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About reading challenges in general

Apropos of my last post, I decided to post some thoughts about reading challenges. After having done one or more reading challenges per year since 2004, I like to think there are a few lessons I have (finally) learned about making/choosing ones that can be followed with enjoyment and relative (but not too much) ease. There are three principal rules I have found that work for me:

  • Make it simple
  • Make it enjoyable
  • Make it new 

The fourth, unwritten, rule is of course to make it challenging.

I have noticed that I tend to be somewhat overambitious when I think up a new reading challenge for myself. I often begin by making things too complicated, either with too many rules, overly complex rules, or too many books. Everything goes well for a couple of months and then either my enthusiasm begins flagging or something comes up that puts a spanner in the works and throws me so far off the track that it’s difficult to get back on it. This is why rule no. 1 is to make it simple. Too much of anything (rules included) just complicates things.

Rule no. 2, to make it enjoyable, is very important. As I have said before: life is simply too short to spend it reading books that don’t interest you. This of course only applies to reading for fun – I think we all know that even when studying something we are really interested in, we still occasionally have to read uninteresting, dull or dry books. That can’t be helped, but doing this in your free time reading is folly.

Rule no. 3, to make it new, is simply common sense. It’s not a challenge to just read something you would have read anyway in the given time. This even applies to challenges to achieve a certain page or book count, because presumably you are challenging yourself to read more than before.

Auxiliary rules may be added as needed. For example, most of my reading challenges have had a deadline, usually a year. However, I have come to the conclusion that while a deadline is good, so is having plenty of time so that I can take a break from the challenge if necessary, and not to have absolute rules so I can alter it if it begins to feel too much like a chore.

Another good auxiliary rule is to have a theme. It just escapes being a principal rule because sometimes people challenge themselves to read a certain number of books or pages in a given amount of time, which is a goal rather than a theme. The theme could be short stories, biographies of a particular type of person (e.g. spies, famous composers or royal mistresses), a specific genre, or a specific era in time.

Another auxiliary rule (that I already mentioned above) is to have a goal. Goals are always good. 52 books in 52 weeks is a goal, and so is reading all of Dickens, finishing the 20 oldest books in your TBR stack, or becoming an expert on a certain topic through reading.

If the reading challenge is an ambitious one, having a reading plan helps. This could be a general plan, such as “I’ll read one short story per day for a year, using any or all of these books” or a specific one like “I will read the 52 books on this list in the same number of weeks”.

But the most important rule of them all is to be flexible. This means to be prepared for set-backs and to be ready and able to alter the challenge if it’s proving too difficult or too easy.

Take the short story challenge I just finished. It’s a daily reading challenge and I found that some days it was hard to stick to reading only one story per day, and on other days it was incredibly difficult to tear myself away from a gripping mystery or an entrancing travelogue to read a short story that might or might not turn out to be a complete mood dampener.

The daily reading challenge I set myself in 2008 was to read one single book (The Faber Book of Diaries) in the course of a year, never more than 2 pages at a time, with no blogging. Simple and easy (also enjoyable, meaningful and new), this made it very easy to catch up after my two setbacks of the year: the week-long Easter holiday when I forgot to pack the book, and the 5 weeks in India when I didn’t want to bring it for fear of losing it.

In the daily challenge the stories I read ranged in length from a couple of pages (my arbitrary minimum set length), to 40+ pages (50 p. was my max. limit), and had I done it in 2008, I would have had to give it up when I decided to go to India.

In the beginning I made the following rules:

  1. Read from all of my short story collections and fairy tale collections (about 50 all in all).
  2. Never read more than one story from each book in the same week.
  3. Finish as many of the short collections as possible.
  4. Never read the same author or genre two days in a row.
  5. Do not count re-reads as part of the challenge.
  6. Mention every single story on this blog

My goals in creating the challenge were to:
  • add new authors, new genres and new countries to my reading repertoire
  • finish off a number of TBR challenge books
  • create content for the blog

Then came Easter, and – optimist that I am – I didn’t pack any short story collections for my annual spring migration back to the parental nest, thinking I remembered them having enough short story books to keep me busy. Of course it completely skipped my mind that I have read almost every single book of fiction in their collection, excluding only the gloomiest pieces in my mother’s collection of Icelandic literature, and – the important part – neither of them much likes short stories, so there is a dearth of such books in their home library...

This set me back by a good 9 days, and while in theory it should have only taken me 8 days of reading 2 stories per day to get back on the wagon, for one reason or another it ended up taking me a month to catch up. This was because the challenge had become a chore.
It was while I was struggling to catch up that I realised that once again I had made a challenge too complicated. Reading challenges are supposed to be fun, after all, so I ruthlessly cut down the rules until only 2 remained, numbers 5 and 6, and decided to focus on finishing the single biggest book, page by page. This removed the sometimes frantic search for the perfect story to read each day, and I was much happier as a result.

Of course these rules are made to be broken – it is, for example, doubtful that a challenge to read every book on a public list, e.g. Harold Bloom’s Western Canon list or any of the Top 100 Best Books of [insert era, genre or country] lists, can ever be completely enjoyable, and likewise it can become quite complicated to follow a list if the books are out of print and unavailable in the nearby public libraries, like is the case with my Top Mysteries Challenge. I expect to run into problems with that challenge in 2012 because some of the books are out of print and not available from the local public libraries.

The bottom line is that a challenge should be challenging, but not too challenging.


George said…
My reading is ruled by serendipity and the requirements of my teaching career. About a third of my reading is work-related: finance, economics, investments, marketing, management, and business administration in general. The other two-thirds of my reading fall into the science fiction, fantasy, and mystery categories. But I do try to read a book a day.
Librarian Who said…
You give great advice for reading in general, not just challenges. You mentioned on my blog that you were hosting two challenges this year. What are they?
Bibliophile said…
Librarian Who, I'm not hosting them, at least not in the sense of inviting others to join. They're personal challenges - one is to read all the books from the CWA and RWA lists of the 100 best mysteries and crime fiction, and the other is a challenge to reduce my out-of-control TBR stack to a manageable size. I started the first in 2008 and the second in 2009.
Dorte H said…
I agree! And I do think it is funny when participants in my global reading challenge ask me one question after the other about ´the rules´ and what is allowed.

I *didn´t* make the challenge because I want to police or control anyone´s reading, I want them to have fun and some new reading experiences - that is all there is to it.

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