Falling Back in Love with Reading Through Lists

May 01 2020

Measuring what matters.

Reading isn’t a challenge in itself. I love reading. It’s a comfort to me. But a couple of years ago, I realized that I was only reading new releases by known favorite authors and re-reading past books I love. And it would feel like forever until the next book came out. Despite being surrounded by books at my workplace, I reached a stretch where I didn’t trust just any book to be good. A lot of the bestsellers seemed to be overly long, uninteresting, or too slow-paced for my taste. Despite the intrigue of A Secret History, the Pulitzer-winning Goldfinch burned me badly. I did not care for it. I didn’t want to waste my time on a book I wouldn’t like when I knew exactly what I would get with a re-read. After a while, even my re-reads became stagnant. It was disappointing, and I grew restless.

The Challenge

I had always loved the idea of reading 52 books within a year, averaging a book a week. It seemed easy to me, a fast reader, and at the beginning of 2018 I began a bullet journal with a place to list every book I read as the year went on. The challenge, however, would be that only new-to-me books could count.

What helped the most? Lists & Automation

As anyone who loves planning more than doing is want to do, I put together a list. It was December, and I wanted to start the challenge in the new year. This was perfect timing for every end-of-year best book list. I started a Google Spreadsheet and threw everything that looked even remotely interesting into a list. The goal was to have a list of books that I could look for in the library or in their ebook collection. I wouldn’t have to rely on roaming through the library, and I wouldn’t be taking a chance on something; they would already be vetted once by the listmakers, then vetted a second time by my decision as to whether or not they also sounded interesting to me. This included NPR’s Book Concierge, #2017damngoodbooks, New York Public Library Holiday Reading List, The Millions’ Year in Reading, my favorite authors’ Goodreads lists from items they reviewed, books highlighted in Elle and Vogue, the Reading Women podcast, the Books & Boba podcast, and almost anywhere else someone was recommending a book. I rushed in and ended up with a list of over 269 books. I recorded the author, title, a brief sentence about why it sounded interesting, and which source recommended it.

Using my library’s ebook platform was also a gamechanger. The last time I had tried to use a public library ebook was in 2006. For some reason, I never thought they would have improved over the past two decades. When I visited my library in person, which was possibly the first time I had been to a public library in one decade, I was informed that I could use the last four digits of my library card to access their ebook platform in Overdrive. I decided to visit it just for fun, and was pleasantly surprised by how aesthetically pleasing, browsable, and usable their collection was. And when I wanted to download an ebook, I had the option to get it through Amazon to my Kindle app. And by getting it through my Kindle app, my Goodreads page that I had left abandoned for yes, at least a decade, was automatically updated with when I began the book and when I finished it. Now that my app was taking care of keeping track for me, I loved being able to see everything I had read in Goodreads. While my journal list was a pleasure in itself, I loved being able to see my accumulation of books without having to hunt down each single one and manually add and update it. This automation reaffirmed my interest in the challenge. It helped me surround myself with more reminders of my challenge and feed it more interesting things to consume.

The results?

In 2018, I was proud to count 29 new books. While this didn’t reach my goal of 52 books, it forced me to try new things. Needing to count things made me want to count everything, including a 52,000 word fanfiction story. This was a huge leap from not reading any new titles at all, and I surprisingly found a few new favorite authors. I didn’t keep track of the abandoned books, but I did give myself permission to abandon at will. There was, and still is, a joy in writing a new title on the list. There were a couple of books that I pushed through just for the sheer pleasure of adding it to the list. This was the first year I did a bullet journal for my personal life, and having this list made me far more likely to refer back to it and keep it updated.

In 2019, I doubled that number with 59 books. I didn’t add as much to my list since I had plenty to choose from, but I did keep an eye on what the hot books were that year. My success in reading new things, regardless of the number count I had in mind, revitalized my reading habits and built a trust that there were plenty of wonderful books waiting for me. With a game plan and measure of success already behind me, I was able to achieve my initial goal of 52 books.

Keep it Challenging

As if the goal of 52 books wasn’t enough, in 2019 I wanted to push myself to read a little more broadly now that I was picking up new books with ease. The answer was to create a reading challenge. I took a look at the reading challenges on the Reading Women podcast, Bookriot, Pop Sugar, and others, and pulled out some of the challenges that seemed of interest. And in the spirit of the Reading Women podcast, only those written by women would count. I just barely completed it by deciding to count a book that only sort of represented the category. This challenge made me push through reading a nonfiction book, which I hadn’t done in a long time if ever. It prompted me to look into climate fiction, to look into authors outside of the US, and to look beyond the first set of most recommended (mostly male) authors. While my list of recommended books was great, it was sometimes difficult to decide which to go with when I was feeling indifferent. Having this criteria helped guide my choices and gave me a strong direction toward what to read next.

Looking Ahead

Currently, my bullet journal collection “New Books Read in 2020”  has 38 books listed. I’ve selected a number of categories from various Reading Challenges with the goal to only count one category per book (no double dipping). While my personal challenge takes a little from everything and is my core challenge, I’ve also prepared a bit of spillover. Sometimes I might want to read a book that doesn’t ‘count.’ If it doesn’t count toward my self-selected core challenge, I am also keeping a sheet of every reading challenge I drew on to see if it fits in one of their other categories. I’m also keeping track of the authors’ gender, nationality, the number of pages in each book, which reading challenge(s) it could fulfill a category within, the genre of the book, and the publisher. This might be information overload, but I’m really interested in seeing how my reading varies when I have a core direction with the freedom to pursue other books as they become convenient.