What I Learned from Reading 55 Books in 52 Weeks

My original goal was to read 52 books in 52 weeks last year. By the numbers – here are the results of my 2012 reading challenge:

2012 Reading Challenge Summary

I’d completed smaller reading challenges before – finishing John Updike’s Rabbit series in the course of a summer, reading a book I didn’t like by a certain deadline – but never so many over such a long period of time.

Chris Lam’s blog, What I Run Into, made me consider it; bumping into Chris at BlogWorld and hearing her enthusiasm for the endeavor gave me the encouragement (and some of the finer details) I needed.

So, 2012 became my year of reading in new, richer and more diverse ways. In large part, it was because I’d made a public declaration of the whole thing on my blog and, with other people’s interests in mind, I didn’t simply reach for books that matched my own tastes or do as much re-reading. And that was a good thing; it pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me more about character, plotting and critiquing in fiction and why it’s important not to meander and include every last detail when writing a nonfiction book or memoir.

Some things had to happen to accommodate my year of reading differently:

  • Fairly early, I recognized that my interest in older books didn’t necessarily translate; I began making an effort to incorporate at least one recently published book into my challenge each month, so my reviews reflected what you might find in bookstores.
  • I cancelled Netflix, and I don’t see it coming back in the future.
  • I joined Amazon Prime, which cost $79/year, but gave me free shipping on virtually everything I ordered and free streaming videos. (This is not an endorsement; I’m just reporting on a personal choice I made to facilitate faster reading.)
  • Magazine reading suffered significantly in 2012; I’m particularly looking forward to becoming reacquainted with my love of The Economist in ’13.
  • TV-watching diminished accordingly – I quite happily gave up vegging in front of shows I didn’t really care about, just to occupy my time. I had a schedule to stick to, so the TV got turned off and I read a lot more. (This is a habit I hope to keep in the new year!)
  • I deliberately didn’t read certain books this year. Right before I started the challenge, I’d completed the almost-1,000-page 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. There was no way I’d choose a book even half that length in 2012, which left out a lot of great books I was interested in reading.
  • Likewise, there were reference books and a couple of textbooks I wanted to read to refresh my skills, and I had no time for them.
  • I finally, finally, learned to set aside a book if it wasn’t a good read (those are the two unfinished books you see on the chart above; they aren’t included in the total of 55). I can walk out of a bad movie, I’ll pounce on the radio dial when I don’t want to listen to a song, but I’ve always given books the benefit of the doubt and kept plugging away at ‘em, no matter how many years it took or how miserable it made me. Critic Joe Queenan apparently is the same way: He says he once started a book in 1978 and finished it 34 years later “without enjoying a single minute of the enterprise.”

My Best of 2012 List

When you read 55 books in a year, some stand (way) out. Here are the ones that made the best impression on me in 2012:

Fiction

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin
Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares
How It All Began by Penelope Lively

Memoir

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Allison Bechdel
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

Nonfiction

The Social Media Strategist: Build a Successful Program from the Inside Out by Christopher Barger
Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

I’ll admit there were points along the way when I felt not that I couldn’t accomplish this challenge, but that 55 seemed like a low number. I’m a slow reader. I spend a good deal of time making sure what I’m reading really registers. I haven’t ever been able to scan.

Queenan, it turns out, is on board with this. In his charming essay, “My 6,128 Favorite Books,” he observes, “I do not speed-read books; it seems to defeat the whole purpose of the exercise, much like speed-eating a Porterhouse steak or applying the two-minute drill to sex.”

Like Queenan, I plan to continue to be part of the “slow reading movement,” taking maximum enjoyment from the things I read, even if it means my book-completion totals for the year remain down in the double-digits.

The thing I learned that will be most helpful to me in the future is the practice of reading one book at a time – especially if I’m on deadline to write a review, for example – because that focus is what kept me on track and ensured the completion not just of my weekly selection but of the entire year’s challenge.

Am I taking a vacation from reading?, you may wonder. Nope. I finished my 55th book of 2012 at 11:38 p.m. on Dec. 31. It was the harrowing The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. I didn’t want to go to sleep with those images in my head, so I grabbed the most lighthearted, fun book I had, Jennifer Weiner’s The Next Best Thing, and dove in, reading well past the changeover to the new year and into early morning.

I plan to keep going, minus imposed deadlines. This year, I’m mulling over a more personal challenge around my journal writing. This is writing I do just for me. I’ll let you know when I define that pursuit more clearly, but I won’t be publishing what I’m doing this time.

How about you? Are you planning a reading or writing challenge in 2013? What are you most looking forward to? What are you dreading?

Check back! Book Giveaway: starting Jan. 17, 2013 – As an appreciation for my readers who put up with this year-long reading challenge, I’m going to give away selections from my 2012 favorites list.

Listening and reading that inspired me this week:

NPR’s “Monkey See” gang discuss their reading, listening and TV- and movie-viewing resolutions for 2013 on the latest edition of their “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast.

One of the BlogHer bloggers offers a fantastic round-up of different types of reading challenges – from all-novels to getting through serializations – in this post. Beware! It may set you off on a reading challenge this year.

8 thoughts on “What I Learned from Reading 55 Books in 52 Weeks

  1. Hi!

    Thanks for the insight into your 2012 reading accomplishments.

    Like you, I sometimes slog through a terrible book until the bitter end, only to find myself saying: “Well, those are several days of my life that I’ll never get back!”

    A great tip that I picked up from this post is to try to read only one book at a time this year. Another one of my bad reading habits is to be reading a fiction, non-fiction and a “how-to” or reference book—all at the same time. I think it lessens my focus!

    My goals for this year? To write more and read more—and worry about dog training less. (Actually, “Annie” is almost 9 months old, and she’s (mostly) very well-behaved and a delight!)

    • Hi Rita,

      Thanks so much for your sweet note – I’m so glad you found this helpful.

      Writing more in 2013 is on my list, too. I look forward to more of your fantastic writing and photographs. Readers who love to travel, want great travel and sightseeing tips, and love spectacular photography will want to investigate Rita’s blog, One Day in America at http://onedayinamerica.blogspot.com/

      P.S. I hope your readers will get to “meet” Annie one of these days in a future blog post!!

      • Thanks for mentioning my blog, Vickie. It means a lot to me.

        As for “Annie”— yes, I think she’ll be showing up somewhere in a future blog post!

  2. Well done! I would love to know the 2 books you didn’t manage to finish? I’m like you and find it really hard not to finish a book i’ve started

    • Hi Hannah,

      Thank you so much for your nice comment.

      I’d read a great review in The Economist of the Brazilian novelist Lygia Fagundes Telles’ “The Girl in the Photograph.” I’ve been trying to expand my reading beyond the Americans and Brits, but I truly struggled with this one. It wasn’t the writing so much as the style – lengthy paragraphs and no breaks to indicate we’re in the head of one character versus another. I’m going to keep reading this, but I realized this one book may take me a whole month!

      The second one was a gift from my aunt. I can’t remember the title, but it was a novel based on the lives of her grandparents, who were missionaries in China. It turned out to be all proselytizing and not much story, sadly.

      How about you? Are you doing a reading challenge this year?

      • They both do sound difficult to get through, not surprised you didn’t!

        I’m not doing a ‘yearly’ reading challenge. I’m basically doing a lifetime reading challenge. I have a HUGE list of books to read, and i’m slowly getting through them and reviewing them. You can find out more about the list here: http://booksarethebest.com/about/

        The amount of books I have on the list though are enough to last me more than a lifetime, since i’m constantly adding to it!

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