Tracking how many books you read and setting a goal to increase that number. Resolving to read everything by a particular author. Challenging yourself to read outside your comfort zone and try genres you’re not usually drawn to. Working your way through a list of “must-read classics”. Reading challenges of this ilk are two a penny on bookish social platforms, especially at this time of year when many of us have committed to do this, that or the other (or to not do this, that or the other when it comes to giving up bad habits!) as part of noble new year, new me resolutions.

On the face of it, given that they usually lead to participants reading more, such challenges seem to serve a fabulous purpose. 

Here’s a run-down of the pros of reading challenges:

The value of reading 

From enhancing empathy and improving mental health, to prolonging your life (yep, there’s evidence!), there are stacks of reasons reading is good for you. So, reading more as a result of embarking on a reading challenge has to be a good thing, right?

The value of goals

Having a specific goal often serves the valuable purpose of spurring us on, putting paid to giving up too easily. In the case of reading challenges, goals can also prevent us from slipping into a reading slump. 

For example, after finishing one book or challenge, rather than getting stuck in limbo, procrastinating what to read next, you simply launch into your next challenge. That’s especially do-able if you’re part of a reading community, which leads us onto the next pro of reading challenges…

The value of community (and competition)

If you’re doing your challenge as part of a book club or online community, reading becomes social, with a sense of competition adding to the urge to succeed. 

In this case, success usually means reading more, which brings us full circle to our first point. Namely, reading more means having more opportunity to reap the rewards of reading. What’s not to like? 

Well, actually, it’s not quite so simple. In fact, there’s something about reading challenges that leave us feeling a little uncomfortable. Here’s why…

The cons of reading challenges:

Quantity is not quality

In our view, quality engagement with a story — or subject matter in the case of non-fiction — is the pivotal motivator, rather than a spurious number. There seems little point in racing through a book to meet your target without really taking something from a writer’s work. Isn’t engagement one of the principle pleasures and purposes of reading? Isn’t being moved/excited/edified by words and ideas what makes reading so special? Which leads us onto our next reason to consider binning reading challenges…

Reading could become a joyless chore

If it’s all about the numbers and sense of completing a challenge, where does that leave reading for the pure joy of it? The experience of reading is a deeply personal magic we feel as a result of discovering books that speak to us. Books that compel us to keep reading to the end. Books that might just drive us to read something else afterwards. 

No worries if you don’t finish, though. And no worries if a book doesn’t light your fire. In short, as raised in our feature on reasons to abandon novels you’re not that into, reading for the sake of reading defeats the point of reading in the first place. 

Competition can engender elitist one-upmanship and a feeling of failure

A sense of competition within groups has a habit of creating a split between those who fly high and those who are struggling, or taking their time. Depending on which camp you fall into, comparing yourself with others doing the same reading challenge could lead to feeling like a failure, or being puffed up with a sense of superiority.

In some ways, this divide sits in a wider context of literary elitism — it’s true to say that some publishers, “highbrow” critics and hardcore readers still look down their noses at certain genres or authors. And that just isn’t on, folks.

Because reading matters and books change lives, we’ve nailed our colours to the “reading is for everyone” mast, from reluctant child readers who struggle to stay focussed, to adults who’ve yet to find their reading mojo. And no one should be castigated for not reading enough, or for not reading the “right” thing. It’s not big, it’s not clever, and it’s certainly not in line with what makes reading magic.

So, maybe it’s time to forget the reading “challenge”. Let’s return to loving reading for the unadulterated joy of it. And that doesn’t come from racking up numbers. Rather, it comes from finding books that are right for you, and reading them in your own sweet time.