Reading Challenges: Friend or Foe?

I wouldn’t say I’m a slow reader, but I’m not fast either. One thing I definitely am, though, is avid. I read as often as I can – as many different things as I can. So it might be nice to read more quickly. It’s a tempting idea, to be able to breeze through my to-read list in books per day instead of books per week. Yet I have long resisted the urge to learn to speed read.


The problem with speed-reading, as I understand it, is that it’s actually more like speed-skimming. People who read very quickly seem to miss things. They can tell you what the book is about, but they might not be able to tell you how the color of the secondary character’s dress affected them emotionally. They might not even be able to tell you the color of the dress. Because with speed reading, you don’t stop. You don’t pause to think. (Or am I wrong? Any speed readers out there who know differently?)

I’ve talked a little before about writing as a physical thing rather than a passive one. I feel the same way about reading. I like this post by Natalia about marking in books as you read – like a love letter to the work. I like the idea of pausing to respond, of underlining things that seem significant, of stopping to let the impact of a powerful scene sink in before your turn the page. I want to be an active participant.

So maybe this is why I’ve resisted jumping on the “reading challenge” bandwagon. For those of you who don’t know, a reading challenge is exactly what it sounds like. People will set a goal, often 50 books a year, and try to meet it, like a New Year’s resolution. There’s a spot for this in Goodreads, too, where you can keep track of which books you read.

Reading challenges can be wonderful. The main benefit, of course, is a renewed vigor. A refreshed desire to read much and often. It’s a way to rekindle the passion, which I certainly appreciate. It’s all too easy to let a couple weeks go by in between books.

Yet… I’m very anal retentive. If I’m going to do a reading challenge, I’m going to do it right. I’ll count my books, make sure I’m on schedule, and really strive to meet whatever goal I set for myself. And that’s where the problem comes in.

Do reading challenges promote quantity over quality? If I know I have to read fifty books a year, won’t I choose shorter books? I mean, if I pick up Elizabeth Kostova’s 700-page beast The Historian instead of a nice easy paperback, I’m setting myself back at least a week. So then – assuming I don’t have unlimited time to dedicate to reading, which would be awesome – my options become: should I read faster, or should I choose shorter and/or easier books?

Isn’t challenging myself as a reader more important than challenging my reading?

To me, it is. Not to mention that going through Goodreads limits what I can count as “a book.” What about the 7-8 unpublished manuscripts I read last year? They don’t count. What about the literary magazines I try to familiarize myself with? They don’t count. What about all of the stray poems I read online? They don’t count either. But shouldn’t they?

In short, I like the idea behind reading challenges – reinvigorating the love, so to speak – but I don’t like what it does to my choice of materials.

My solution so far has been to maintain reading goals that involve ideas rather than numbers. I aim to always have one novel and one book of poetry going . I’ve noticed that, for me, it’s the time between books that ends up slipping away, so I also have the goal of starting a new book the same day I finish an old one. That way I have to get it out and put a bookmark in it so I don’t get sidetracked. I also aim to read thoughtfully. I try to read widely – a nice blend of heavy, struggle-to-understand literary fiction and fun, edge-of-my-seat commercial fiction. And everything in between.

Those are my goals, and I suppose the drawback to them is that I’m the only one accountable for them, since it’s not a number I can post on Goodreads or my blog. Or maybe that, too, is a good thing. What do you think?

Have you ever participated in reading challenges? Did it work for you? And if you’ve never tried them, what’s holding you back?

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  • Julia Munroe Martin

    I tried a reading challenge and it ended up frustrating me because I didn’t read as much as I committed to and then it kind of took the fun out of reading for me — of course I tend to be somewhat competitive when I hear the word “challenge”… That said, I do tend to read on the very fast side anyway, and I sometimes go on jags where I’ll read a book a day. (It doesn’t stop me from knowing the color of the secondary character’s dress, btw — it was green, right?) Great post, Annie!

    • That’s what I think would happen to me, too, Julia. I can’t stand the idea of starting on a goal and not meeting it. To me, “speed-reading” and that sort of marathon when you fall in love with a book are totally different things. The way I’ve always heard speed-reading described seems very efficiency-based. But I LOVE getting swept away in a book and staying up all night to finish. That’s just the best! And yes, green it was. 😉

  • I’ve never done a reading challenge, but I do make an effort to read more books each year. For me, a good month is at least two books a month, more if they were real page-turners and I was better about planning my time.

    But I agree that reading isn’t something you want to rush. What I love about reading is how much time slows down and things become simple when it’s just you, a couch, and the pages. Really, the only type of speed reading I like is when the book is just so good that you read it in like a night. But even then, my pace as I read doesn’t change. I like to listen to the words in my head, and give them the rhythm and pause that each sentence seems to sing.

    • That’s how I feel, too. I love that reading isn’t rushed. Likewise, even when I do end up marathoning a book, I read at the same pace — I just stop less often and read for longer. I’m totally with you. The “sound” of the prose is important to me, and I too enjoy the rhythm that develops when I let the words come to me at their natural pace.

      • Just want to chime in and say that, while I am a very fast reader, I’m also a huge advocate of REreading. So although I may miss things the first time around, the rereading is often more pleasurable for me than the first b/c I am relaxed and already know how it ends, so I can concentrate on the warm fuzzies of the details and feelings.

        • That’s fascinating, Barb! I’ve never thought about that, but it makes perfect sense. Thanks for sharing that — gives me something to think on.

  • Lura Slowinski

    I read more books in 2012 than any year previous, at least since I’ve been keeping track. On the one hand, it was pretty fantastic: I found a ton of new favorite authors and books in 2012. On the other, by the end of the year I did realize that I wasn’t reading as thoughtfully, and that longer, meatier books (like Anna Karenina, which I did somehow finish) tended to test my patience and mettle more than they had in the past. And this was without my setting any sort of reading goal at all; I just fell into a habit of going from book to book without stopping to digest anything in between.

    So I think your goal of reading thoughtfully is a great one, and it’s actually my goal for this year (as well as reading more authors of color / international authors / LGBT authors, because despite my efforts last year was still a White American Male sort of year). I want to get back into the habit of lingering with books, of engaging with them and not merely consuming them.

    • The patience thing is interesting to me; that’s pretty much how I began to feel, too, when I was consciously trying to read a higher number. I ended up getting impatient with every book that began to lag, even if it was the good kind of lag. I didn’t like that. And I think you make an interesting point, too, about letting an entire book “digest” before starting a new one. Honestly, that’s one of the main reasons I miss college; I loved the discussions after we’d read something. Kudos to you, too, for the diversity goals. I would leave to read a blog post about that!

  • That’s interesting, Missy. I don’t think anyone could blame you for slowing down during moving — that’s such a stressful time. But I’m glad you figured out what was throwing you off, and that you’re enjoying it again!

  • Regina Richards

    I don’t set fiction reading goals. For me that’d be like setting a goal to eat dessert every night. Yep, I’d be all in on that one! I do set nonfiction reading goals for the year and record those in my business record book, because nonfiction is nothing like dessert.

    • Haha! That’s cute. Some of my fiction is dessert, but not all of it. Some of it is downright work, but I love that stuff too. I have to agree though, that nonfiction is nothing like dessert. 😉

  • TrudieMarie

    I say you should read what you want, when you want, wherever you want and with whom you want, or is it who? And as far as speed reading goes, forget about it!

  • jclementwall

    LOVE this post. I think I’m a slow reader. I rarely find myself with hours to read. More like 15-minute openings between things I have to do. Reading books like that takes longer, and I’m physically slow. I have to read every word. I’ve never learned to skim.

    I did put a number in Goodreads this year. I felt like it would keep me dogged about making sure to fill those little blocks of time with books whenever possible. (And my number is way less than 50, because, yeah. I read – critique, edit – unpublished manuscripts too, and lit journals, and publishing news, and ,lately, art sites.) But I love your goals so much more.

    If left to my own devices, I’ll read literary fiction and nonfiction all the time. But every once in a while, I’ll try something new because it was recommended by someone I trust, and I’m always delighted. Sometimes, those books I wouldn’t have chosen because I thought I didn’t like the genre are my favorite books of the year. So I love the idea of setting a goal like, I’ll read 3 genre books this year. Or maybe just 3 books I never would have picked for myself.

    I’m excited about this. Thanks, Annie!

    • My number is way less than 50, too, for many of the same reasons. Goodreads tells me I read 36 books n 2012, but that doesn’t count betaing manuscripts, lit mags, etc., etc. I read every single word, too. In fact, sometimes if I get ahead of myself in an action scene or snappy dialogue, I’ll go back and read the words I skimmed once the suspense is over. I just can’t stand not getting it all. (Neurotic much? lol) And I absolutely love the idea of reading 3 books you wouldn’t normally read. I might add that to my goals!

      • Melissa Crytzer Fry

        I think we’re twins. I’m the same way. NEVER learned how to skim, and felt – if i did (in college, even) – that I was missing something MEGA important. To this day, cannot skim fiction, either.

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    What a fabulous topic. I’m with you: I like to savor, dissect, and ‘live’ the books I’m reading (then again, I am methodical about most everything I do). I’m actually a fast reader, but because I’m reading “like a writer” (to learn craft/taking very anal-retentive notes), I’ve found that I can only get through about 25 books per year. How do I know the number? Because I have and do participate in the Goodreads challenge. If I read any more than 25, I’m rushing it, and not seeking the symbolic inferences or the dress color, or tying together characters’ motivations and setting, and analyzing the delicious words. And, like you, I like to be challenged by literary fiction. The Goodreads challenge does keep me accountable, but only to myself. I don’t view it as a competition with others, but as a way to keep myself reading. Also, like you, I enjoy starting a new book the same day I finish one.

    • 25 books a year is nothing to sneeze at! I like that you use going over that as a gauge, too. Interesting. I definitely have mental notes of my number and try to keep on top of things, but filling in the challenge number makes it too official for me; it leaves me no leeway. I’m too much of a perfectionist.

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Oh I love, love, love this post, Annie. I too, am not a fast
    reader, but I am always reading something. (Usually even several somethings.) I have little desire to whip through a book I’m
    really enjoying. That would almost seem rude to the author, who slaved over
    those small things you mention, and which I would likely miss, if I simply
    skimmed. Pondering a passage a writer
    worked over for its beauty or its deeper meaning is one of the sweetest pleasures
    of reading.

    I’ve never been interested in trying a reading challenge. Reading widely, carefully, and continuously – that’s where it’s at for me too!

    • Several somethings! Me too, if you count poetry, although I never could get into having two novels going at once; it split my focus. And yes, I like the idea of slow reading being a tribute to the author. That’s lovely, really. Thanks Cynthia!

  • Yes, this is so true! There are so many things that should count but can’t (poems, lit journals, web fiction, blogs, websites for novel research). And then, as you know I posted about, I find myself wanting to count things I’m not even enjoying just because they can count, lol!

    So I would like to say the challenges don’t matter, but to be honest, I get so much more reading done when I’m doing one. It’s a nice push, and I find myself slipping into laziness when I’m not doing one. I just need to bargain with myself about what counts, and if I’m behind, as long as it meant I was reading other things, then it’s okay.

    • It’s actually interesting that Goodreads hasn’t expanded to magazine issues yet. I mean, some of them are bound like books — like the Poetry Org journal, for instance — so it seems reasonable. Many of them even have an ISSN or something similar for periodical issues. We should start a petition, lol!

      And I’m with you. If I get behind on my novels, I’m not hard on myself if it’s because I’m reading other things. It’s when I realize I haven’t read much in a whole week that I start to get annoyed with myself.

  • Annie, you might find a like-heart in a book by Alan Jacobs called The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. He talks a lot about everything from reading challenges, to reading strictly for pleasure, and how the former came to be via school cirriculum—and why he’s not convinced that is the “right” way to read.

    I started keeping track of my books read in 2006 (just on a Word doc.), and sometimes I wish I didn’t, because doing so makes me competitive with myself. I also joined my first reading challenge this year for War & Peace and it’s going terribly (it’s not going at all, actually), so I’ll have to remove the cute read-a-long avatar from my sidebar and hang my head in shame. I loved Anna Karenina (and many other Tolstoy-related readings), but I don’t have the brain this year for ol’ Leo’s bestselling novel.

    I must say, I really like your plan to maintain reading goals involving ideas rather than numbers. Great post. I’ll be thinking about this and how I should handle my own goals.

    • Wonderful! It sounds like you might enjoy joining Goodreads, if you like keeping track of your books. Fair warning, though, that I find it highly addictive. =) And thanks for the book rec; I will check that out!