When Reading Feels Like a Competition
Years ago, I traded new year’s resolutions for goal setting, and because my birthday falls late in January, I use most of the month to plan and put those goals into action. For 2022, one of my goals is actually an omission: I’m not aiming to read a certain number of books this year. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but every time I hit the Goodreads home page, I get reminded to set my goal for the Goodreads Challenge. And I feel like I’m being nagged, because as far as I can tell, there’s no way to clear that feature. It’s as if Goodreads cannot imagine that I don’t want to play along this year.
Now, to be clear, I have nothing against setting this sort of numerical reading goal, or the Goodreads Challenge in general. If you’ve signed up for the challenge, and it works for you, have at it. But after years of participating—sometimes hitting my goal and sometimes missing by a few books—I realized that it had begun to feel less like a fun way to push myself to read more for myself, and more like just another weight on my shoulders.
As a literary agent, I read pretty much all the time, but a good portion of that reading consists of unpublished work—partials, manuscripts under consideration, client projects in need of notes. When it comes to reading what I think of as “books with covers,” I often focus on genres I represent, because staying on top of trends comes with the job. In addition, I try to squeeze in titles from other areas, because I love to read broadly and on far more topics than I could reasonably rep. But that balance shifts frequently depending on my work reading.
Like many people, I found my ability to focus suffered during the early months of the pandemic. Between the stressful atmosphere and isolation, family concerns, and scrambling along with everyone else to figure out where to buy toilet paper, 2020 felt like one long series of distractions and worry. I spent half the year closed to new submissions because I didn’t feel like I could give new material a fair, thoughtful examination. But I kept trying to read books with covers, because reading has always been my refuge—and I desperately needed to get out of my head.
Since I’ve tracked what I read for years—yes, there’s a spreadsheet, with a fresh page for each calendar year, listing titles and authors and dates, as well as genres and page counts and format—I can tell you what I read in 2020. It was mostly audiobooks, easy to borrow on my library app when the physical libraries were closed. And most of the books were romances or historical mysteries, things that were lighter and easy to sink into because the characters’ problems bore no resemblance to my own. Also, without the spreadsheet, I wouldn’t have remembered most of them. Not because the books were bad, but because my distracted brain couldn’t hold onto anything. So, I read a lot in 2020. Blew past my goal for the year. (I hit it, added to it, and hit that one, too.) But the reading served a single purpose: I maintained my sanity.📚
Last year, I set new goals, optimistically planned around a potential return to normal, including a new, higher number for that reading challenge. However, my ability to focus came and went, the state of the world improved and waned repeatedly, and by the end of December I’d finished fewer than half the number of books I had aimed to read. And unlike previous years when I’d missed the mark, it bothered me. It bothered me enough that I took the time to really analyze why.
I read a few truly fantastic books in 2021—most notably HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell. (Go read it if you haven’t. Seriously.) There were books I read slowly, thoughtfully. Books in physical, print format. E-books and audiobooks, too, but more paper than I’d handled in a while. And so many of those books stuck with me. In part, I think, because I am a visual learner, and so paper really is my preferred way of reading, with e-books coming in second. But also because, despite setting that reading goal, I did not let it actually drive my reading. Most of the time, I popped onto Goodreads and updated a few months of reading at a time. No hovering on the site to update my stats and see where my friends stood with their own goals. In fact, I hardly logged in at all.
So, I find myself asking, why is it so important to read a certain number of books per year? I read regardless—for work, for pleasure, to learn, to escape. Back in elementary school, when the teachers gave us sheets to track our summer reading as a way to encourage us to pick up a book or two before September, I was the kid stapling extra pages on the back. I don’t require encouragement to read whenever possible. Because I list what I read each year, I invariably know how many books I end up finishing. And the only person I’m competing against is myself, my own previous reading records.
For years I averaged two books a week, more during summer when I could pile up a bunch over vacation. These days it’s typically one or so per week, but that doesn’t count the endless first chapters or partial manuscripts that fill my working hours. I keep track of what I read so I can remember five years from now, and so I can see the patterns in what I enjoy. As far as reading challenges, I do make notes for future picks; in 2022, I’m aiming for more Latinx authors and some of my TBR backlog. But those goals are general enough to allow discretion as the year progresses. A number goal puts the emphasis in a very specific place. It says more books are better. Never mind if I read fewer books over 400 pages, or shy away from challenging, time consuming texts in order to seemingly read faster. And I miss that type of reading, a mixture of book that entertain and inform and force me to stretch my mind. A number goal just no longer gels with how I want to organize my reading life.
I’d love to hear whether or not you set reading goals for your year, and if they’re the numerical sort or something else? Do you love to track your own reading stats or do you read purely based on your mood?
Some quick news tidbits, for anyone interested:
I am currently closed to new submissions, but will be opening again to queries as of February 21st.
My website will be undergoing something of an upheaval in coming weeks. As you might know if you came to the newsletter from over there, the blog portion will be shifting to more of a news and business announcement page, though all previous posts will remain archived. The site as a whole will ultimately be more of a hub detailing agency and client information, plus updates on where I can be found both on the web and (once real-life conferences get back to full swing) in person.
A few links to share:
2022 Submission and Freelance Writing Opportunities – A great resource over on Catapult.com, regularly updated. Bookmark it and check back periodically if you’re looking for places to submit short work.
Most Anticipated: The Great First-Half 2022 Book Preview – My favorite bi-annual post over at TheMillions.com. Check out all the terrific books coming up in the first half of this year and start loading up your TBRs.
Tidal.com – For anyone following the Neil Young/Joe Rogan/Spotify debacle. If you agree with Neil Young, you might want to shift your online music listening to Tidal. With thanks to Liza Palmer for the rec.
Currently in my teacup:
Vanilla Bean Black from David’s Tea, with thanks to Eileen Cook for the Christmas care package.
Currently on my nightstand:
ONE LAST STOP by Casey McQuiston
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo
That’s it for this time. Thanks so much for reading. And I’d love to see this become a conversation, so comment or respond if you’d like to join in. Until next time! 🥰
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