Quantified Reading

Today while I was out running errands, I made myself return a library book I hadn’t finished. It was a collection of short stories; I read three, but they weren’t really grabbing me. But . . . I had read three. Wouldn’t that time be “wasted” if I didn’t finish the book? Did those stories count if I couldn’t record the book as “read” on Goodreads or in my reading notebook?

Yes, these are the questions that plague a reader whose reading is too often governed by guilt, or a misplaced sense of responsibility, or rules–or just a lifetime of doing and assigning homework. Can I skim? Can I start a series in the middle? Read it out of order? Just read some of a collection of stories or poems? Does my reading have value if I didn’t finish the “assignment”? Of course it does! I advise my students that they can’t read every word they’re assigned and teach them how to read strategically. Why not take my own advice? (Never my strong suit….)

Of course reading for pleasure isn’t the same as reading for school. But just like my students, I may get something of value out of “incomplete” reading. For example, I don’t regret reading those three stories in the book I returned today; I just don’t feel like reading more.

Earlier this year, I read about half of Fernando Aramburu’s 600-page novel Homeland. I found it interesting, if somewhat slow. But around 300 pages I thought I’ve read a ‘normal’ novel’s worth of this book and I don’t think it’s going to show me anything in the second half I haven’t already seen in the first. I renewed it. I let it sit on my bedroom bookshelf for a few weeks while I read other things. And then I returned it unfinished. That first half was a decent reading experience, but it was enough. Maybe I’m wrong and I missed out on an amazing and surprising second half, but the world is full of great books I’m going to miss out on.

I didn’t record that half-reading of Homeland anywhere, because it didn’t “count.” Quite literally didn’t count, in the case of Goodreads, where I participate in the Reading Challenge so I see how many books I’ve read this year every time I log in. But why should reading a 300-page book to the end matter more in my reading life than reading half of a 600-pager? I’m still thinking about Aramburu’s portrait of a pair of Basque families caught up in civil conflict, even though I didn’t finish the book.

Of course reading an entire book is a different experience from reading part, but especially with a story, poetry, or essay collection, is completion a meaningful goal? Recently I was browsing new poetry acquisitions at the library and saw Oblivion Banjo by Charles Wright. But then I realized this was a collected poems and over 700 pages. No way I’ll get through that before it’s due back, I thought, and requested an older and shorter collection by Wright instead. But why did I feel I had to read the whole thing? I could have browsed through it, reading a handful of poems. It’s not the first collected poems I’ve rejected for length, either.

Why am I letting Goodreads count my yearly reading? Quantity is the thing I care about least when it comes to reading. And I’m letting counting–and making rules about what I can “count”–limit my reading choices.

I don’t really want to record partially read books on Goodreads, since “DNF” often has a pejorative connotation in online reading circles that I don’t apply to the experiences I’m thinking about here. But I think I’ll record them as partly read in my notebook, and give myself permission to check out those chunkster collected poems and read just a few. I’m pretty sure those will be worthwhile reading experiences.

But why do I need to record them at all? Do I still need to make my reading “count” in some way? Look, I did my homework! Aren’t I good? I’ll tell myself it’s just so I can look back and remember what I read. One step at a time.

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8 Responses to Quantified Reading

  1. Sunita says:

    I can so totally relate to this post. It’s much of why I eventually left Goodreads, despite knowing I would no longer be able to talk to real reading friends. The quantification just started to feel unhealthy. On the one hand, quantifying helped me achieve goals when I wasn’t reading what I wanted to. On the other, once I was reading in a satisfying way, it became superfluous and even counter-productive: e.g., what do I gain from reading a book with a blue cover?

    It’s hard to let go, though. I’m still paying attention to awards lists and my various goals. It’s a process. 😉

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, awards lists have led me to some wonderful discoveries. I enjoyed the year or two I read (almost all) the Booker list, because others were doing it too and it led to some good conversations. But I enjoyed picking and choosing a few I was most interested in this year, too. Goodreads just reinforces tendencies I already had. But I think if I drop the reading challenge so I’m not keeping a running count, it will bother me much less.

  2. willaful says:

    I relate as well. I’ve been keeping track of my reading for so long, I can’t imagine a life in which I don’t do it. But when I did it by hand on paper, it was much less of a numbers game.

    Incidentally, I used to record all DNFs (my record is private, so no issues there) but at some point dropped recording unfinished books which made no impact on me. I tag those I skimmed or skipped parts of.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Willa! It’s so lovely to hear from you. I don’t feel the need to record most of the books I abandon. But if I read part of something (like essay/story collection) and that part was meaningful, I think I want a record of it. As I get older, especially, I feel like if I don’t keep some record I’ll have no memory of what I read, and I like looking back and thinking “Oh yeah, that was good!” Or remembering that I read first in a series and meant to read more! In the deluge of books (and I’m aware of so many more in the online age) it’s easy to lose track of things like that.

  3. Ros says:

    This post makes me very glad that I have never attempted to track my reading at all. It just sucks so much of the pleasure out of it for me. I have set myself occasional challenges (read a Big Fat Book, read one non-fiction book a month etc) but even those have minimal tracking. It’s okay to just read.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I like keeping track just for my memory’s sake, but it’s so easy for me to turn that record into judging myself. That’s what I hope to avoid. And I only started keeping a record of my reading when I became an Online Reader, which says something about what motivated me….

  4. Keeping track of my reading has been a mostly positive experience for me. I had tried many methods over the years from keeping notebooks, keeping spreadsheets, but nothing works as well as Goodreads for me. The impact it has had on me though is that for many years I completely ceased reading magazines because I couldn’t list them. In the past year I have started reading fave mags and it has been quite satisfying. As for listing my DNFs (or partial read), I mainly do it so that I don’t absentmindedly reread it.

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