The Good Reader

What’s the point of a reading goal anyway?

By Amy Hughes

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In March, after a couple of blissful months of easy and enthusiastic reading, I fell behind on my reading goal. 

It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. I’ve been setting myself yearly reading challenges since at least 2015, the year that Goodreads, Amazon’s reading app, started actively promoting their reading challenge feature. Now available on numerous platforms, the feature allows users to set a goal for the number of books they want to read each year, complete with a progress tracker to help them stay on-schedule. I’ve carried on the habit since migrating to The Storygraph, a non-Amazon-owned site that is focused on community and data-driven reading recommendations, and I always set myself the same goal: 50 books. For all but one of the years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve failed to meet it. 

I know, I know. Insert that famous quote about the definition of insanity. “What’s the point of repeatedly setting yourself a goal you fail to meet?” one might ask. “What’s the point of a reading goal at all?”

These are good questions, and ones that are much debated. There’s a justified scepticism about the merits of target-setting when it comes to reading - scepticism as to whether it’s useful or “healthy”. The trouble with these conversations is that, intentionally or not, they often play into moralistic thinking - of good and bad reading, and good and bad readers.

Competitive reading

On BBC Radio 4 at the start of March, there was a short debate around the concept of competitive reading. Is it good to encourage numerical goals for reading, the programme asked, or could the competition it breeds be bad for readers’ mental health?

My knee-jerk reaction to the question was defensive: I don’t read competitively, I don’t feel the impact of other people’s reading on my mental health. But of course, upon further reflection, that’s not entirely true.

Part of the reason that I like reading goals is that, totally aside from the pleasure I take from reading, it makes me feel good to know that I’ve read a lot. Just like whatever alliterative reading schemes I did in summers as a child - the Reading Rainbow or the Reading Rollercoaster, where you got a sticker or prize the more books you read - having a record of the books I’ve read in a certain time frame gives me a sense of achievement. 

This is both helped and hindered by the negative reinforcement that comes when things don’t go to plan. You get hooked on a new reality show; you get ill; your concentration is shot to pieces because you’re still chugging along and trying to be productive twelve months into a pandemic. Your reading slips. These things happen, and when they do, there it is: the prompt from whatever tracker you’re using. You are 3 books behind. And counting.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a ripple of guilt and panic when I see that. Just now, when I logged into my old Goodreads account to check when my first reading challenge was, I saw my friends’ goals for the first time in a long time. There was the old animal instinct towards competition: comparing stats, the ripple of jealousy at the more prolific readers. Even though I try not to feed these competitive or insecure instincts in myself, I won’t pretend they’re not there, or that reading challenges don’t sometimes trigger them. They’re baked into the vocabulary of the thing: it’s a reading challenge. Even if you like to think that you’re only competing with yourself, that ambiguity can still rear up sometimes and catch you unawares.

This, I think, is natural. Many productivity tools work on a basis of positive reinforcement when they go right and negative when they go wrong. It’s when you add to all this the peculiar way that we think about reading in our society and it’s easy to see where the concern for mental health comes from.

The “Good” Reader

Reading is a skill that nearly all of us have, but it is also prized significantly as a virtue. In the past year alone reading has been touted as a remedy for any number of societal ills: for loneliness in quarantine, for ignorance, even for white supremacy. It’s both a pastime and a clapback: “Read a fucking book”. 

It’s easy to see how under this influence, a person’s yearly reading challenge, unlike a similar metric like their Spotify Wrapped, might become awkwardly freighted with moral significance.

As when anyone displays their perceived virtues publicly, reading challenges are often met with some level of suspicion. At the start of the radio programme mentioned above, clips were played of people describing their book challenges: “How I read over 100 books this year” and so on. Clips designed to set the scene, to shock the “average” reader.

But as writer Diyora Shadijanova pointed out on the show, there are many reasons for very high book goals. The number of books you consume can vary based on factors like health, wealth, and employment, and any belief that there is some universally “right” way of reading strays dangerously close to the policing that says that audiobooks “don’t count” or that reading short books or e-books is “cheating”.

What would we learn if we were to listen to these often subliminal messages about what constitutes a “good” reader? The good reader prioritises reading instinctively and without effort. The good reader knows implicitly the balance of reading and life that is best for them; they pay no attention to other readers and read only when no one else is looking. The good reader reads the exact right amount of books a year, which is [REDACTED]. The good reader reads without vanity; they read into the void.

I’m not sure I would want to be this kind of reader even if it existed. 

I guess the point here is not so much that my experience of reading challenges is good (though it is) or that there are negative elements to it (though there are). It’s more that they’re a flashpoint around which are tangled some much larger conversations - about reading, free will and social media, and the obligation for relentless productivity under capitalism. I think people are attracted to the debate around them because it offers the opportunity of a resolution: if we could find an answer to the problem of reading challenges, maybe we could all become good readers, and bypass all this conflict and uncertainty. We’d read for the right reasons at all times. Reading would always be good and it would always be easy.

The trouble is that the conflict and uncertainty is what makes us the readers we are. A lot of the justified concern in this conversation is around The Youth, and how impressionable teenagers might react adversely to these metrics. I don’t know if my teenage reading life would have been different if reading challenges had been as big then as they are now. If they had been, and I could advise her, of course I’d tell her not to worry too much about the numbers, to avoid looking at it competitively. While we were at it I’d probably tell her not to bother so much about reading 19th century classics she doesn’t even enjoy, too. But would she have listened? Would I want her to? I know many of the things I now know about my own tastes and opinions because of the bad reading I did when I was younger - bad faith reading, badly-motivated reading. Just as I have felt out my reading habits - what is comfortable, healthy, ambitious for me as a reader each year, what my insecurities are, how I can best tackle them - by trying, failing, and trying again with reading challenges.

Reading challenges may never fold themselves down into a smooth surface that can be navigated faultlessly. The best we can do is learn to take the rough with the smooth. Yes, there is some vanity in these metrics, but like wearing makeup or choosing our clothes in the morning, vanity isn’t all there is. I’m still one book behind my reading goal on that long road to 50. Will I get there by 2022? Maybe. There’ll be a push and pull. But like this month and like any of the last six years, I will keep moving forward.

Watch out for a new article by Amy each month on Lafiy Press.

Follow her bookstagram @writtenontheflyleaves for all her reading updates.