A TSR book challenge for 2011

January 4, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

Anyone spending a significant amount of time on blogs and websites devoted to books will come across any number of reading-related challenges. At Book Mine Set, John Mutford challenges readers to read 13 Canadian books in a year. Mark Sampson challenges readers to reread a book they loved 15 or more years ago. In June of 2010, the folks at The Morning News challenged readers to read David Foster Wallace’s doorstopper novel Infinite Jest over the summer. And on Twitter, there is the 50 Book Pledge, which involves readers pledging to read (unsurprisingly) 50 books in 2011. That works out to a book a week, with two weeks’ grace time.

The Twitter challenge has been getting a lot of traction online, and has been officially endorsed by the HarperCollins staffers at The Savvy Reader, nine of whom have taken the pledge. As of 3:00 p.m. this afternoon, their comment feed had 32 responses, the vast majority from people signing on to take the challenge.

Now, far be it from me to complain about people getting excited about reading. My entire project here at TSR is to stoke enthusiasm about literature and to encourage people to lose themselves in books. But it seems to me that challenges like the 50 Book Pledge approach reading in the wrong way.

First off, by imposing artificial deadlines, the project risks denuding reading of its pleasure. Speaking as someone who reads to deadlines for a living, I can assure you that it is neither the easiest nor the most enjoyable way to encounter the written word. At the site In Over Your Head, author Julien Smith provides a list of tips on how to manage a book per week, things like “Make a Routine,” “Use Every Moment,” and “Never Fall Behind.” Call me crazy, but this sounds like a hell of a lot of work, not to mention the attendant guilt should one not manage to keep up the pace.

The first comment on Smith’s post begins, “I’ve wanted to make ‘reading more books, more often’ my life’s resolution for … well, forever now.” This seems to be the impetus behind many people signing on to the 50 Book Pledge, but it is also chimerical. According to Stephen Shapiro, there were 127,000 books published each year in the U.S. as of 2006; the number is no doubt higher now. Assuming a population that is 10% the size, Canada should publish roughly 13,000 books per year (a conservative estimate, to be sure). There is obviously no way any individual can read even a fraction of these titles, yet people online are champing at the bit to get a massive number of books under their belts in 2011.

Two things to bear in mind. First, reading is not a competitive sport. Some people read quickly, others read more slowly. One’s relative reading pace, as well as the relative length and difficulty of the texts one chooses, will inevitably impact the number of books one is able to read in a given period. There are only 24 hours in a day, after all.

Second, and more importantly, the whole premise behind the 50 Book Pledge privileges quantity over quality. That is, it focuses on the amount a person reads, without giving any thought to the way a person reads. This is totally in keeping with an online culture that prizes speed and efficiency, but it does little to promote quality reading, which often requires that a reader slow down to properly appreciate the nuances of a particular text. One of the great joys of reading is savouring the quality of a writer’s prose, which is difficult to do if one is barrelling through the book in order to get to the next one on time.

With that in mind, here is TSR’s reading challenge for 2011. Frankly, I don’t give a tinker’s damn how many books you read this year, whether they are classics or Harlequin romances, or whether you gravitate toward Canadian, American, or Mongolian literature. Instead of pledging to read more this year, why don’t we all try to read better: to be more sensitive, expansive readers, to enter more deeply into the text, to actively engage with books on an intellectual, aesthetic, and linguistic level. Let’s try to focus less on the quantity of our reading and more on the quality. Who knows? By slowing down a bit, you might even find you’re enjoying yourself more.


7 Responses to “A TSR book challenge for 2011”
  1. Steph says:

    I like the suggestion and I think it should apply to reviewing as well.

    In some ways I think reading has become competitive, though; at least, I’ve felt that way as a blogger and tweeter. Or maybe it’s the blogging, then, that’s become competitive in a way. We’d never admit it, probably, because we’re all such best friends, we book bloggers.

    But with two jobs (as a bookseller and copyeditor), I’m unable to keep up with what everyone is tweeting about and promoting, everything that’s new and hot. By the time my review emerges, people are more likely to skip yet another perspective on Room or Annabel, for instance, than read it, because there are already so many out there. Plus, if publishers send you books for free, you feel you need to read these books in a timely manner, to help the publisher but also keeping in mind the fact that you are certainly not the only blogger who received a copy at the same time.

    While it’s true that we don’t need to read and blog only current releases, I think other bloggers feel this same pressure I mentioned above, the ones disinclined, as I am, to take on challenges, or those resolving in the new year to stop worrying about keeping up and just read what they want, when they want, and blog just as often. We need to take that pressure off. As you said, trying to keep up with others sucks the joy out of reading. It becomes a rather…competitive exercise, otherwise. I’ve felt that, particularly when reading tweets of people who seem to do nothing but read all the livelong day. Like I’m losing.

    I understand what you’re saying and agree that reading isn’t technically a sport, that it shouldn’t be competitive, but I think it has become those very things in certain circles. I never have counted how many books I’ve read (well, in elementary school I did when we had medals at stake); I find it extremely stressful, and don’t quite understand why I would want to. I want to read more this year because I am really interested in so many books, and because I would like to kick my habit of doing useless things, which time could otherwise be used better, say, reading and then blogging my reviews.

  2. Kerry Clare says:

    You’re just jealous because reading IS a competitive sport, and I won.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I was so happy to read this post. I have definitely slowed down in my reading this past year and the reason is, I’m stopping and trying to write something down (not always successful at that) which forces me to actually pay attention to the book and think about it more before I start a new one. Funny result is that I actually remember the books I read better than I used to when I would just whiz through as quickly as I could so I could read another one! So I’m very happy I’m developing this new habit, but I know I’ll probably never read all the books I want to! Now if I could just get a bit faster at the thinking and writing part…

  4. John Mutford says:

    Well, to each their own I guess. For what it’s worth, a part of the Canadian challenge is to review each book read and I’d hope that such a practice encourages people to think a little more about what they’re reading rather than simply putting notches on a post. As for the “the project risk[ing] denuding reading of its pleasure” I assume most of my participants are astute enough to realize if that was happening and drop out.

  5. Mark Sampson says:

    Great post, Steven, and a fine reality check for readers of every stripe. I actually found myself following your advice this week even before I saw this post: I’m reading Frank O’Connor’s collected short stories, begun nearly a week ago, and am only a third of the way through. Each piece has proven to be worthy of savoring.


  6. More reading, or more careful reading, or more enjoyable reading. I say more enjoyable reading. It’s all the matters (unless you’re preparing for an exam). When a friend told John Irving that he had a compulsion about finishing every book he started even if he wasn’t enjoying it, Irving responded that the approach was idiotic. There are too many good books out there to waste your time on something you aren’t enjoying. He said he had a 40 page rule. If a novel didn’t grab him in 40 pages it was shelved. Sounds about right to me.

  7. The idea of reading BETTER is great. Over the last couple of years I’ve been on four fiction juries and one of the things I decided early on was to not give a bad book the time of day. Fifty pages should give you a fair idea of whether tjhe book is worthwhile. If it’s not, put it aside–or toss it across the room (which I did with a couple of terrible ones.)

    Writing reviews is something else: if you’re getting paid for it, you must read the whole thing. Then you can vent your spleen, if you like.

    And as for reading books you read before: that’s a great idea, particularly if you’ve been disappointed by a run of mediocre recent books. I’ve been thinking about Hemingway (see my blog) and would like to re-read some of his early stuff. Unfortunately my copies have gone to be cleaned, post fire, so I must trek out to the library or bookstore to find his short stories, which I remember as being his best work.