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Why I Decided to Read 52 Books in the Next 52 Weeks

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Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

My son turned 5 last month. While that might not seem notable, for me there was a shift. As a single parent with no partner to help share parenting responsibilities, it has not always been easy. I don’t think I slept for more than three continuous hours for the first three years of his life, until he started sleeping through the night. While working full-time and having multiple medical/therapeutic appointments every week for him in those early years, my life did not feel recognizable for a very long while.

I’m not going to lie: those first couple of years were damn tough. Ask any parent in the trenches, and they will tell you how interminable it feels. I kept hearing about a “village.” Don’t get me wrong: I did have some great people, my family was supportive, and social media was, ironically, a godsend. But it was also very lonely. Pre-parenthood, I would have turned to books for comfort and company, except now I was so exhausted for so long, and there was so little time that was my own, that whatever free time I did have was usually spent catching up on work (or falling asleep on the couch). But oh, how I missed reading. Stacks of unread books would pile up, and eventually I’d get rid of them, still untouched.  

Over time, it got better, as most parents will tell you it does. Sometimes it’s hard to remember how difficult it was (which I imagine is how kids get their siblings). It’s natural to get nostalgic around birthdays, but this year, it just feels different. Five seems like a big deal — we made it. My son is thriving, I finally am back to some level of productivity with work and reading several hundred books a year, and I can pursue interests of my own.

I started thinking about the last five years, and realized I wanted to do my own sort of reading challenge to commemorate it. I decided to break it down into themed sections, with different books in each section. Each section was chosen based on some of the experiences that I had with motherhood, or interests of mine that were put on hold. I planned to journal about what I read and look at my own experiences through these stories.  

What books did I choose, and why?

Comics and Star Wars helped me through motherhood (I’ve written about that here and here) that first year or two, and so I wanted to revisit them. I’m reading some Star Wars Legends books and Skywalker: A Family at War, along with Nnedi Okorafor’s LaGuardia.

Friendship was also something I wanted to read about. Many of my friendships took a hit with parenthood. Between sleep deprivation, PPD, and work, I let phone calls go by the wayside, along with getting together. When my son received some diagnoses/misdiagnoses, some friendships simply disappeared, while others became coldly distant — and still others emerged. I added Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home and Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty to my list.

On a personal note, I’ve long been avoidant of cooking, but my son has somehow gotten me trying some recipes. Along with various cookbooks, I added Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA and The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8 Lee to my challenge. (My kid loves tacos and we make them for dinner at least twice a week, and Chinese food is a personal favorite of mine).

Between work and reading for assignments, there’s just not enough hours in the day, so I also wanted to add some books that I’d been meaning to read and never did, like Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist by Judith Heumann, and The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio.

I’d love to go to national parks like Arches, Canyonlands, and Bryce/Zion, but that’s just not doable right now. The thought of taking a small child on a vacation by myself sounds like anything BUT a vacation, so instead, I added the travel guides to my ever-growing list, along with a reread of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

Along that same vein, southern literature is a favorite of mine, so Wiley Cash’s forthcoming When Ghosts Come Home was added, along with Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies and Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House.

I have mixed feelings about parenting books. Before my son’s birth, I stocked up on them — but learned pretty quickly that the best teacher was experience. As he got older and didn’t hit certain milestones when they said he would, I ditched them. I also started to realize the narrow scope and subtle ableism that many of them had, and stopped reading them altogether. Now, as I homeschool my son, I read a lot of homeschooling books but am also dipping my toes into certain parenting books like Bethany Saltman’s Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey into the Science of Attachment, along with irreverent essay collections like Kimberly Harrington’s Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words.

There are several other categories of books on my list, including childhood favorites (let me tell you, Tuck Everlasting hits a whole new way when you’re an adult). But each book has been chosen for a reason, and I’m hoping to read all of them. This challenge is meant to be enjoyable, and I’m keeping it flexible — adding or subtracting books, or ditching one if it’s just not working. Books have always been a lens through which to view the world for me, and for a while there, it felt like I lost them at a time when I needed them the most. In many ways, it feels like five years later, I’m coming back to myself. And what better way to mark that than a year full of intentional reading?

If you’d like more posts about reading challenges, check out this post on 2021 reading lists and challenges, and of course, this post on our Read Harder challenge.