Reading Challenges or Not?

So! Shortly after I post the Reading Bingo Card for doing a reading challenge for 2014, Richard Lea, book blogger for The Guardian, writes about why he thinks reading challenges are not a good idea at all: The bad side of Goodreads’ Reading Challenge. He thinks that the last thing we should turn into some kind of numbers game is the reading of books.

As Lea says, “It starts right there in the name. Since when was reading any kind of challenge? Isn’t it supposed to be fun?” He likens reading challenges to some kind of “bookkeeping” activity. And he may have a point:

All this talk of pledging, of targets, of tracking your progress, is just another step in the marketisation of the reading experience, another stage in the commodification of literary culture.

…literature is one of the few areas of modern life where it’s not all about the numbers.

What he’s getting at is that the heavy tracking of completed reads, the ticking off of titles from your list, turns the exercise into nothing more than a kind of “fill in the blank” exercise. Are we really engaging with the actual contents of the books themselves? We may be preoccupied primarily with saying, “There. I’ve covered that one. I’m halfway, through the year and still on track to meet the goal.” If reaching the requisite number is our goal, are we really benefitting from the books themselves?

I’m of two minds about this one. I think he’s probably right, and yet…there’s still the element of deciding to pick up a book because I’m “supposed to,” and then really getting into it, whereas I might have thought, “Nah, maybe later” if I hadn’t had the number in the back of my mind.

For the first third of last year, I was averaging more than a book per week. I was just enjoying reading, but I did note, “Hey, I might read more than 52 this year.” (I keep a list, you see; I have done so for many, many years.) But then, around October, I just stopped, for some reason. I don’t know why. I read almost nothing for more than two months. And I ended up with 39 books finished in 2013, which I found kind of depressing.

So maybe there’s a compromise. Maybe we can use these goals as a way to keep ourselves reading, but without getting too hung up on rushing through just to tick off the titles. If we don’t quite reach the number we hoped for by the end of the year…ah, well. We really loved the books we did read, and we got a lot out of them.

I think that might work. And also…anything that doesn’t fall into the trap of “commodifying” human existence (we are more than cash sources and more than numbers!) is fine by me.

4 comments

  1. Nicola O. says:

    I like challenges that take you outside your comfort zone a little, but no, it’s not a race and I am not really interested in pushing my reading “velocity” higher. I already read fast enough that I miss stuff sometimes!

    Maybe I should do a slow-reading challenge. Like the whole slow-eating movement…

    • Phyl says:

      Ooh, I like that idea! “Spend two weeks simply immersed in this book. After you finish, go back and reread the parts that touched you most.”

      I like the comfort zone argument. That was what I found most interesting about the “Bingo” card in the previous post. A big complaint I have about things like Amazon’s “If you liked that, you’ll like this” algorithm is that it just keeps one reading the same sorts of things one has read before. With the loss of so many bookstores, we lose the chance just to browse and suddenly find something we would never otherwise have discovered.

      So the “comfort zone” question is important, I think.

  2. Melwyk says:

    I agree that making reading a numbers game is not a good idea. However, I also find that joining thematic challenges has really helped me expand my reading in the past few years — for example, Diverse Universe opened up a whole new area I wouldn’t have been likely to pick up, and I found some fab reads that way. And joining a couple of challenges keeps me on track, like you mention, to pick up those books that I may have thought, oh later, otherwise.

    • Phyl says:

      And obviously, I need to start catching up on your blog (and other book blogs) because I haven’t gotten many book recommendations lately. :-)

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