Over 2018, I took part in the Goodreads reading challenge, setting myself a target of 50 books the year. As I generally get through one or two books a week, I knew this was easily achievable, and I ended up with 83 completed books by the end of December.
But what does that mean?
Looking back at the list, most of the titles are just names of books. I can’t recall what happened in many of the stories, and I only have a vague idea of my thoughts on them. Yes, some stick in my mind—I enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and I’m still impressed at how Barry Hutchison can produce such entertaining and well-written Space Team books at such a fast rate. Andy Weir’s Artemis was good (and, more importantly, was definitely different to The Martian, proving that his first book wasn’t a fluke), and I loved China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, both for the writing and the world-building. Way back at the start of the year I read Marcus Sakey’s Afterlife, and I recall being pleasantly surprised at the twists and turns in the story.
But the rest? Recollections of enjoying some, and maybe a few vague ideas regarding the actual stories, but generally not much else.
Of course, I don’t expect to remember everything I read, but I started thinking back to how I chose these books. Some were titles I specifically wanted to read (and this includes all the ones I’ve mentioned above), but for the others, I believe two factors were at the front of my mind, both influenced by this reading challenge. I chose many of the books over 2018 based on length and complexity. If I was vying between a few titles, I’d automatically lean toward shorter books as well as those that appeared easier.
See, I chose books primarily because I wanted to complete the challenge, and it’s easier to read more books if they are shorter and not too taxing. I veered toward light reads that would only take a couple of days.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these types of books—reading fiction is primarily about entertainment, and I use it as a way of relaxing, so short periods of escapism are fine.
But a diet of only popcorn isn’t good. In between the lighter reads I should have been diving into more demanding works (like Perdido Street Station). As a writer, I should have used some of my reading to stretch my understanding of story and writing. As someone who reads, I should have sunk into at least a few texts that forced me to concentrate to a higher degree.
A number of years ago I told myself that I would read all of Honore de Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (not in the original French, I hasten to add). This is a collection of about ninety titles, ranging from short stories to 500-page novels, and one thing I’ve found from the ones I’ve read is that the writing is dense. Paragraphs can stretch over many pages, and descriptions can be very detailed. There is a huge cast of characters who reappear in different titles, so keeping track of everyone is a challenge. They’re not easy reading.
I’m about a quarter of the way through, and I’ve found something to enjoy in each story. But I haven’t read any Balzac for a couple of years now. Especially over 2018, I’ve been distracted by shorter, lighter books.
This needs to change.
I have a growing list of other books I want to read, and other authors who I want to explore. There’s Brandon Sanderson’s long books (I was very impressed with the first Mistborn book, and promised myself I’d read more), and more by Joe Abercrombie. I have a number of Peter F Hamilton books on my Kindle. A few years ago I downloaded tons of out-of-copyright classics, and there are many of these that I feel I should read, including Jane Austen (I tried once, but never got more than a few pages in.)
So, for 2019, I have a new reading challenge. Yes, I’m still going to read light, fun stuff (I’ve started the year with Ben Aabronovitch and Mark Dawson—both fine writers who produce great escapism for the reader), but I’m also going to push myself. I’m not going to treat books as a tick-list to get through. I’m going to give myself the time each book deserves.
I’ve still set a Goodreads challenge, though (again for fifty books), but I’ve done this as a means of keeping track of what I’ve read. I could use a simple list or spreadsheet, but Goodreads displays the covers of books I’ve read, which makes looking back far easier.
I’m confident I’ll reach fifty books again, but this year it will include a wider range. This year, I’m going to read like I mean it.