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.