A year ago, I pinged my fellow Book Clubbers and some friends to see if they wanted to do a 2018 reading challenge with me. It felt like my reading habits had gone astray—there were so many books I wanted/intended to read but when I tried to think of books I’d recently completed, I realized I could name only a few.
Reading had gone by the wayside, ousted in favor of my go-to relaxation activity: binge-watching Netflix and Instastories. I decided that a goal of reading two books a month sounded reasonable. To make it a challenge, I added one for a total of reading 25 books in a year. I would track my progress and see what my reading habits were really like.
Nine friends were interested in taking on the challenge. I created a spreadsheet and set out some basic rules: read any book and chart it in the spreadsheet. Some chose to take on my 25-book challenge while others decided that reading 10 (or 50!) would be a more realistic goal for them. (Yes, one truly bibliophilic friend read more than 50 books in the FIRST FOUR MONTHS of the challenge.)
I set some parameters for my personal challenge:
- The books had to be original reads (no re-reads)
- I did not count the books I started but did not finish
The latter turned out to be a major stumbling block in my reading habits—apparently I have no problem not finishing books. I do have a problem admitting I’m not going to finish them. I realized that I kept trying to plug away, reading one painful chapter at a time before gravitating back towards Netflix and Instastories rather than just abandoning the attempt and moving on to the next book.
Knowing that I needed to get through two books a month made the decision to move on MUCH easier. There are too many fantastic books in this world to read to force yourself through something you just can’t get into. In the end, there were 6 books I started but could not finish and I have 0 regrets about them.
The final result of the challenge? I and nine friends produced a great list of books we adored in the last year. Plus a few that left us saying “Nah, we’ll pass.”
Things I Learned:
I rekindled a romance with the Enoch Pratt library system.
Two books a month is a steady clip that can get expensive if you’re Amazoning everything and we already have a book overflow problem in our home.
I also rekindled a romance (sort of) with my Kindle. Being able to download library e-books instantaneously helped move the challenge along. Ultimately, though, I find I still vastly prefer paper to a screen. I have a hard time feeling like I’m progressing with a Kindle book. The turning of pages is a very satisfying thing.
Audiobooks are currently not my jam.
I listened to Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime per a friend’s suggestion and via a free trial of Audible. She suggested this because the audio book is read by Noah himself and his accent and impressions really bring his memoir to life. I totally enjoyed the 75% that I finished—Noah is a clever writer with a wealth of great material—but I just couldn’t get through it. I walk to work, a 15-minute commute which wasn’t long enough to get into the story. I listen to music when I work out, I can’t focus on podcasts or audio books. And I have a major podcast habit that, often, took precedence over the audio book so I wouldn’t get too far behind with my favorites. I also realized that not having a physical book (or Kindle) sitting on your night stand or kitchen table to remind you that you have pending reading means that an audio book on an app can be easily forgotten about for weeks on end.
In the end, I realized that unless I had a long drive somewhere, I mostly forgot about the audio book and eventually abandoned it before the free Audible trial ran out.
Reading = recharging.
My reading habits, I realized, had been watered down to a few pages before I fell asleep at night that I usually forgot and had to go back and re-read, night after night. This is part of why it was taking me forever to get through books.
With this challenge, I had to shunt time away from Netflixing and Huluing on lazy weekend afternoons to carve out chapters at a time. I learned that trying to force myself through a book I didn’t enjoy was futile and a waste of precious reading time. I learned that an afternoon spent curled up on the sofa—or in the hammock, or on a towel at the public pool—with a book felt much more recharging than an afternoon binge-watching TV.
As an addicted “do-er,” reading is an easy way for me to scratch my goal-driven itch while relaxing and sitting still for awhile.
I had forgotten what it was like to read for pleasure—for hours on end.
The best thing—I remembered how much I truly love to read. I used to plow through stacks of books on vacation in childhood. I worked at our local library in middle and high school which gave this lit junkie easy access to thousands of titles. I’ve been in a book club in Baltimore since 2007 that’s still going strong and when I moved away for a few years, I formed a book club in Abu Dhabi with some coworkers. While book clubs have kept me awash in titles I might otherwise have never plucked off the shelf, I found that I’d become reliant on the monthly reads to inform my reading schedule.
This book challenge forced me to see out new writers, to peruse book stores, to read books recommended by authors I respected.
Forcing myself to read more also meant carving time out of other activities. It meant turning off the TV and saying no to non-urgent social obligations. I have become protective of my reading time. I’ve started scheduling it on my calendar to prevent life from creeping in on it. I’ve purchased accessories like snacks and scented candles for reading time to make it even more of a joy.
Rediscovering my love of reading also helped me through some of the more difficult/annoying shit that happened this year. I laughed my way through We Are Never Meeting in Real Life while laid up on the couch, sick and miserable through my first trimester. When that pregnancy ended in miscarriage after 11 weeks, I spent many summer nights escaping into the luxe world of Crazy, Rich Asians and the total head trip of Girls on Fire. In the fall when I began to turn a corner of my grief, I read Daring Greatly and thought about all the ways I could show up more in life.
As it has been through many phases of my life, reading helped to quiet the anxiety that can pervade when things are unsettled. It helped bring some stillness to the chaos and, often, I found catharsis in gorgeous phrasing and a deeper connection to a world outside of my own head.
And, of course, it makes doctors’ waiting rooms much more bearable.
Reading makes me (want to be) a better writer.
A year of delving into some truly spectacular—and, admittedly, some mediocre—writing left me pining to put pen to paper again in a more public way. To be brave about creativity and to care less about perfection and more about creation. Perfect, I have learned when it comes to my writing, is not just the enemy of good—it’s the ultimate killer of creation. Even the mediocre writers, I realized, are at least putting their work out there and contributing. As Brené Brown wrote in Daring Greatly, you can’t have an opinion if you aren’t in the arena.
Hence this blog post, the first of many I hope to pen in the coming months.
For now, please enjoy The Books We Loved in 2018.