I’ve always been a slow reader. I’ve loved books since I was a kid, but I didn’t identify as a voracious reader until grad school. My writing professors touted the importance of students reading thousands of books before taking a stab at penning their own. So, in an effort to maintain positive habits after graduation, I decided to track my reading.
I’d jumped on the habit-tracking train before: daily words written, weekly miles run. For a while, I even tracked the minutes I wasted on social media (I don’t recommend this—it’s too depressing). The outer accountability of habit tracking has helped me form healthier routines and utilize my time more wisely. I set my first annual reading goal at 40 books, finishing the final page of book number 40 before the ball dropped that New Year’s Eve.
Moving into 2019, I resolved to raise my reading goal. I wanted to catch up with my own compulsive bookstore purchases and watch that pile on my nightstand shrink even more rapidly. I was intrigued by the 52 books in 52 weeks reading challenge I’d seen on Nicole Zhu’s blog. Surely I could handle 12 more titles than I’d read the year before. Plus, I liked the way it felt in principle: If I stayed on track, not only would I get a clean slate at the start of the work week, I’d get a second clean slate in cracking open a new book.
I started out strong, finishing four books in January, then five in February. To track my progress, I used the Goodreads Reading Challenge, which informs you when you’re ahead of schedule, on track, or behind on your reading goal. I liked my new reading pace, making haste with books. Instead of lighting up my phone screen the moment I woke up in the morning, I’d open a book instead, reading on the couch with my first cup of coffee. This habit has been a game-changer. I’ve never been able to read before bed because I fall asleep mid-page. But morning reading? I’m all for it, and for the tone it sets for the rest of my day.
As the year progressed, I read several books I wasn’t wild about. In the past, I’ve always felt at peace with abandoning a book before finishing it. Why waste time on a book I don’t love, trudging through to reach an ending that won’t satisfy? But reading a book a week made it harder to justify abandonment. I didn’t want to fall behind—like I said, Goodreads will tell you when you do. And the thought of that sent my Type A brain into a tailspin. So I wound up finishing several books I felt lukewarm about from the very first chapters. I bolted through short story anthologies cover to cover, most of which I ordinarily would’ve thumbed through, reading only the stories with openings that piqued my interest. The pressure to finish books sucked some of the day-to-day joy out of my reading life.
I also never thought I’d select a shorter book simply because it would take less time to read. But when I found myself stuck in a 700-page tome for three weeks, the next few books I picked off the nightstand pile had significantly fewer pages. I love big, sprawling novels and wish I’d made time to read more of them in 2019. My favorite summer memories from past years involve dragging a fat hardcover down to the beach, dozing off between chapters on my towel: books like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. And while I chose lighter books, I still barely took the time to watch the waves striking the shore this summer. And more importantly, I wasn’t immersed in reading. I was immersed in reaching a goal—a goal that was beginning to feel arbitrary.
On top of tracking my progress on Goodreads, I shared books on Instagram as I read. I was pleased when a follower told me I’d inspired her to set a reading challenge of her own. And when another friend said she’d started reading a book she saw I’d just finished, I was thrilled. Sharing a reading experience with someone is among the most intimate bonds.
I received many messages from friends who were curious about what I thought of a book I’d just posted: Would I recommend it to them? Why or why not? But it takes me a long time to digest a story. Often, I’ll come away from a book with lukewarm feelings, only to love the story more after I’ve lived with it at a distance. On the flip side, I’ve torn through certain books from beginning to end, adoring the story and its characters, only to notice it on my bookshelf months later and wonder what made it so captivating. Posting my progress as I finished books allowed little space before friends started asking, “What’d you think?” While I loved that my friends wanted to chat about books, I often didn’t have the words to do so. I felt pressured to form opinions too soon. My post-reading experience became more forced than authentic.
Finding myself in the middle of a book I never want to end is among the greatest joys of reading. I live for the desire to finish a book in one sitting, and the competing desire to slow down and make the pleasure last. Sadly, I robbed myself that pleasure this year. I blew through everything I read, including books I would’ve dragged out for weeks just to live in their worlds a little longer.
Today’s habit-happy productivity culture advocates for setting measurable, attainable goals. Finishing what we start is considered a victory. But our reading lives shouldn’t depend on filling in a Goodreads progress bar. That’s because reading isn’t just any old habit to track.
While I can’t change our society’s obsession with productivity, I can change my own. That’s why I’ve set a different reading goal for 2020. This year, it isn’t based on the quantity of books I aim to finish. Instead, I resolve to abandon books I don’t like. I’ll take the whole summer to pore over that staggering novel I never want to end. I’ll recommend books to friends after I’ve lived with the story awhile. I’ll read intentionally and joyously. After all, there are too many good books out there. From now on, I’ll take the time to savor them.
Image credit: Tonny Tran