I’m a heretic. I’ve known that about myself for forever, but the trait is becoming so pronounced as I age that others must be noticing it, too. Why should I be surprised, then, that I question the prevailing wisdom around reading challenges.
Personal reading challenges are all the rage. If one can read a given number of books (40 is trending at the moment) in a given time period (and the shorter the time period, the better!), one can claim the title of “wild reader,” a phrase coined by Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer, Reading in the Wild) to describe someone obsessed with reading. In fact, in her blog, Pernille Ripp, Wisconsin teacher and author, has confessed that she has failed her summer reading challenge—40 books. Not a surprise, really, to my way of thinking. I have always been suspicious of reading challenges like 40 books in the summer, maybe because, never having even approached such a lofty goal, I am a tad envious of those who do. So I did the math. Just to see.
What does it mean, in hours, to read 40 books during the summer?
First, I defined summer. Not the summer of seasons, but summer for a teacher, or, summer holidays: July 1 (June 30 is most often the last day of work for teachers in Canada) to August 17 (allowing for a two-week preparation period for school start-up), 48 days.
Second, I defined a book. I chose 250 pages as a reasonable length for a novel or non-fiction. Often, books far surpass this length, well, the books I tend to read, anyway, making the challenge even more daunting. Let’s keep it manageable, for the sake of argument.
What about reading rate? There’s another variable. How many words does an average person read per minute? Execuread says two minutes per page, or thirty pages per hour. For technical reading, the site indicates five to six minutes per page, or 15 pages per hour. Readers who comment on Goodreads cite 50 pages per hour. (I seldom read that fast. I like to reflect while I read, imagine, annotate, note, highlight, flag, and, often, record my impressions in my journal or in the margins of my book, and that slows me down.) Still, let’s opt for the higher number.
Now, for the number crunching. To read 40 books in 48 days, a person would have to read 1.2 books per day. lf the book has 250 pages, at 50 pages an hour, that would mean six hours of reading. Six hours of reading, every day, without fail, for 40 days, under the optimum conditions of short book, lots of time, and an impressive reading rate.
I read a lot in the summer—while traveling and out on the patio, mostly. I have read six hours in a day, a few times in my life, I think, plunged into an alternate universe and loathe to let go of the characters and the events in their lives. Most of the time, though, I snatch ten or fifteen minutes here and there to supplement the hour, maybe two, I designate for summer reading that doesn’t include the newspaper, articles I follow from Twitter feeds, and, of course, the analysis of the Riders’ current status. And that’s now that I’m “retired,” a person of few fixed obligations, not when I had a full-time job, three children and a husband at home to feed, as well as my parents to care for, liturgies to plan and my own musicianship to keep up, and executive roles in a few community organizations to fulfill.
The truth is that, despite its importance in a person’s life, summer trumps reading. Summer is for sizzling steaks, grilled vegetables, vibrant salads and wine spritzers shared with family and friends on the patio; beer and munchies with the neighbors in the middle of the afternoon; red wine on the deck with my husband at sunset; early morning walks to birds chirping, lawn mowers growling, carpenters hammering down shingles, and grain trucks in a queue at the elevator; long evening bike rides, and decadent cold treats just any time at all. I like to spend time at the piano, prepare delicacies, visit my children, explore other countries or hidden treasures in my own province.
I consider my life enriched, not deprived, because I like to vary my activities. That is the heresy. I still consider myself a wild reader, though. After all, I will read anything, leave my work to snatch a few more minutes with a good book or gobble up an article of interest in the current Maclean’s. I am not a “lost reader“ or a “bad reader,“ as Pernille Ripp describes herself in her blog post, “So I Failed My Own Reading Challenge and Learned Something New.” The wild reader in me is alive and well, not “[lying] within waiting to wake up.” It is just redefined and managed.
Nor do I think, as Ripp does, that life “life will be alright [sic] if I am not reading, (but maybe not as fantastic as it could be).” If my life is not fantastic, the tipping point would be health issues or challenges that friends or family face or my own struggle to support people in my life and in the world, not whether or not I have had my nose in a book for six hours a day. As much as reading enriches my life, the number of books I read is not a deal breaker.
Reading is a passion. I don’t want it to become a task, something I have to give up something else to do. Reading must continue to enrich my life, not detract from the plethora of worthwhile and significant ways I use my time. So, I will continue to track my reading, to have several eclectic books on the go at once, to allow myself to be distracted when I find an article I must read right now, to talk about books and keep book lists. I won’t, however, impose a reading challenge on myself or on anyone else, even if that makes me a heretic.