forget it!

    I got out of bed, went to the computer and erased all but two books from my schedule. One that I was already reading and the other one was on deck next and one that I was looking forward reading. I felt so liberated, so free and clear. My headache stopped and I slept like a baby.

    Thank you all, especially Ariel, for being transparent and reminding me that one of my greatest things in life to do is to E N J O Y a good story.

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