Patrick Gaffey offers a method to make reading more books your New Year’s resolution.
As 2021 draws to a close, many of us will be counting off our last winter reads, and planning which books to explore next year. Users of websites such as Goodreads and StoryGraph often set annual reading challenges, establishing a minimum number of books to read. Some invest in creative challenges, aiming to spend their year reading books from a certain genre or country, or following the reading schedule of a friend or celebrity.
I have set myself a reading challenge every year since 2016. I opt to set a goal based on the number of books I aim to read. Most times, I have been able to beat it, and felt confident to increase it for the next year. I broke this pattern at the end of 2019. Having only just managed to complete that year’s challenge, and knowing I would be very busy with my exams and starting university, I reduced the next year’s to a modest 25. Little did I know, I was to have ample opportunities for reading as exams were cancelled and my university experience was impinged by a spiral of lockdowns and quarantines; I ended up beating it by more than 40 books. This year, I have also been given plenty of reading time due to lockdowns, cancelled jobs, and general isolation. So far in 2021, I have read 24,507 pages across 90 books: more than in 2016, 2017, and 2018 combined. These restrictions seem unlikely to return next year, but I’m hoping I can keep improving.
"Little did I know, I was to have ample opportunities for reading as exams were cancelled and my university experience was impinged by a spiral of lockdowns and quarantines; I ended up beating it by more than 40 books..."
I’m proud of my reading achievements, but they are dwarfed by some of the challenges undertaken by book lovers throughout history. Theodore Roosevelt polished off a book with his breakfast every morning, and Josef Stalin read an average of 500 pages every day, but neither of them could compete with the literary critic Harold Bloom, who read 1,000 pages per hour. It’s all very impressive, but this voracious speed-reading is perhaps missing out on the full experience. Any student knows the difference between savouring a favourite book over days or weeks, and speeding through one to prepare for the class starting in half an hour.
The readers of today can take advantage of one tool unavailable to these challenges’ pioneers: audiobooks, which provide an opportunity to keep up while travelling, working, or going to the gym. While useful, audiobooks aren’t for everyone, and they do take a little of the magic out of reading. As William S. Burroughs wrote in The Ticket that Exploded, one of the best and most unique books I read in 2021: “Words on a page travel at the speed of light (…) 186,000 miles per second (…) Your spoken words travel at 1,400 feet per second (…) They would take quite a while to catch up and illuminate the page.”
There are obvious problems with any reading challenge which measures the number of books one has read, rather than the number of pages. In a reading challenge focused on the classics of French literature, it would seem strange and a little unfair for Voltaire’s snug, 84-page Candide to count the same as Proust’s encyclopaedic, 4,200-page In Search of Lost Time. Indeed, one of the most successful and popular reading challenges was 2009’s “infinite summer” project, which involved reading only one book: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. That might sound easy enough, but anyone who has tried to tackle the universe-spanning modern classic will know just how difficult and time-consuming it can be.
Whether or not you’ve done it before, taking up a reading challenge can be a great resolution for 2022. Read as many interesting books as you can, and maybe you’ll surprise yourself.
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