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!