Reading Challenges & Shorter Books

I was asked recently by a friend whether I find the GoodReads Reading Challenge makes me to pick up shorter books over longer ones. It picks up on other things I’ve been thinking about recently, including about trackable reading in general (though I think that’s for another post). Instinctively, my response was ‘sometimes’ – perhaps it’s happened when I was so many books ‘behind schedule’, but generally, I don’t think that it’s a major factor in how I choose what I want to read next. However that tracker definitely has an effect on my reading – just possibly not on the length of the books I choose, and this is what I want to reflect on a little bit. I did a quick check of how big the books I’ve read this year have been, and the most of them have been between 300 and 500 pages.

2016-reading-by-length-to-6-dec-2016

This year I’ve upped my target twice, once from 50 to 60 and then 60 to 70. I think getting far ahead enough to do that has in part been down to the effect of keeping close tabs on my reading. Seeing the tracker tell me I was a certain number of books ahead of schedule was very satisfying for me – it took pressure off my reading, and I ended up reading even more because of that feeling, and getting even further ahead, putting me in a cycle of positive feedback. But obviously it only functions because that feeling of pressure exists to be lifted. Last year, that pressure itself didn’t spur me on at all, and I didn’t reach my goal of 40 books – being behind was not nearly as motivating for me as being ahead. In any case, my habits have changed so hugely over the past couple of years that I’m not even sure comparing 2015 and 2016 tells me very much.

If my 2016 overall reading challenge doesn’t really show a tendency to shorter books, it was a symptom of my attempt at the 2016 Classics Challenge. I missed August and gave up in October, after struggling slightly all year; it never became a routine. In terms of length, the first book I chose was by far the longest at 350 pages. Finishing Nights at the Circus bled over in February, and after that I chose much shorter books – the next longest was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Trying to keep up with the challenge but never quite committing, I picked shorter classics and poetry, almost all under 200 pages, which were easy to fit around what I still saw as my ‘main’ reading. In August I tried to take on Proust, and after a diet of excellent but bitesize classics, predictably I stumbled.

Yet even if they’re short, I was discovering some brilliant books – I particularly loved The Pursuit of Love by and Hotel du Lac, which were my happy summer classics. And among all of this, that remains eventually the point – that whatever length they are, I’m reading good books and enjoying them.

My friend and I did wonder whether it would be useful to have an alternative challenge to GoodReads, in which you aimed for a page or word count, rather than a number of books. Hideously complicated to create, sure, but what I really wonder is would it create a different kind of skew. Some beautiful things come in very small packages, and brilliant writers can say in 150 pages what others meander around for 500. Is there possibly any way of creating goals and challenges without skewing what we choose, in some way or another.

Choices are already always heavily influenced in any case – what we pick up to read depends on recommendations, accessibility, publicity and placement, down to our own circumstances and mood. Challenges for me are a positive way to push myself to reading more books, and that outweighs any negative influence on my decision making. I’m capable of lowering my target and setting myself the target of reading just ten books of over five hundred pages next year, if I wanted to.

If you have any thoughts on this topic I’d love to hear them – do you think challenges affect your choices?

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