Gut of the Quantifier: Gaming my Goodreads Challenge
“Anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, and with extravagant enthusiasm.” – Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room
When I was in primary school, there were strict rules about how I should read. At home I pretty much had the run of my parents’ bookshelves, but at school there were rules which formed my reading habits and continue to guide my choices to this day.
The rules were simple. If I took a book out of the library (really a couple of bookshelves intersecting in the corner of a classroom, with a couple of requisitioned chairs), I had to finish it. No ifs, ands, or buts. This is how I came to finishing probably the first literary novel I picked up, that being Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I hated it, so much that not even the juvenile pleasure of seeing a Bad Word being repeatedly printed could coax me on or find me with much enjoyment.
The dictat that I must finish what I pick up, however, could coax me. And not only did I have to finish my books, I had to prove I had finished them by filling out a small (big at the time) report about the contents and how I felt about them.
It’s not a bad idea to try and teach kids that it is often a wise idea to finish what you start, and it’s not a bad idea to teach kids to reflect on what they have experienced. After all, we do then go on to force kids to read things, and to write about them, and it goes without saying that children should be encouraged to read. The early training certainly stood me in good stead.
We try hard to quantify this kind of thing. And yet what do the humanities teach except for things that can be hard to quantify? It is hard to quantify that a book isn’t working for you right now. It is hard to quantify that even though this book is certainly good, there are so many and life is short, and something else excites you right now.
It is hard to quantify that sometimes you feel you have learned as much as you can and want to put a book down, that there can be value in giving up, however unwilling we are to admit that.
There is a difference between reading a book and looking at every word in a book. I looked at every word in Huckleberry Finn, I didn’t read it. I couldn’t tell you much now except for the fact that Huck Finn had an abusive father and that Jim had an unfortunate epithet attached to his name.
Being forced to finish a book is not a nice feeling. At least when you’re studying it there’s some feeling of accomplishment, but honestly I tend to get less out of being forced to read a whole book than voluntarily reading only the first chapter, or first third, or half. I definitely tend to remember less when I force my way through, looking at, not reading, every word.
I don’t like being forced to finish books. So why do I like Goodreads so much?
I’ll lead by saying that I sincerely believe World of Warcraft fucked up my brain chemistry. It turned me into a rat pining for a box, and dog longing for someone to ring my bell. I have trouble feeling like I’m making progress unless I can see a number going up. I am a rat and I need pellets. Nice, quantifiable pellets.
So there’s Goodreads, a way to not only quantify and catalogue my reading, but also tell everyone that I’ve read Ulysses, Moby Dick, and Infinite Jest.
And it is awesome, and I love using it. But it’s tapped in to my psychology in a way that stops me being able to fully enjoy my reading.
You see, there’s such a thing on Goodreads as a reading challenge. At the start of the year, you can challenge yourself to read a certain number of books over the next 365 days. As you note down each book you’ve read, a little box in the sidebar keeps track of how many you’ve read that year, how many you have left to read. It lets you know how ahead of (or behind) schedule you are.
Awesome, awesome, awesome. Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage. And I need pellets.
Therein lies the rub.
Tying the reading to the pellet dispensing mechanism does have its pluses. Not only do you get the nice feeling of having read a good book, but you get to see a number go up, and even fill out a report if you want. Having small definable goals and tracking them is a good way of making progress.
But what if you’re not after progress?
What if you wanna read some poetry, but you don’t wanna read the collected works of Lord Byron? What if you feel like reading a single, short story, not an entire collection? Some Montaigne, not all of it?
What if you feel like trying War and Peace?
What began to happen, at least to me, was that any reading I did that I wasn’t necessarily going to finish felt like wasted reading. It wouldn’t make the number go up. I wouldn’t get a pellet.
It warped my reading. I wouldn’t pick up a book to while away the time or be interested. Instead I’d pick up a book to make progress. If I didn’t feel like reading the book I was making progress with at the time, I just wouldn’t read. I’d stop dipping in to collections. My view got narrower. I’d only pick up poetry if I was prepared to read all of it. Same for essays. Same for short stories. That is a broad swathe of literature I found myself less interested in for no real reason. I wouldn’t take a risk on a bigger book, because if I gave up after 200 pages, it was “wasted time”. (This is a testament to how good Infinite Jest is. It got me and kept me despite the fact that I could have read ten other books in that time). I was disproportionately interested in novellas and short novels. I’d give books up before they really got going, for fear of making progress that wouldn’t be counted.
That’s no way to live a reading life.
Yes, there is value in a finished book. But there is value in an unfinished book, too, and we should be free to pick up and put down as we please. Our reading, first of all, should turn us on, not off.
And tracking my progress is turning me off, despite the tasty pellets.
So I’m gonna game my reading challenge. For example, some Poe stories I read in a collection earlier this year, despite the nagging voice in my voice that said “But you won’t finish the collection”, have been published as stand alone books. I shall mark them as read. I am gonna read really short books for the rest of the year, to get my challenge done. All I care about is getting that number high enough.
It will be different next year.
I am going to go in, out, around. I will read exactly as much as I want, of whatever it is that pleases me at the time. I’ll make time to read bigger books, and not fear stepping away from them. I’ll read more poems, and really read them, not just look at every word in the collection so I can tick the box.
I’m still gonna set a challenge next year, but I’m gonna set the bar much, much lower. I am gonna give myself the time and space that I’ve always had, back to myself. But I’m still gonna do the challenge. After all, there’s a profile badge at stake.