Why I Set & Quit a Hundred-Book Reading Challenge
“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” — Stephen King
I’ve always been a reader, but in my early adulthood, my reading habit waned. Between demanding coursework and a struggle against depression, I rarely reached for the hobby that had entertained, encouraged, and inspired me throughout my youth. This all changed several years after I began writing.
I was disappointed in my progress and the quality of my skills when I stumbled upon this quote from Stephen King. Like a lightning bolt, realization struck. How could I write phenomenal novels if I wasn’t reading them?
In the months to come, I challenged myself to cull my mindless television consumption, a habit I’d picked up to distract me from the darkest days of my depression, and to replace those hours with reading. In the first year, I read 24 books. In the second, 35. That number continued to increase until my reading habit plateaued around 80 books a year.
That’s no stack to scoff at, certainly, but I’ve always been one to strive for grander heights. Challenging myself to read a hundred books in 2019 seemed only natural. But now, five months and 35 books later, I’m calling it quits. Why? Well, that’s a complex question to answer, one that’s steeped in reflecting upon how I define my self-worth as a creative…
But first, why did I set this reading challenge?
To read one hundred books in a year is an arbitrary challenge. There’s nothing special about the number one hundred beyond the cultural significance we give it. One hundred years in a century. One hundred pennies to a dollar. A one hundred percent score on your schoolwork. Still, I set out to read one hundred books in a year for three specific reasons:
Reason #1: To continue culling my television habit.
In years gone by, I had a tendency to read voraciously only to quit for weeks on end. Burned out on books, I’d turn to mindless television to fill my empty hours, a habit that frequently disrupted my work as well. To read one hundred books in a year, I knew I’d have to fight the urge to call upon Netflix in the first place.
Reason #2: To immerse myself more deeply in great writing.
There is an immense number of books in this world that I’d love to read. From novels to non-fiction, memoir and biography, finance, craft, history, and pop science. Reading widely is a boon to the writer’s craft, and the challenge of reading one hundred books in a year would help in that endeavor.
Reason #3: To claim the bragging rights.
I’d be lying if I said ego didn’t come into play with this challenge. Setting a yearly reading goal is common practice in online reading and writing communities, and several of my favorite authors have noted they read roughly one hundred books a year. Knowing this only drove me to want to do the same — and perhaps to impress with my reading count along the way.
With these three reasons in mind, I set out to read one hundred books in 2019. At first, the challenge went swimmingly. I read nine books in January, seven in February, and another nine in March. I was right on track… until April hit.
Between my birthday weekend and a week-long trip that didn’t leave much time for reading, I “only” managed to read five books that month, a number that set me several books behind in my reading challenge. This reality led to stress in the early weeks of May as I struggled to catch up on my goal, and so came the beginning of the end.
The problem with arbitrary self-imposed goals…
To read one hundred books in a year, I needed to read 8.33 books a month. Reading only five in April meant that I was over three books behind. Catching up didn’t demand that I read all three of those books in addition to my monthly count in May. But with family visits and summer weather on the horizon, I knew my reading time would be even more pinched in months to come.
I began to reach for shorter and shorter books, though they weren’t the ones I most wanted to read, and I finished books I didn’t enjoy simply to avoid “wasting” the time I’d already spent reading them. In just a few short weeks, reading became a chore.
If you aren’t a Type A personality, I understand that this entire experience may seem ridiculous or laughable or unreal. Believe me, there are many days when I wish I could embody your easygoing approach to life. But I am who I am, and who I am is competitive and ambitious. Often to a fault.
When stress weighs too heavily in my life, I shut down. As I became more and more unhappy with my reading life this month, I responded with melancholy and a return to bad habits. I watched endless hours of Youtube, a cycle I found hard to break when it came time to work on Well-Storied — an area in which I hadn’t been struggling prior to falling behind in my reading challenge.
Finally, after a few days spent in general creative crisis, I knew something needed to change. Several things, actually, as my crisis revealed other self-imposed issues in my creative lifestyle. But the obvious first change came in quitting my one-hundred book reading challenge, a task that required incredible introspection as someone who seeks self-worth in her accomplishments.
The realizations that led me to call it quits…
Earlier this week, I spent a long day questioning whether I should quit my reading challenge. I wasn’t that far behind. I remained quite capable of reaching my goal, and did I really want to waste all the time and effort I’d put into this challenge these last five months? It didn’t take long for for me to realize a few key truths.
Truth #1: No time spent reading is wasted.
There is always something to be gained from reading, regardless of whether you enjoy the act. If I quit my one-hundred book reading challenge, the time I’d already spent reading would be far from a loss.
Truth #2: This challenge was problematic from the start.
I often warn writers against defining their self-worth by the outcome they’re able to produce on any given day. What difference is there between a scene written in 15 minutes and one written in an hour if both scenes need to get down on paper? Yet here I was chasing an arbitrary goal based on outcome.
Is a book read in two days somehow better than one finished in two weeks if I find both to be enjoyable or insightful? Better to glean much from a single book than to tear through several with little to show for the reading than a higher book count.
Truth #3: I need to break free of the comparison trap.
I set a goal of reading one hundred books in a year because that number often appeared in the mouths of some of my favorite authors, but every writer’s reading life is unique. In chasing this arbitrary reading goal, I threw myself straight into the mouth of the Comparison Trap.
Reading remains vital to a writer’s growth and mastery of the craft, but what a writer gleans from what they read matters far more than the number of books they consume. And something tells me most authors tallying one hundred books a year aren’t consuming 1,000-page fantasy novels as I’m often prone to do.
Truth #4: It’s okay to enjoy yourself for enjoyment’s sake.
I often read creative and entrepreneurial books that rail against the mindless distraction of television, social media, and video games. But what harm is there in relaxing? In consuming in a way that doesn’t demand a productive result?
Yes, boundaries should be set to avoid using these activities to procrastinate fulfilling work, but I’d much rather find a healthy balance between consumption and creation than guilt myself for watching an hour of the Great British Bake-Off or chatting with fellow writers online.
With all of this in mind, I’m letting go: of arbitrary goals, of the need for strict creative output and consumption, of the hustle culture that so often leads to my unhappiness rather than my growth. I’m loosening the stays on my Type A personality and learning to breath free, a radical endeavor for one who so often steeps her self-worth in her accomplishments.
I still intend to read voraciously, have no doubt about it. I’m currently tearing through The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie, not in the pursuit of the final page but because it’s a damn good book. A damn good book that I’m having a damn good time reading. So may it be for my reading life to come and for yours as well, writer. Chase what brings you joy.