On Abandoning My Reading Goal

As winter begins to descend upon the Northern Hemisphere we are reminded that the year is drawing to a close. It is now past the end of October, and we only have two months to go until the calendars flip over, the ‘7’ is replaced with an ‘8’, and messages from acquaintances flood my inbox wishing me a Happy New Year. It is also only two months in which I have to read twenty-seven books.

According to my reading goal.

I could take on some of fellow Rioter Rebecca Renner’s tips for finishing my reading goal, or panic read like Jen Sherman (who wisely concludes that not finishing is okay). But for a few months now I have been thinking about abandoning my reading goal altogether. And then not even beginning one next year.

There are two reasons for these thoughts:

The first, and the most obvious, is that I am so woefully behind that it’s just easier to give up. I could be petty and claim that reading goals are silly anyway.

But the second reason is that reading goals actually make me a worse reader.

For some (for most), reading goals are an excellent idea. You can keep track of your reading, read more, and finish with a sense of accomplishment. Reading goals are great if the goal is to read more.

Last year I read 101 books.
The year before that I read 101 books.
The year before that I read 101 books.

It is clear that I don’t need to read more, I need to read better.

My reading goal has made me lazy. It means I read easy books, prioritizing quick reads over worthwhile ones. I shy away from dense books that will challenge me, and anything over 400 pages goes to the bottom of the stack, waiting patiently to be read only if I have the time. I read whatever is there – right in front of me – not because I want to, or because it will enhance my life, but because it will help me reach my goal. But to what end? So I can boast about my intellectual capabilities? Or to appear erudite to those acquaintances who only have a vague sense of who I am?

That’s not why I read.

I read to explore worlds I’ve never encountered before. I read to understand others. I read to live a life that is not my own. I read to be smarter, kinder, funnier. I read so I can become a better person.

If I abandon my reading goal I will re-read A Little Life. And it will remind me of the darkness of our world, and the need for hope. I will finish The Journals of Sylvia Plath, Mythology by Edith Hamilton, and Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Maybe I will attempt Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest. I will seek out narratives that challenge me (morally and intellectually), read more literary nonfiction, poetry, magazines, articles, journals, and all those things that don’t ‘count’ as books. I will read letters and diaries and words written by friends.

I won’t be able to boast about it (actually, I’ll probably find a way), and there will be no smug sense of accomplishment in those final days of the year, but I will become a better reader.

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