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.
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.
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.
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?