The Problem With Reading Competitively

Why I'm Not Resolving To Read More Books Next Year

Many of us readers like to think of ourselves as unlike everyone else. We’re not macho or ego-driven, but retiring, introspective, and thoughtful, right? But anyone who’s spent time around bookworms knows we can be deeply competitive, whether we’re airily noting the time we read War and Peace in seventh grade or offhandedly mentioning that we read 200 books a year, no big deal. These two forms of literary competition tend to belong to warring factions, the snobs and the every-reader. The snob turns up her nose at the idea that reading 15 Y.A. books means anything at all, as she prefers to read Dostoevsky; the every-reader reviles snobs who “tell people how to read,” but often loves to humblebrag about how many books (Y.A. or non-) he plowed through last week. Regardless, we’re almost all competing, on some level, to be the best, most readery reader we know.

Increasingly, with literary snobbishness on its heels (after all, it’s hard to love a snob), the every-reader seems to be dictating the rules, and the rules of the game are: read more books and win. New Year’s is a particularly competitive season, as we tot up our year’s worth of books and set more ambitious goals for next year. People write articles or tweets about their own reading resolutions, and suddenly even our ambitious goals seem pathetic, and must be augmented again. One writer felt the need to assure readers that though she’s not taking the Goodreads Reading Challenge in 2015, she’ll probably still read 100 books this year -- yes, even when we’re not competing, we’re competing.

Admittedly, it’s hard to resist a little competition. For those of us who loved reading as kids, we quickly learned to associate reading massive piles of books with earning Accelerated Reader points and personal pan pizzas, and it’s hard to let go of that feeling of urgency even when we supposedly mature. My boyfriend has even gotten into it by proxy. Recently, he mentioned that a friend had told him that his wife reads 10 books a month. In a somewhat smug tone, he added, “I bet you read more than that, though, right?” Yep, just two bros, arguing over whose significant other reads more books every 30 days. I felt a petty urge to say “Yeah, of course,” but I knew I couldn’t -- and what’s more, I suddenly hated the part of myself that cared about “winning.”

There’s a quote I often see on literary Pinterests and Facebook walls, usually Photoshopped onto an image of dusty bookshelves: “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” This quote, attributed to Mortimer J. Adler, the author of How to Read a Book, espouses an easy-to-love sentiment: It’s not about winning, but about having a rich experience. Yet how many of us self-identified bookworms love to casually drop into conversation that we read a book a day, or avidly update our Goodreads pages to ensure everyone knows we’ve read yet another book?

Last year, my New Year’s resolution was to be a better reader, and it led to a blissful year of reading. Instead of spending my evenings with Netflix, I spent them with novels -- usually -- and I convinced my boyfriend to lower the volume of his football games so I could read on the couch without finding myself watching NFL RedZone all day. After starting as an editor at HuffPost Books, things have only gotten better. A friend asked me the other day if reading for work makes it less fun, and I honestly answered no; reading is a skill that grows more pleasurable and fulfilling the more we practice it, and being pushed to read more only enhances my joy in it.

That said, I shy away from set resolutions to read a certain number of books next year. Pushing myself to read more and more books can lead to undesirable consequences -- dismissing longer or more difficult books as too much of a time investment, racing through books that would yield more if I read them more slowly. I don't just want to become a more prolific reader, but a better reader, and, in the words of Mortimer Adler, "You must tackle books that are beyond you ... unless you stretch, you will not learn." Active, difficult reading takes time away from speeding through a checklist, but the rewards are far greater.

There’s a small, competitive voice in my head urging me to make 2015 the year I read more books than ever, but my New Year’s resolution is to ignore that voice. I’m not even going to resolve to read the “impressive” books I shamefully long to be able to drop into party conversation, like Ulysses or Infinite Jest, though I plan to read them someday (apparently they're pretty good). Instead, I’m just resolving to use my reading time more meaningfully, not getting through books but letting them get through to me. I want to take more notes, maybe even annotate my pristine pages, and invest my time in fully exploring those books that offer the most to me as a reader.

I want 2015 to be the year that I don’t pick up the 170-page book solely because the 600-page one would prevent me from carving new notches on my bookcase. After all, one of the best books I read this year demanded great commitment and many hours from me -- far more than most I read -- and it was worth every second. I want to read complex, stylized books like Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing slowly, deliberately, examining the artistic choices and subtleties of meaning, not hastily, with a buzz in the back of my head reminding me of all the other books I need to get to next.

We’ve long been proponents here at HuffPost Books of unaccelerated, even slow reading. This year, I am resolving to apply that philosophy more mindfully to my own reading practices. Here’s hoping that we’ll all stop feeling like we have to read at the speed of light -- and make sure everyone knows -- in the new year.

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