Taking the 50 book pledge…yay or nay?

50My last blog post was on setting reading goals. It got me thinking about the whole 50 book pledge thing and whether it is a good idea or not.

For those who aren’t familiar with this: there is a thing (I don’t know whether to call it a movement or what) where you commit to reading 50 books in a year. It is recognized, at least by me, as an accomplishment. Let’s break that down for a second, it’s basically reading one book per week. That is a commitment.

A few years ago, I thought I would take this on. First, I did think it would add to my book nerd street cred. Second, at the time I had some free time on my hands and thought it would be the perfect time to do it.

I’m not going to lie to you: it was hard work.  Not like working in a mine or doing brain surgery or fighting fires hard work. But it was something I definitely had to work at. And there were times where I didn’t think I was going to make it. Not to keep you in suspense, but I did make it and even got past 50 books to a total of 54 books read. Whew.

The good

Priority on reading: it definitely made me choose reading over doing other things. Not like I chose reading over like going to work, or spending time with friends, but I did choose reading over watching the same episode of Big Bang Theory or playing endless games of Candy Crush.

Bragging rights: when I told people that I was planning to read 50 books in a year, they were shocked and impressed. Not gonna lie, that was kind of cool. Some people run marathons, I read 50 books.

Sense of accomplishment: I am actually really proud of doing that. It was a commitment and I got it done. And as silly as it might sound, when I take on trying to do other things I do think back to that and remind myself when I put my mind to something I can get it done.

The bad

Picking books: If you have to get through one book a week, you need to pick books that you can get through quickly. This was not the time to tackle Infinite Jest or a meaty non-fiction biography. Is that gaming the system? I did feel a bit bad about it, but then realized it was my goal and I got to make up the rules.

Pressure: It was a bit silly, but I did feel pressure. Let’s be clear, lives would not have been lost if I didn’t make it. But I really wanted to make it happen, and the pressure built the closer I got to 50. You don’t want to get to 48 books on December 31.

The verdict

If you are a reader and want a stretch goal, I highly recommend this. I think it’a pretty cool accomplishment. It does help you to focus your time and choose reading over ‘mindless’ activities.

My take on reading goals

reading challengeSo, following up on Barb’s post on reading goals, I thought I would put my own perspective in.  I know it is considered declasse by people in the serious literary set, who, it turns out, are drunk a lot.  I know, you should love reading and you shouldn’t need goals and all that.  Quality over quantity.  I get it.

I do a goal and I like it.  As Barb mentioned, it is important to remember that a goal is just a goal.  A target.  You are not on the Bataan Death March.  It’s a goal, designed to encourage a certain level of activity but not to suspend all reason.  (Something I have seen put in less positive terms on numerous performance reviews.)

So, with that in mind, I just kind of kept it in my mind that I wasn’t going to start reading short books just to make the goal.  We read War and Peace and Infinite Jest the last two years, each of which was the equivalent of four smaller books, and which are not reading goal friendly, but I don’t want to stop doing that, so I just keep it kind of loose and don’t get wrapped up in the goal too much.  I might mentally add it in, for my own purposes.

Also, if I read all of a literary journal, that’s a book.nerds

At one point, I was thinking, you know, there could be like a book equivalency of pages, like an FTE or some kind of sports stat, a truly evolved metric with a ∑ in it, and then I thought, maybe you are taking the book nerd thing a little too literally.

The main thing I like about goals is that when you get to the end of the year, you don’t get that “what did I do with my year” feeling, which no one likes.  I need to get next year’s goal set up…



It’s that time of year: reading goals!

goalsOnce the calendar turns over to December, the natural tendency is to start reflecting on the year that was, and for the year that is to come. Some people make resolutions, some people don’t. But there is a vast majority of book nerds who will definitely be making a reading goal.

Truthfully, I never really did until a few years ago. A friend of mine asked me how many books I read in a year, and I honestly didn’t know. I was like “I dunno….12…15?” She seemed to have strong opinions that I read more than that. So I started tracking – thank goodness for Goodreads. I read 45 books that year. WHAT?!?! I was actually surprised. (And had to admit to my friend she was right.)

One of the cool things, at least I think, about Goodreads is the annual reading challenge. If you aren’t familiar with this, you can set the number of books you think you are going to read during the year and the widget tracks your progress against that goal. There is something very satisfying watching the progress bar and seeing that you are on track to meet your goal (or panic because you are behind).

You might ask, who cares about a reading goal? Truthfully no one, really. Lives are not lost and it doesn’t make you a better or worse person if you meet the goal, or whether you read 1 book or 50. (I mean, look, I do think you are a better person if you read, but if you can manage 1 book in a year, I give you props!)

So how do you pick a goal? For me, with my schedule, working etc. I figure easily I can read 2 books a month. That puts me at 24. I like to stretch it a bit – so I usually set it at around 30. I tend to read shorter, lighter books so it’s not too difficult to get there. If I was reading biographies and historical non-fiction – I might not get through that many.

Should you make a goal? Sure! I think it’s fun. Ok, maybe not like FUN fun. But it definitely does help to keep my on track with reading. If I see that I am falling behind my goal, I might start to give up a half hour playing Animal Crossing and read instead.

Here is what I believe at the end of the day, reading is good for you and it should be fun and pleasurable. I think if you choose to spend some of your spare time reading, that is a win. So if you read 0 books this year, set a goal for 1. Trust me, you will thank me later.

On making book recommendations…

1442812302_360x360A friend recently said to me “I am looking for a book to read, any suggestions?”

My initial reaction: my mind goes blank, I can’t seem to remember any actual book titles I’ve read and I break out into a cold sweat. (Ok, not really.)

Here is the thing, books are so subjective. Just because I think a book is awesome, does not guarantee that you are going to love it. Or even like it for that matter.

I am assuming if you are reading this you are a book nerd too, and you come up against this question lots of times. I don’t think I am the only one who struggles with this. Maybe struggles is a strong word, but you get what I mean. I feel like when I make a book suggestion my book nerd cred is on the line.

Obviously, the fist question is what other books do you like? I mean, there are a vast number of books, genres, topics….just because I loved the Night Circus, doesn’t mean that you will. And just because you loved The Goldfinch doesn’t mean I am going to lose your phone number and never speak to you again.

I am sure we all have books in our ‘always recommend’ list that we can pull out at any time. The thing is, if your favourite book is The Biography of Rutherford B. Hayes, I am probably not going to suggest that you read 50 Shades of Grey. I mean, who knows, I don’t know anything about Rutherford Hayes and who knows if there is a common thread between the two…but I digress…

My husband would argue that a good story is a good story no matter what the subject. I don’t disagree. However, when I do tell people that The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power by Robert Caro is an awesome book, I usually get a deer in the headlight look. So I might not go out first with that recommendation. (Trust me, it is an awesome book! I know, I was surprised too!)

Maybe the answer is that I need to lower my expectations of myself by being the book whisperer. So I am just going to go on to Goodreads and sort by my highest rated books and pick a few of my faves….

Here is what I have for you:

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

There you go! My official book-nerd picks (at least for today).

Let me know if you have any other books that you have on your always recommend list, I would love to hear about them.




What to read?

So how do you figure out what to read?  This is a challenge that I suspect all of the book nerds out in Booknerdland will identify with.  No matter how avid a reader you are, there is only so much time you can read, and you want to make sure that you are enjoying everything you read.

This is not easy.  There are SO many books published every year, and so many of them are quality, especially when you consider the arduous process of getting published in the first place.  In fact, they could never publish another book again, and you could spend the rest of your life reading great stuff that has already been published.

So, with all of these book options, how does a discerning reading find things to read?

My method, which I have been using for a number of years, is to wait until December and review two book lists:  the New York Times Notable 100 books and The Economist books of the year.

The theory here is that these books have been vetted by people who have high standards. A book might end up not being to your taste, but at least they won’t be “bad.”  And they are likely to be significant–representing the highest levels of literary achievement for the year.

Also, this method is good because it gives access to high-level fiction and non-fiction books, which is important to me.

From there, I print the lists out and then sit and circle the ones that seem interesting to me.  Pro tip:  some of the books on these lists are pedantic in the extreme.  If you search for words like “engaging” and “readable” and “compelling” you will find the more accessible options.

Then, those books get transferred to my wishlist and then after that when I need something to read, I scan the list and pick one out.  They can stay on the list forever, which is good because sometimes you are at a used bookstore and you see one of the books from the back end of your wishlist, and let’s be serious, a notable bio of Rutherford B. Hayes is every bit as notable in 2017 and it was in 2011.

This is how I get 90% of my reading choices.  The other ones are gifts and…once in a while…I will go to the bookstore and walk up to the staff picks shelf and just pick one that I never heard of before.

too-many-booksI know what the big objection is:  FOMO.  Fear of missing out.  Am I restricting myself to the establishment, mainstream choices available from the New York Times and The Economist?  Are there great books they will never expose me to?

The answer is yes.  No matter how you do it, there will be great books you do not read in any given year or lifetime.  That’s just how it goes.  You have only so much capacity, and it is dwarfed by the supply.

Once you accept that, then you have to make selections.  I’m sure there are other notable book lists that could be used as well.  By the way, the NYT 2017 notable books are out, if you decide to take a look.

Buddy system: reading hard books

imagesI am not a book club gal. I feel bad for admitting that….I’ve tried it, but it just wasn’t for me. I get that the lure of a book club is the social part. But let’s face it, I am an introvert, and I am looking for ways to avoid socializing.

As much as I think of reading as a solitary act (usually me in my PJ’s with some coffee in my comfy chair), I have come across some situations where it would be helpful to read in a group setting, or at least with a buddy. It’s what I am calling hard books – like those books on your book bucket list that you think, yeah I really should get to that someday, but not necessarily today.

On my book bucket list was to read Infinite Jest. I had looked at it, pondered buying it (wasn’t sure how I was going to carry that kind of book around on the subway), actually watched people read it on the subway. But I could never pull the trigger. My husband and I decided to try reading it together (not literally together, that would be weird). We figured it would give us a better chance to finish it, or at least to talk each other through the (more than) 1,000 pages and endless footnotes.

You know what, it worked. Here is why:

Accountability: there is a less than 0% chance that I would have finished Infinite Jest if I had read it alone. Actually, I would have pulled the plug by page 50. Knowing that we were both in it together kept me moving forward. I didn’t want it to become a ‘thing’ – that time that YOU didn’t finish reading Infinite Jest.

Talking about it: we chose to blog about it. I think that if you choose to discuss it, or email someone about it, it helps you to think more about what you are reading, and what you are going to say. It makes you pay more attention and actually to try and get something out of what you are reading (even if it gives you the howling fantods).

Moral support: I had a very difficult time getting through the book. Having someone to vent to, and who understood why it was difficult to read helped a lot. Even though we took breaks during the project, we always came back to it. I think that if it was up to me, I would have definitely just let it be.

Something in common: this gave us something to talk about. It was definitely a conversation starter. Also, it was something that we did together, which was pretty cool.

It doesn’t have to be a difficult book, but I would highly recommend having a book buddy to read with. However, if there is something on your TBR list that seems daunting, finding a kindred spirit that you can do a read-along with, will definitely help you get through it.


guy fawkesSo, still working my way through the Year of Lear by James Shapiro, which is excellent.  I mentioned before that the book is about the year when Shakespeare wrote King Lear and MacBeth.  It was also the year of the Gunpowder Plot, known to every British youth as “Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November.”

So, your key storyline here is that the Catholics are being persecuted by the Protestants in England.  It is serious, along the lines of any other religious persecution, you might want to find, even the pre-final solution days of the Holocaust.

In modern terms, England/Britain was a police state, with the same ubiquity of surveillance and oppression of speech that we saw in Leaving Berlin.

So, the Jesuits came in from outside the country to provide sacraments to Catholics, any of who could put brutally executed if caught.  People actually built houses designed to hide priests.

So here is the thing.  This is a pre-fifth-amendment world.  You could be forced to testify against yourself and you were, in fact, required to. (This is where the Fifth Amendment came from).  So, the Jesuits develop a theory of equivocation, which meant that because God knew your thoughts, it was OK to lie under the right circumstances.

This was a huge controversy.  People were drawn and quartered over this very issue, which was used to prove the moral weakness of the Papists.

There are a lot of interesting sides to this.  One of them, though, is the impact it had on storytelling.  Because, whatever you might want to say, storytelling is a form of lying, even true storytelling.  Shapiro writes:

And what else did playwrights do, in an age of theatrical censorship, but encourage actors to say one thing while slyly pointing at another?

Of course, we know this is true, even when there is no censorship.  You only have to read the summaries of three random Shakespeare plays to see some of the most complex subterfuges which often flip on themselves until they reach a bewildering scale.  He didn’t just portray everyday equivocation, borne of human weakness, but true strategic and intentional equivocation, borne of bad intentions.

It had to be that way because drama is about conflict and usually that’s between good and evil.  That’s a timeless idea.

But the passage above brings another element into the question, which is the idea of censorship and repression.

And this is another timeless idea:  that artists sneak social criticism into the work and get away with it because it’s just a story.  Here, Shakespeare is no different than Vaclav Havel.

Shapiro points us to Sonnet 138 to make one last point, and that is the naive idea that you can “root out” equivocation is “dangerously naive.”  This is true if no other reason than this:  many times the truth is punished.

He only quoted the first two lines of Sonnet 138, but I’m going to put the whole thing in here.  It is pretty beautiful when viewed both at the level it was written…and at the symbolic level we are discussing here.

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
Oh, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
    Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
    And in our faults by lies we flattered be.