When Reading Challenges Aren’t Such a Good Idea

I came across a post on Book Riot that reminded me that reading goals might not always be such a good thing. Any of us on Goodreads is familiar with the “Reading Challenge” and also some of the kinds of stats you can look up on your profile page. And some of you are already feeling bad about the goal you set for this year.

Each year, Goodreads allows you to set a “reading challenge” for yourself and provides a nifty little progress bar that gives you the percent of books you’ve read. It also includes above the bar how many books you’ve read toward your goal and below the bar how far ahead or behind you are. Currently mine says, “You have read 18 of 100 books” and “4 books ahead of schedule”. And it is that last phrase that can get you. Some of us are just compulsive enough to feel bad if we get behind. We might even change our reading choices from “goodreads” to “quickreads” to catch up.


If you enter the “Reading Challenge” you can also see how other friends are doing who enter the challenge. Alternately, this allows you to gloat or feel shame, depending on how you are doing. If that is not OCD enough for you, there is a stats page that will tell you how many pages you’ve read so far this year and how many pages you’ve read in previous years. Still haven’t had enough? There is an explore tab with the menu item “people”. You can find out for example the top readers in the US (this week, someone from California who has read the insane number of 2428 books this week) or the top reviewer (who has reviewed 227 books this week). One look at that list and I realized I will never make the top 50.

The question that we should ask though is what does any of this have to do with good reading? The short answer is, “Absolutely nothing!” It seems to me the question of whether you do a challenge or not, whether you complete a challenge or not, and how many pages you read or reviews you write has nothing to do with good reading. Good reading has to do with finding great writing that captures your imagination, enlarges your world and changes the way you look at it and engage with it. Whether you read one book, or five, or a hundred is beside the point. The real question is what your reading experience is like reading those books. Some thoughts on what makes for good reading–some of which I’ve probably shared before:

1. Good reading starts with setting aside time where you can be attentive to the book before you. Depending on the season of life, that could be anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. For some, 10 minutes hiding out in the bathroom may be the best you can do!

2. Of course, good reading takes a good book. Now “good” can cover a wide variety of meanings for us and I think there are “good” books in every genre from theology to sports writing. There is also badly written stuff, and stuff that is just “mind candy.” Actually, I wouldn’t worry too much about this. Over time, you learn what is good for you, and what doesn’t speak to you.

3. I do think a good read doesn’t simply amuse us but also helps us get a better take on life and the world around us. Conversely, bad writing panders to our fantasies and paranoias. Those books may engage us, but they also distort our vision of the world we actually live in.

4. The best books are those from which we come away changed for good. Maybe one question we should ask ourselves is whether this is one of our reasons for reading.

5. Good reads take us into community. We want to share that book with another so that we can talk with them about it. Or we pick up a book because of what it has meant to a friend. Or a group of our friends are reading it together.

So, if a reading challenge is encouraging you to carve out time in your life to read good books, great! If it just feeds an OCD thing or is a source of guilt, ditch it for the leisurely soaking in a good book, even if it is the only one you read this year!

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