The GoodReads Reading Challenge: Friend or Foe?

I’m both a deadline gal and a chronic procrastinator. I am not inwardly motivated to complete projects without a clear goal, and even then I’ll probably put it off until I’m down to the wire. I participated the GoodReads Reading Challenge for 2013, and even though I completed my goal I have mixed feelings about it.

For those of you just tuning in, I studied English literature in college. Not only did I go to a college known for its stress culture, but I spent the second half of my college education taking only upper-level lit courses. No studio art, no intro to theatre, not even an intro to poetry or something. I took classes like Victorian Social World, Henry James Through Theory, Theories of the Novel. For novel classes, the reading load was about 300 pages a week per class. For theory classes, it was usually a smaller page count, but the reading was much more dense. So really, I was usually assigned anywhere from 200-1000 pages of reading weekly. (And of course, I read and absorbed every single word on all those pages.)

It took me something like thirteen months to finish a book after I got my B.A. I just couldn’t do it. I was entirely burnt out. I couldn’t focus. I got a crappy job, then I got another crappy job, so I was working a seven-day, 60-hour week. Reading books wasn’t fun.

The first book I finished after I graduated was Light in August by William Faulkner. It took me months to get there, but I cleared the hurdle—and I only cleared it because I wanted to finish both it and The Sound and the Fury before I departed to Mississippi for an observance of Faulkner’s fiftieth death anniversary.

I use GoodReads—primarily to keep track of the books on my shelves. Last year, though, I did reconstruct from syllabi and what books I owned to date what I read throughout high school and college—though I don’t think it’s as accurate as it could be. Here’s the picture approximately of my reading life since the second half of my freshman year of college.

Picture 37

2010 was the second semester of my junior year of college and the first semester of my senior. (I think some of them weren’t whole texts, but whatever because it doesn’t include the hundreds of pages of articles I read.) The number of books I finished in 2012 is kind of embarrassing to me. I wanted to remedy this. I studied English for god’s sake—what kind of English major doesn’t read?

For 2013, I wanted to do the GoodReads Reading Challenge. I decided to do one book every two weeks (twenty-six), plus one a month for my book club—thirty-eight total. Along the way, I decided there were some things I needed to do: read story collections I’ve had hanging around and give away what I didn’t love, finish reading novels by Jane Austen I hadn’t read, and read all the Brontës. The Brontës would have tipped me over to forty, but I didn’t altar my GoodReads goal.

When I’d met my GoodReads goal of thirty-eight books, I still had one unread Brontë (Agnes Grey by Anne) and wanted to re-read the only one I’d read before 2013 (Shirley). I finished Agnes Grey on December 29. Shirley is 600 pages. I thought, “If I want to re-read Shirley at all, it has to be before January so I can squeeze it in.” In early December, my attitude toward Shirley was “if I have enough time.” Well, by mid-month, I became a woman obsessed, while I was still fighting to get through Villette.

I finished Shirley at 4am on New Years Eve. I stayed up all night, determined to burn through it. Around 3am, when I had less than a hundred pages, I thought, Why am I doing this?

This episode kind of sums up my relationship with the whole GoodReads challenge. I want to be a better reader, but when you look at that little bar telling you that you’re four books behind schedule, it becomes a numbers game. One way I got around this was by choosing slim volumes, or easy books. Gone Girl is twice as long as The Sound and the Fury, but as I’ve written before, with Gillian Flynn you’re not exactly drowning in the stream of consciousness.

I’m also a sucker for stunts. If I make something public even in the smallest way, I’m more likely to keep my word to myself. I know that life gets in the way, but to me sometimes I let life get in the way. Unless other people are depending on me (or unless I’ve told them I’ll do something), I’m likely to just excuse it away on “I don’t feel like it” or “I wanted to watch My So-Called Life for the eight thousandth time.”

This year was an eventful one for me. It was stressful on several levels: personal, professional, physical. I failed at a lot of things and I experienced a lot of emotional lows. So maybe that was why I got so into the Reading Challenge in the first place: if I could plug through another novel—any novel—and read enough, then I would have accomplished something in 2013 that I deemed worthy.

I’m conflicted. Sometimes, while I was reading this past year it was like, Wow, I’ve wanted to read Northanger Abbey forever. Sometimes it was like, I need to rush if I’m going to make it. Make what? Is it really enjoying literature or a good or true reading if you’re plowing through a brick of a Brontë novel at 3am like you have an assignment on it?

I asked my friends on GoodReads to tell me why they do the challenge—or why they don’t.  One of my friends rightly pointed out that one of the downsides to the challenge is that the books are all rather democratically weighted on GoodReads—James Joyce is equal to James Patterson, a Jane Austen novel is equal to The Jane Austen Book Club. And I definitely used that to cheat a little, though I did free up some shelf space when all was read and done. This is something I definitely waffle on: sure I read 40 books, but how many of them am I proud to have read? I believe in reading everything and I believe in admitting it, but I’m a little bummed out I wasted time on like Gillian Flynn and a crappy memoir and things like that.

I got some more good input from others: one person suggested setting more reading goals than just numerical ones, which is really something I responded well to in my own reading this year, such as “read all the Brontës.” I’m kicking off the year with eight weeks left in a staff reading challenge for one of my jobs, so I’ll have to hit the ground running on that. More wise words included allowing the number of books to be elastic for when life really gets in the way.

But overall, the most important thing is that the Reading Challenge has helped me make reading a part of my life again. It’s how I could start this book blog and how I started to chip away at some of my longer-reaching goals.

So I’ve started off with forty books again for 2014 and I guess we’ll see what happens. I think the best thing I can do is try not to be so black-and-white about the whole thing and not worry if I have to adjust my goal. So we’ll see how I get on with forty…to start.

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