Monday Musing: How Many Books Are Too Many? A Reflection On Reading Goals

Now that we’re past the halfway point for 2019, I’ve been spending some time thinking about the objectives that I set out in January for a successful year of reading. I’m not typically someone who focuses much on quantity when it comes to the books that I consume. Instead, my goals are usually oriented toward a desire to increase the diversity of my reads. Engaging with reading challenges (such as the POPSUGAR Reading Challenge) is one of my favourite ways to do this, as well as making sure to keep my eyes open for any releases from new literary voices. However, 2019 is also my fourth year of participating in the Goodreads Reading Challenge – a numbers-focused personal contest, in which you set yourself a goal for the quantity of books that you’d like to read over the course of the year and watch the progress bar tick up as you go. I always set my goal somewhat arbitrarily, increasing it slightly each year with a ‘Dudley Dursley birthday syndrome’ kind of impossible glee. While I have not yet failed to meet my Goodreads goal (in fact, I’m only three books off of completing my 2019 challenge), I don’t find a ‘numbers’ objective sufficiently inspiring to really motivate any change or growth in my reading habits.

The merits of such challenges are, however, worth considering. For those who struggle to populate their free time with fiction, watching your progress rise as you add more novels to your ‘read’ list is certainly encouraging. Yet, it is also the case that a fixation on numbers can drastically increase the tendency to peacock other readers into a sense of unworthiness. This is something that I’ve encountered at a number of points throughout the year, most notably in my confrontations with the r/52book subreddit. Intended as a place for those engaged in a ‘one book per week’ reading challenge, the subreddit is also a hotspot for those who have chosen to take their self-competition to lofty and somewhat unbelievable heights. I’ve come across people listing out the 100 books that they’ve managed to complete in six months. The numbers in some cases become astronomical – approaching ‘one book per day’ levels. While reading in these quantities is not unknown – particularly for those individuals blessed with speed-reading abilities – it certainly raises the question of just how much narrative these readers are able to both ingest and remember. Even assuming that a pace of several books per week could still allow for thorough comprehension, it must surely be the case that the novels themselves are very quickly replaced in memory by the many that follow. The question of how much readers of 100+ books per year are able to remember is certainly an FAQ in the threads that celebrate their accomplishments – and, as far as I can tell, the answer is quite openly ‘not much’. Taking this anecdotal evidence as fact, the question then becomes one of ‘why do you read if not, in part, to remember what you’ve read?’

As with everything, reading challenges and habits are certainly a matter of personal preference. But, in the era of social media and a tendency to filter our lives for public consumption, a preoccupation with quantity over quality (and by this I mostly refer to an ability to ingest, ruminate upon, and remember reading material) is increasingly prevalent and must be detrimental to the broader role that literature plays in our lives. If we agree that one of the most vital and powerful aspects of fiction’s work is its capacity to increase compassion and widen the membership of what we consider to be our ‘in-group’, the question of how much space we afford ourselves to digest its messages is one that cannot be ignored. What are your thoughts on numbers-based reading challenges? Do you set this kind of goal for yourself? Share your thoughts in the comments!

10 thoughts on “Monday Musing: How Many Books Are Too Many? A Reflection On Reading Goals

  1. I think number based challenges can only work if you define the genres (2 fictions, 3 YA, 5 Non fictions) or if your number is like a base number, ie, the minimum number of books that you have to read(to keep you disciplined ). Its unfair to compete against one another or even against oneself based on number of books you read. I take time with non-fiction, some fiction books are written so intrinsically with complex emotions and narratives that you ought to take time with them, some books can be finished in like 2 days. It also depends on how much time you can invest on reading managing jobs, homes, other hobbies.

    I believe in being committed to the book, I take time with books I have to take time with, and I like just going back and forth sticking to some plots or sentences when I read them.

    BTW I loved the blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment is so on the nose! There’s definitely nothing intrinsically wrong with numbers-based challenges. But I think it’s important to be cognisant of the ways in which social media (among other things) manipulates and changes the way that we engage with habits and hobbies outside of the internet. It can be so easy to get caught up in the idea that our online lives are an opportunity to prove something about ourselves. Scrolling through the posts on book-themed subreddits – or even looking at Goodreads – it’s clear that many people fall into this trap. I think the opportunities that you describe for challenges that focus on numbers (especially when genre-based or to promote discipline) are really insightful, but I definitely agree that taking the time to actually engage with what you’re reading is more important than anything else.

      Thanks so much for your thoughts! I certainly don’t suppose to have all of the answers and you’ve given me a lot more to think about. I really appreciate it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such an interesting post! I think I’m in my third year of the Goodreads challenge, and this year my goal is set at 100 books, which I expect I’ll easily surpass. But ultimately I chose that number (slightly higher than last year’s goal, slightly lower than the number of books I actually read last year) because it felt high enough to be a “goal” but still low enough to be fun, rather than something I had to change my reading habits to reach. I’m lucky enough these past couple of years to have a lot of time to dedicate to reading, so even though I’m not anywhere near a speed reader I can still read pretty prolifically.

    I do know that I have a poor memory for plot and specific details, like character names and such. While I’m reading a book and for a short time after, I have great recall, but my memory does quickly decline. This is why I write my reviews within a week of finishing every book- it ensures that I engage deeply and critically with the material before I move on, and rereading a review later brings back specific memories pretty well. But you asked what the point of reading is, if not to remember what you’ve read, which made me consider my own case- and in conclusion, I would say that I read not because I want to hang on to the details, but because I want the books I read to challenge me to grow and change as a person. I want to meet new perspectives with an open mind, to learn what humans are capable of or not, to understand historical or cultural aspects or events that I’ve not had much exposure to in my everyday life, to see what lengths the art of writing can be pushed to, etc. Even if I don’t remember specifics indefinitely, my reading experiences have undoubtedly shaped my worldview. I probably can’t tell you more than my basic impressions of any given book that I read a year ago or more, but I do know that I’m not the same person that I was a year ago either, in a good way.

    Which I think proves your point, roundaboutly: quality over quantity is much more important to me as well. But the level of quality and the level of quantity probably does vary person to person, so I would agree that competing with someone else’s reading habits or shaming anyone for their numbers just doesn’t make sense. I do think there’s a middle ground to be had somewhere, if pushing oneself to read more can have more benefits than numbers, though I do also wonder whether for some numbers are the focus, and why they feel that should be the goal. Every reader is different, which does make this a great topic for discussion!

    (I’m sorry this comment is so long!)


    1. Firstly, thank you so much for leaving this comment! I was really hoping that I would hear from someone who’s in the ‘100 books or more’ category – particularly because these posts are never intended to be a ‘final word’ on anything, but rather a point for discussion. You’ve definitely given me a lot to think about and, in the end, I actually don’t see our viewpoints diverging. I think my issue is far less with the idea that anyone should set numbers-based goals for themselves but more with the ‘why’ behind it. As someone who is pretty active online in a more professional capacity (in that I don’t use social media for anything other than the websites I run), I’m really interested in the ways in which the internet has warped both our sense of self and our engagement with our world. Since reading is such a vital activity for many reasons, I like to pay particular attention to the plethora of effects that things like bookstagram and Goodreads have had on our relationship with reading. Now, I’m operating from a position that any reading is better than none – so, of course, reading 100 books purely for the purpose of competition is still going to be much preferable to not reading at all. But it’s always struck me as odd that a reader would so dramatically miss the point in reading purely as part of a numbers game or in an effort to prove something.

      All of this to say that I agree with you. Whether you read 1 book or 100 is beside the point. It will always come down to what you get out of the books you read and how they end up translating themselves into your lives. I couldn’t tell you every detail from a novel that I read five years ago, even if I reviewed it. But there is a sense of certain books sticking with me and transforming my perspective in a way that is more fundamental than my memory for any particular plot elements. Quality isn’t about the types of books we read or really about the numbers. It’s about the way that we engage with what we’re reading. I think that perhaps social media’s biggest down-side (along with the different challenges that I mentioned in my post) is probably that it focuses so completely on quantity. I see very little out there that talks about the ‘why’ of reading and perhaps that’s where we need to encourage a shift.

      Anyway, I really do appreciate the food for thought. You’ve given me a lot to contemplate and have definitely helped my position on all of this to evolve. So thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do think we feel much the same about this topic! I agree that how we engage with books should take precedence over how many we can show others that we’ve read. And it is interesting to consider how the internet has influenced the numbers game- the goal of many platforms (whether the focus is books or not) has very much turned into a competition for numbers; more followers can mean material and monetary gain for content creators, and the path to more followers, more views and site interaction, is (at least partially) to post more often. More reading is an easy path to more posts, even if the content of those posts is less thorough. It’s certainly not a perfect system!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Definitely not perfect and I think that it’s unlikely to change. I guess as content creators ourselves, it’s about moving some way toward the content that we really think the internet needs (and that ‘need’ isn’t ultimately about how many books we read but rather what we do with them). I try to be mindful of that at all times – although it’s really easy to fall into a preoccupation with content that drives numbers. I don’t think there’s any immediate solution that will see this change. It’s certainly the nature of the internet. I just do my best to remind myself of why I started writing in the first place and keep myself grounded to that. It’s not easy though!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. As someone who cannot survive without reading every day, and have been known to have several books on the go at once, I can’t really relate to the idea of these challenges. Do people need a challenge to make them read? However, as I get older I find I increasingly forget what I’ve read pretty quickly… so for the last several years I’ve listed books in the back of my diary as I read them to create a record for myself. So when anyone asks what good books I’ve read recently I can actually answer! As a result, I can tot up the number at the end of the year and see how it compares to other years, which is fun but not the purpose of the list.


    1. I think some people do use a numbers-based challenge to try and develop a reading habit. I see a lot of posts from people who are trying to get back into reading after a period of reading next-to-nothing (for example, a lot of university students who replaced reading with studying). As I said in a reply to another comment, I think that there’s nothing wrong with using this sort of challenge to motivate yourself. It just ends up being about the ‘why’ – avoiding the tendency to compete with other readers or prove something.

      Also, keeping lists of your reads is ideal. Having a memory for what I’ve read is one of the reasons why I like to write reviews! But I also keep a log of everything I read separately too!


  4. I think you nailed it perfectly when you said “For those who struggle to populate their free time with fiction”….I never understood challenges to read this or that amount of books in a year and I will never understand it because since childhood my free time was all about reading. I will read till I drop basically. I do other activities, but I have to set a challenge for myself to read less and certainly not more. I don’t understand why people who love to read struggle to find time to read. If one loves to read even somewhat – one reads and finds time to read – it is a hobby, not a task. For me, it is like setting a challenge of how many songs I love I have to listen to on my Ipod this year. It is simply absurd.


    1. Thank you so much for these thoughts! Dropping the ‘shoulds’ around reading is definitely a key part of connecting with its many, many benefits – I think that committing to anything as a task rather than a hobby (as you so rightly put it) is always going to be an unsustainable way to move forward. At some point, life and other interests will always get in the way. That said, I can definitely understand why some people would see a challenge as a good motivation to reconnect with reading – things like mental illness, having a baby, or working multiple jobs can all have a very real and unavoidable impact on someone’s ability to read. In those circumstances, it might be helpful to use a specific number as a way to reengage with reading. But I think it all comes down to the purpose behind it and whether it inhabits a real love for reading (rather than a competition with some invisible audience!).

      Liked by 1 person

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