The Ultimate Problem with Reading Challenges
And how to make them healthy
I love Goodreads Reading Challenges.
I’ve been participating in them for two years now, and there are so many things I enjoy about them — how you can see all your books clearly, how you don’t feel alone because so many people take part in it, how Goodreads summarises your reading at the end of the year.
Not everything about having a reading challenge is pink and glitter, though.
Ever since I was a teenager, I remember reading about forty to fifty books a year. Last year, I was inspired by all the people who read more than a hundred books, and I raised my reading challenge to sixty. Surely, it wouldn’t be so hard, right?
I ended up with sixty-six books on my completed reading list and a pressure that finally fell off my shoulders as the New Year came.
Throughout the year, I slowly realised how deeply unhealthy it was for me to try to keep up with my goal, no matter how little time I had.
Reading challenges should be fun. Instead, in 2019 I turned mine into a stressful race for the highest number. I ended up lowering my goal for 2020 to forty books, and it’s offered me to derive more joy from reading and to read stress-free.
The following reasons explain why reading challenges can be bad for us as readers, and how we can make them healthier and more enriching.
A Book Becomes Just a Number
Do you know the satisfying feeling when you tick an item off your to-do list?
That’s how I began to feel with completing books. Woohoo, a book finished, I can now tick it off, raise my score and move on to the next one!
It’s easy to give in to the ‘calculator mindset’, as I’d call it. Another book, another number. The list gets longer and longer, you look like you must be the best reader in history! Each book looks so validating when it stands on its set position on your shelf.
Sometimes, I found myself deriving more pleasure from having added a book to my reading challenge list than from the reading experience itself.
And that’s problematic. We read mainly because we enjoy it, because it enriches our worlds and opens up doors to new perspectives. We read for the love of how people can string words together so beautifully, in a way that makes our eyes water, our chest ache and our thoughts connect.
A book is not a number. It’s a work of art, a story in and of itself, a full world that was sewn together by somebody who deeply cared about it.
That’s worth cherishing above anything else.
Quantity Over Quality
Similarly, if you set your goals too high, you tend to storm through books without giving them too much consideration — which also undermines their real value.
When I was racing against time last year, I didn’t re-read books unless I had to for my literature course (although re-reads do count on Goodreads). I didn’t take notes, didn’t write down quotes I liked, didn’t stop and think about the books I read very often.
I consumed content, let it swallow me, but didn’t actively participate in the process.
I believe that you learn much more if you dive deeply into one book and re-read it three times, analysing the plot structure and the way it’s written, than if you storm through ten books in one month.
By giving yourself a lower goal, you get more time to truly enjoy the book you read.
To appreciate it in its entirety.
You Read Books You Don’t Like
As soon as I got into one-third of a book, I felt too sorry to stop reading, even when I didn’t enjoy it one bit.
“But… but I’ve already marked it as currently reading,” I told myself. “I’ve already spent so much time on it. It would be a waste of time if I didn’t finish it and didn’t put it on my completed list.”
This led me to slowly scrape through books that I didn’t actually care about, which made me bored and annoyed when I thought about reading.
I know. Ridiculous. My ultimate favourite hobby, and I didn’t even want to do it, sometimes for months.
Reading the wrong kind of books can be one of the worst things that happen to a reader, which is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons why children get discouraged from reading at school. They’re constantly presented with boring classics they don’t enjoy.
Continuing to read a book you don’t like is a bigger waste of time than if you read half of it and then put it down. That’s because it takes away the joy of reading, which in turn makes you want to read less in the upcoming months.
It’s okay to put the book down.
Long Books Are at a Disadvantage
When you want to read as many books as possible, you shy away from books with eight hundred pages. I could fit three books in one book from A Song of Ice and Fire series! Why bother then?
Well, because long books have their own kind of magic, especially fantasy ones. They drag you into a brand new world, with characters who have lots of space to show their true colours, to progress and to carve their way into your heart.
Thanks to having a goal of only forty books this year, I managed to read the whole Mistborn series and The Priory of the Orange Tree, which could probably account to nine shorter books instead of four long ones.
Yet I don’t regret it one bit because all of these were worth reading. They made me stay up late in the night immersed in the story, and I know I will cherish the reading experience for a long time.
Long stories have a lot to give. It would be a shame to avoid them just because of some competition with yourself.
Reading Becomes a Responsibility
Reading is a hobby. A joy. A passion. A lifestyle, almost — it has structured and shaped my whole life. I revolve around books and they revolve around me.
Turning such a wonderful part of your life into a responsibility and something that causes you stress is a tragedy, and it’s best to avoid that route.
So, how could we make reading challenges better?
You don’t have to give up reading challenges altogether. You don’t even have to re-do how they work on Goodreads.
The core of the solution is a shift in your mindset and a bit of organising. That’s all there is to it.
Here are some ways to achieve that.
Set a Lower Number
First and foremost, you don’t have to set out to read 100 books in a year to feel accomplished.
Reducing my goal this year has been a great improvement for my reading experience. Some months, I read a lot. Others, I finished only a few books because I focused on other aspects of my life. I didn’t feel stressed about taking a break or taking things slowly, though, because I knew I had everything under control.
I knew I didn’t have to race myself.
When you set a lower goal, it doesn’t mean you have to read only that amount of books. You can exceed your expectations, you can finish the challenge having read 200% of what you originally set out to read.
The important thing is that it’s easy to reach the goal. Because that’s what makes you feel accomplished. This only encourages you to keep going, keep reading, because it doesn’t seem stressful and it doesn’t put any pressure on you.
You can also take a break without feeling guilty, you can read how many long books you like and you can digest books slowly, with great care.
This makes up for a much more enjoyable reading experience.
Focus on Horizontal Progress, Not Vertical
Instead of reading more and more books each year, try to broaden your reading horizontally.
Expand your horizons when it comes to genres, fiction X non-fiction or authors. For example, you can decide to read 5 books written by POC this year. Or 3 non-fiction books, 5 books written by non-English speakers, 3 graphic novels, 5 books with queer characters, 2 classic novels… You get the gist.
Make sure not to overload yourself with requirements. Take it slowly, don’t raise the number too high. Reach out to genres you’re not used to reading, support authors who deserve it, read about stories you haven’t experienced so you can understand the world more and see it from a different perspective.
This will make your reading experience even richer than it was before.
It’s Okay to Fall Behind
A reading goal isn’t some ultimate button that will cause the world to fall apart if you don’t push it.
It’s okay to fall behind, it’s okay to take a break, it’s okay to focus on other things in your life. It’s okay not to reach your goal because of some other life circumstances intervening.
The only person who could scold you is yourself — and you don’t have to do that. You are your own best friend. Be empathetic towards your own self.
This year, my reading experience has been more relaxed than in the last three years combined. I’ve read long books, books by authors from Asia, books that made me feel like I’m 13 again, reading until the early mornings, too involved in a story to let go.
Reading is not a duty. It’s not a race. Create your reading challenges in a way that enriches you rather than drains you.
Read because you love it, not because you have to.
Read because it’s what makes you happy.
Read because it’s fun.
This article was originally published here.