I have just recently gotten excited about reading challenges. To be perfectly honest with you, I had no idea such a thing even existed until a few years ago. But now that I know about them, it’s hard for me to stop doing them.
You may ask- why would you do that to yourself?
I have always been someone who likes a challenge and wants to test my abilities. About 2 + years ago I was doing fine with my reading. I was keeping my Goodreads list going by documenting when I was done with a book and rating it. I was reading an ok amount, but all of it was fairly rote and automatic. There wasn’t a lot of forethought or planning involved in what I was doing. And I think because of that, I didn’t enjoy my reading to the extent that I do now.
My favorite moment of the reading process is the one after I finished something I enjoyed reading, basking in its afterglow (hopefully) when I realize that there is another book out there that could hold an equal or better treasure. In cruder terms, you could say that I chase the reading high, like an addict. Being a mood reader, I want to be really present in that moment and pick something that will appeal to the feeling I am having. Most often times it is a reaction to what I just finished. If it was something really heavy, I may want a “palate cleanser” of a read that will help me transition out of that world and into something else. If it was a fluffy or light-hearted book, I may look for something with a bit more substance. But all this bouncing around was random. I wanted a bit more form to what I was doing.
Enter the reading challenge
The first one I heard about grabbed me instantaneously. It was the Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge for 2015. The way it works is that they have chosen 24 categories or tasks. That equates to about 2 books a month. I knew I could do that, without a problem. They keep the categories (as they call tasks) broad enough for readers to research and interpret the task as they want. There isn’t really any rules other than that.
Here was their list of tasks for the Read Harder Challenge 2015:
- A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25
- A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65
- A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people)
- A book published by an indie press
- A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ
- A book by a person whose gender is different from your own
- A book that takes place in Asia
- A book by an author from Africa
- A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture(Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.)
- A microhistory
- A YA novel
- A sci-fi novel
- A romance novel
- A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade
- A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.)
- An audiobook
- A collection of poetry
- A book that someone else has recommended to you
- A book that was originally published in another language
- A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind (Hi, have you met Panels?)
- A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure (Read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over)
- A book published before 1850
- A book published this year
- A self-improvement book (can be traditionally or non-traditionally considered “self-improvement”)
I loved almost every second of this process, even when the books I chose may have missed the mark with my personal tastes. I loved doing the research to discover what I could like that would fit into these categories. I enjoyed being pushed to think more diversely and in interesting ways about how I read without any guardrails. I discovered new areas that I ended up loving. And some things that I thought would be very easy for me, turned out to be surprisingly hard.
Through this process, I found that I really like science fiction. !!! (I know– it was a surprise for me, too!) My previous experience with sci-fi was Dune by Frank Herbert and not much else. I often felt unmoored by some of the sci-fi stories I had read and was not comfortable just “going with the flow” in an unfamiliar world. I was kind of uptight about it, I admit. I spent a lot of time trying to find the perfect fit for me. I scoured some of the suggestions people on Goodreads were throwing out there. I asked friends, and I kept an ear out for new releases that might fit the bill. I landed on Moxyland by Lauren Beukes. It featured a female heroine, set in the future in Cape Town, with a technology/pharmaceutical backdrop. It was edgy and fast paced and very exciting. I really liked it.
For the book published before 1850, I was stumped for something that I wanted to read. I landed upon Middlemarch by George Elliot. I was really happy with this pick because a list had just been published about the top English novels ever written and of all the books out there, Middlemarch was considered the number 1 book. Again- who knew? I was a little intimidated by it, and afraid that I was going to end up getting bogged down in it, but I found it so readable and I really felt something for these characters. It was such a nice surprise for me that I went ahead and bought one of the lovely hardcover editions for my personal collection.
I also discovered how vast and exciting the Young Adult (YA) side of publishing was. It has really expanded into a massive genre of potential gems. I am probably aging myself but the only things I had that could be considered YA when I was growing up was Sweet Valley High and a few other things like that. Nothing with the breadth and depth of topics and content that exists now. I enjoyed what I read, but it was in the research that I discovered many books that I ended up reading this year.
I was disappointed with the book I picked for the task of a book written by someone under the age of 25 years old. I chose Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin and it just didn’t work for me. The voice, tone, and content were not good fits for what I was looking for or what I tend to enjoy. It could be just a generational thing. I finished it because of the challenge, otherwise, I would have put it down and moved on.
As I entered into December of 2015, I had 2 tasks not yet done and it was stressing me out. The Poetry and the Short Story tasks were so frustrating me to no end. I went through SO MANY books, looking for a fit. To be perfectly candid, I don’t really like poetry. Now I can appreciate a poem, but an entire book of poetry was really a stretch for me. I will admit to taking a bit of a short cut on this task and pulling out one collection I have that I know I like- The Portable Dorothy Parker. She has been a voice that I have turned to through many a broken heart, so I could heal through sarcasm, snark, and witty barbs.
I was absolutely shocked at how hard it was for me to find a short story collection for my tastes. I mean, I found a ton of short story collections, but I learned a lot about the genre through this process. One of the things I learned is that a lot of the stories that win awards and people seem to love are strange, awkward or have a dramatic twist. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is a perfect example. As with poetry, I might like a single short story that has those elements, but I don’t particularly care for an entire collection of that type of work. I tried the Miranda July work, No One Belongs Here More Than You. I couldn’t finish it. It was making me feel so bleak and hollow like I was falling into a depression. I was told that most people will use the collection as I do with palate cleanser novels- to transition from one book to another. But since I didn’t have enough time to do that, I shelved it and started the search again. And I am so glad that I did because I found a beautiful gem of a book- The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. From the first few paragraphs, I knew this was the right book for me. The writing was lush and evocative. I was pulled in immediately. I loved it so much. I am on the hunt for a first edition hardcover copy of it, so I can keep it near me always.
The year that I spent really thinking about what to read and searching for which books would be in that Venn Diagram of what I love and what the task required was wonderful. I read so many books that I would never have even thought to look at the covers, let along crack them open and read them. And it is only because of the challenge.
What’s on deck for 2016?
Well, since the Read Harder Challenge was such much fun for me last year, I jumped on it for this year as well. Here are the tasks for this year, in a handy PDF that you can print and fill out as you go through the year:
I have also participated in a Readathon where a person designates a fixed amount of time- 24 hours, 48 hours, a week, etc. to try to read as many books as possible. It sounds a little insane, but it is very fun to completely devote yourself to only reading. Many times there are communities on Twitter, Goodreads, Instagram or Youtube that promote a readathon and readers will plan together, share progress, cheer each other on, and generally offer breaks to each other during that time period. Some tips that I have heard and would like to share for how to survive a readathon would be to pick your books wisely, even if there is a theme to the readathon. For example, your goal is to read a lot, so you may want to find shorter books that aren’t dense from a subject matter perspective, so you can feel the success of plowing through them and upping your numbers. Readers are always talking about all the finger food they have available to nosh on so they don’t get distracted by having to stop and make dinner. (It also seems like a really fun time to break any diets or rules you have and just indulge as you turn the pages as often as you can.) I enjoyed myself immensely during that time so I will look for more opportunities to do that in the future, and will make a note of them here. Maybe we can do one together!
There are other types of challenges. I will investigate and bring some others to the blog. But I am curious- do any of you participate in reader challenges? Why or why not? Please leave us the answers in the comments.