Up to the challenge?

‘Tis the season in the reader’s life to address the Reading Challenge. We begin to think of our challenge for the new year and review our progress on the current challenge.

I… did not do so hot.

This past year, I attempted the Schole Sisters 5×5 challenge–which is a GREAT approach to reading widely and well! You choose five books across five subject areas. But not only did I not start with a complete list (only one of my categories had the full 5 books listed), but I didn’t finish any category. I didn’t even start one category.

And this isn’t the first year I’ve totally bombed a reading challenge. I can’t remember ever successfully completing a reading challenge. (Except the year I did the Empty Shelf challenge which was literally just to put your books read on a shelf. I also fed and clothed myself that year.)

The thing is I do read quite a bit, this year more than usually. But I did not even try to work through my 25 (or actually only 20) books on my list. I read eight. (Actually, I’m working on the eighth now, but I’m fairly certain I’ll by the end of the year.) I thought about feeling bad about it, but that seemed like a lot of work.

Despite my dismal performance, I do think reading challenges can be a great way to read purposefully and well. (Which I think is the best reason to do a challenge. If you’re doing it just to see how many books you can blast through, you’re relegating your reading to the same category as a hot dog eating contest. It’s probably just as nourishing to your mind and soul as said eating contest is to the contestants’ bodies.)

At its best, a reading challenge can help us step out of our comfort zones. A key to having a good reading life is to be humble—to read in the posture of a learner, to humbly accept book recommendations from those whose knowledge is wider and deeper, and to push ourselves past our comfort zone. If reading is purely for enjoyment, we’ll read the equivalent of candy. If reading is purely utilitarian, we’ll read strictly for facts. If reading is a way to become more human and more invested in others, then we have to read widely and well and outside our own experience. We’ll read to join in the Great Conversation and to connect with other times and cultures and worlds outside our own experience. A good reading life can expand our lives in unexpected ways.

Reading challenges can be a great way to do that. It forces us to be purposeful and thoughtful in the books we choose. Anne Bogel’s reading challenge specifically lists “a book outside your comfort zone.” The Schole Sisters challenge pushes us to read past the surface and dig deep. 

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But in reflecting why I fail so spectacularly at reading challenges, I realized that I do challenge myself to read, just not in a formal way with cool printouts. I have books I have to read, books I ought to read, and books I want to read.

My primary category of reading is our homeschool because that’s my main gig. And if you think that’s not challenging, you can look at the program we (mostly) follow, Ambleside Online. Right now we’re in Year 8 and the second year of Years 7-8-9 in two years. Because I’ve already graduated two kids, I’ve read a nice chunk of their books already, but because it’s highly customizable and I’ve fiddled with it even more, there’s still a lot to read. 

I also have my “be a better person”/personal development category of books, the books I ought to read. These include devotional books, books on education, and other topics so I can know more and do more and be more. I’m starting to seriously consider my life post homeschooling (four and a half years to go!), and some of the things that wind up in this category are addressing that eventuality. I would probably do well to have more structure in this group, but I don’t have great hopes for that.

The other “challenge part” part of my reading life is book club books. My book club is actually the Close Reads Podcast. I don’t choose them and probably wouldn’t pick many of them given the choice, but I’m generally glad I read them. Because I read in conjunction with the podcast and the Facebook discussion, I’m able to get a lot more out of these books and appreciate them in ways I wouldn’t if I just picked them up on my own. (I did abandon Catcher in the Rye last year. I tried, but the depth of winter and the first anniversary of my dad’s death was not the best time to read that chipper tome. I abandoned Crime and Punishment for a similar reason. A mad Russian ax murderer was more than I could handle at the start of the pandemic.)

Finally, I also have what can only be referred to as my Squirrel! books. Some of these come from impulse purchases when I accidentally on purpose wander into a used book store or they come from those great ebook deals (Thanks, Anne Bogel!). I listen to a ridiculous amount of podcasts, and they’re always suggesting interesting books. Most of these end up on the TBR stack and not in the active reading pile, but they eventually weasel their way into the mix, generally when I can’t sleep and scroll through my Kindle in the wee sma’s.

My Squirrel! books also include my comfort books, usually rereads, because the world/my life is freaking crazy. This year I reread all of Dorothy Sayers novels–although at this point they are not mysteries at all. But they do comfort my soul, and I still pick up something new with each reading. I have a few books and authors that I return to as I need them. Sometimes you just need a break.

And I think what I’ve learned is that a good reading challenge can help you develop a reading life, but the goal is the reading life—not the challenge. It turns out that I have the bones of a good reading life, I just need to live it. So my challenge is not to curate a list of books to read, but to prioritize reading and establish better habits to read the books already curated. Because whether it’s listed on the cool 5×5 chart or simply the books my kids will be narrating to me next week, if I don’t make time to read, it won’t get done.  

How are you challenging yourself to be a better reader in the coming year?

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