The Merits and Cautions of Reading Challenges

by krstaten

Because I haven’t posted anything in a while, and because it’s a whole new year, and because my literature-loving friends on Facebook, Tumblr, and elsewhere have been posting these like they’re going to save a life, I figured I’d put in my two cents on reading challenges.

Most of them are for the year, of course. I tried one last year. I failed horrendously at it, because Real Life interfered more than I had expected it to; because mental health and adult responsibilities and general obligations to self and other conspired to keep me from turning a page for over half of the year.

I want to start by saying that I love reading challenges. I think they can serve a very useful function; I think they can be encouraging, fun, and, well, challenging.

But I do have my cautions of them. Primarily, that when you read a book solely to meet criteria, or solely to hit a page count, what are you really getting out of that book? If your only goal in reading that book is to check something off a list, why bother?

I say this because I’ve been so guilty of it: Skimming a book I’m not interested in because I feel obligated to; only half-reading the last 100 pages of a book because after this one I’ll be at 10,000 and that’s my goal; getting to the end of a book so that I can say I finished it, only to realize at the end that I don’t really know what it was ABOUT. What’s the point of a book if by the end of it it hasn’t given you anything?

With that said, I think this argument is in the same vain as many of the arguments I railed against in November regarding NaNoWriMo, which is to say it’s all about how you use it, and not everyone uses it the same.

So despite the dangers, here’s why I LOVE reading challenges:

They get you reading something you wouldn’t otherwise. Last year as a result of a reading challenge, I read Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road–the reading challenge was to read a book I picked out based solely on the cover. It became the foundation of my second foray into the world of writing book reviews, and in that, it became something that taught me a lot about writing, reading, the use of symbolism, and both cultural influence on literature and literary influence on culture. This year, people I know who read exclusively fiction are delving into a political memoir; people I know who have always thought poetry was too hard for them are tying up their souls in Emily Dickinson; people I know who have only ever shown an interest paranormal books are trying their hand at memoirs. It’s a great way to open up your horizons, and as I’ve said before, reading something you wouldn’t normally read is a fantastic way to grow as a writer/reader. Beyond that, and I would argue more importantly, it’s a great way to grow as a person.

These challenges also give you goals to work toward. If you’re like me and you have trouble motivating yourself, it’s nice to have that checklist. Again, reading with the sole focus of getting the book done so you can cross it off isn’t going to do yourself any favors; but having something nudging you forward and giving you goals to work toward is always a good way to get yourself moving along and reading more. And everyone can benefit from reading more.

Finally, these challenges may get you really digging for books you would otherwise never even know the existence of, even if they are right up your alley. Last year I had to find a book set in my hometown, a book by an author with my initials, a book published in 2015, a book published the year I was born…It forces you to look for books in ways you wouldn’t think to. This year’s challenge that most of my family is doing includes a book with a protagonist who has the same occupation as you. How do you even go about finding that? And what do you think it’s like to read a book about a character with a life like yours? What can that do for your perspective? You’d never know without these random, oddball questions making you seek out books by the strangest criteria you can think of.

Ending on another cautious note–do not let yourself get so caught up in completing a challenge that you don’t let yourself learn or gain anything from what you read–I’m going to link the reading challenge I did last year as well as the one I’m still debating for this year. Go nuts!

2015 Reading Challenge

2016 Reading Challenge

Anyone have any particular reading challenges or general reading goals to shoot for in 2016?