How the Goodreads Reading Challenge Ruined Me as a Reader

by Isla McKetta on December 27, 2012

Tower of Books

Way back in January of 2012, I took advantage of a snowed-in week to finally finish tomes like The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. Throw in a little Italo Calvino and some poetry (which I never give the attention it deserves) and I was powering through books like a reading superstar. I did a little math and realized I might be able to read 120 books in 2012. I declared my goal publicly via the Goodreads Reading Challenge.

Reading like a champion

It started out well and good. Between January 20 and 21, I finished 5 books. Two were novellas, but Goodreads does not discriminate. I was consistently seven, eight, and nine books ahead until June. I had so much reading knowledge to share that I started a book review blog. I was on fire.

My reading slowed a bit in the summer as I started a new job and picked up more challenging books like Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. But I wasn’t worried. I was the queen of Goodreads. No one could equal my reading prowess.

The uphill slope

I don’t know what happened, but sometime in September I was no longer five or six books ahead. By October I was six or seven books behind. I wasn’t worried. I knew I could catch up. Sure National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) loomed (I was really planning on writing the full 50,000 words this year) and I knew I’d have Christmas cards to write too. But I was a reading superstar. A reading superstar.

The crash at the end

On December 1, I realized I still had 20 books to read. Failure was not an option. It was time to triage.

I started stacking my to-read shelf by size. Instead of picking out what I was in the mood for or what might help my writing, I looked for the quickest way to make my numbers. Steve Almond came out on top with the teeny-tiny This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. Next on the list was Orhan Pamuk’s The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist. I couldn’t let the book review blog slip, so I combined these two books into one review.

I stopped writing fiction entirely.

I took advantage of a Saturday alone to finally finish Being and Nothingness. I don’t remember it, but Goodreads says I did. Virginia Woolf? Too slow—I kept falling asleep (I actually really love the dreams I have while reading Woolf, but there was no time for sleeping during the Reading Challenge). Amy Hempel’s Tumble Home? Consider those loosely spaced 156 pages done.

Young adult was a fast fix and I mainlined Phil Duncan’s Wax. Also easy were books where I had already seen the movie, so I finally read Tom Perrota’s Election.

I have five books left to read and I’m running out of chapbooks and easy reads.

There is one line I haven’t crossed—the three Calvinos in an emergency safe by my bed. He’s dead and I dread the day when I will have no more new books of his to read. Let’s see how panicked I am on December 29.

Learning my lesson

The Goodreads Reading Challenge lived up to its name. I read more books this year than any before. But it changed me. Before I assigned a goal, reading was where I found relaxation and inspiration. By following my whims, I serendipitously discovered the right books at the right time to write my books. But that goal turned me into a page turning machine instead of a reader.

I want my life back. I’m off to read a stack of books (I won’t commit to a number). Please don’t interrupt me.

Do leave a comment, though, about your reading habits and if you plan to participate in the 2013 Reading Challenge. I’m on the fence… no matter how miserable this month has been, I feel the pressure to read at least as many books in 2013.

Isla McKetta, MFA is a novelist and book reviewer. Share reading lists with her on Goodreads or connect with her on Google+.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jill December 27, 2012 at 7:16 pm

I concur. I did well though, ended up reading a lot of graphic novels, which go quite quickly and I ended up actually upping my goal in mid-year to compensate. I’ve been dying to read Reamde by Neil Stephenson, but at 1044 pages, that would pretty much blow my stats, so I’ve been waiting. Because of a challenge on Goodreads with no accountability whatsoever. sigh.

Kyle December 27, 2012 at 8:06 pm

I think the reading challenge is a great idea if you don’t do what you’ve done. I think that it, and I also believe this is the intent, encourages people to read more than they usually would in the calendar year. By giving them an “X books behind” and “X books ahead” the challenge helps the to keep reading and to keep up with the challenge instead of putting a book down for three months and never finishing it. If you stop enjoying what you’re reading, you’re doing it wrong. The goal is adjustable and you can leave the challenge at any time. If you don’t have as much time as your normally do, adjust it accordingly.

Isla McKetta December 28, 2012 at 10:09 am

Good for you, Jill! I know what you mean about Neil Stephenson. I’ve got Cloud Atlas and a doorstop by Peter Nadas waiting for me in 2013 🙂

Isla McKetta December 28, 2012 at 10:10 am

Kyle, I wish I had your common sense. I got that goal in mind and just couldn’t let go–stupid competitive nature. Cheers to healthy and happy reading habits for all in 2013.

Elissa Washuta December 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm

At first, I think the challenge really did help me get back into reading, in conjunction with getting a Kindle and switching from driving to mass transit. A couple of months ago, because of the months in which I devote most of my time to re-reading books because I am teaching them, I ended up deciding I wasn’t going to meet my goal, so I said “to hell with it” and started counting audiobooks as I started listening to them. Now, I realize, bringing audiobooks into my reading life has actually helped me pick up my book-reading pace even more, and even without the audiobooks, I exceeded my goal by 4 books. I hope we’re doing it again in 2013.

Isla McKetta December 28, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Elissa, I love that the challenge worked so well for you! I think audiobooks (especially the unabridged ones) can be a great way to experience literature. My husband is reading a Guillermo del Toro to me and I’m totally counting it–it takes me back to when my dad read me Tolkien as a child. And, yes, we’re on for 2013.

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