Last week there was a piece in the Guardian by Richard Lea called The Bad Side of Goodreads’ Reading Challenge. I clicked because I’ve actually signed up to said challenge. For the most part, I disagreed with the piece – and I’ll tell you for why.
Goodreads, for those who don’t know it, is a massive online book catalogue used to track what you’ve read or want to read in the future, get recommendations and chat to likeminded people. This year they have also set up the aforementioned reading challenge, where users type in the number of books they want to read in 2014 and the site tracks your progress.
You can also compare yourself against your friends if that’s what makes you happy, and I assume it’ll say ‘well done’ when you reach your target – I’ll let you know when I’ve finished. So far, so innocuous – so what’s the bad side? Well, Lea’s main concern about the challenge is where it sits within the ‘commodification of literary culture.’ By encouraging people to track their progress and set targets, he suggests, Goodreads is changing the reading experience into a something more akin to a marketing exercise.
I see where he’s coming from, but I don’t really agree that this is a problem. This is purely personal, but I find setting myself targets and tracking my progress can be quite helpful – I’ve done it in other areas of my life successfully in the past. Lea suggests that if they get into the habit of reading in this way, people won’t take the time to soak up what’s in front of them – reading will become all about how much people can get through in a short space of time, rather than what you get out of the text itself. I suppose that’s a possibility for some, but it never occurred to me to approach it in that way and I can’t help thinking I am not alone.
I think it’s fair to say that it’s not the quantity you read that matters, it’s the quality, but to me it doesn’t follow that signing up for a challenge of this sort means participants will stop reading properly. After all, as the article points out, this whole thing is aimed at existing users of the Goodreads site – people who have proudly set up a profile on an online book database. These are the book nerds, right here – if they read quickly it’s not out of desire to get to the end more quickly as much as it’s physically difficult to put the damn thing down.
Far from ticking books off a list and immediately forgetting the contents as they move on to the next one, what I tend to see on Goodreads is people marking their book as ‘read’, then writing a review, and going on to read or comment on other people’s reviews of the same book. That’s a level of engagement I didn’t have before joining, because often none of my friends had read whatever it was I now go online to talk about. To be honest, I think making time to read a couple more books this year will only increase that feeling of engagement.
The other comment that rankled a bit for me was, ‘since when was reading any kind of challenge? Isn’t it supposed to be fun?’
To which my response is, why can’t setting yourself a challenge be fun? And we see that actually, the whole reason for this post is that I took Lea’s article as a personal slight.
Y’see, I’m fond of bookish challenges. The starting point of this whole website was to write a book every month, hence the title. The challenge aspect was important to me because it kept me motivated, and the experience improved my writing, showed me what I was capable of and was generally jolly good fun.
I signed up to the Goodreads challenge with the same mindset. Based on a spreadsheet I started keeping in 2012 (Ali, so cool right now), in 2012 I read 48 books and in 2013 I read 47. I also know that I read more in January (hibernation season) than I do in August (Edinburgh Fringe, forget about it) – because statistics are fun. Anyhoo, as someone who self-identifies as a ‘voracious reader’ (and sometime pretentious cow) I was a bit surprised that I wasn’t averaging at least one a week. My target, therefore, is to read one book a week this year – four or five more than my average.
I’m not beating myself up about this, I’m merely hoping that having a goal in mind will spur me on to make a bit of extra time for reading, in the same way 12 books pushed me to prioritise my writing time. If I don’t manage it, so what? It is, after all, just a bit of fun.
And I do agree with Richard Lea (and, I suspect, Goodreads) that ultimately, that’s what reading ought to be.