The Problem with the Goodreads Reading Challenge

 
The Goodreads reading challenge is a great way to challenge yourself to read more. Every year, you choose a number of books you want to read and see if you hit your target. Whether it’s effective or not is hard to say, but it has certainly motivated me.

Theory vs Practice

In theory, this sounds great. You should read more, and everything that pushes you in that direction is welcome. The goal of reading more though, is only a means to an end. You read for information, enjoyment, or both. You want to be careful that the means don’t become more important than the ends: At some point, reading more books leads to less information and enjoyment.

Imagine two people, person A and person B. A reads 300 books a year, while B only reads 10. Person A reads 30 times as much as person B and receives more information.

Now, what if those two people spent the exact same amount of time reading? The person who reads 10 books a year spends a great deal of time with each book. They have time to explore the details of the authors’ message, think deeply about both the validity and the consequences of every point made. The person who reads 300 might understand the general message, but makes no changes in either their world-view or actions.

Person B has come out on top. You can liken person A to someone who only reads short articles. Sure, they receive a lot of information, but how much will stick? They might tell themselves that the time was well spent, but if the only marks left are decaying memories, it wasn’t. Person B, on the other hand, has grappled with the authors’ message. Either they understand why the book is wrong, has strengthened their own position, or changed their mind and actions. That’s a lot better than decaying memories.

This highlights an important fact: The absolute amount of information you read matters little. It’s the changes that information sparks that are important, whether those be in mindset or action.

Alternatives

There’s a point where spending too much time on a book is dumb as well. The art then, is adjusting your level of engagement according to the value of the book. Of course, you don’t know the value before you read it, but basic research can tell you a lot. If you don’t feel like skimming like some Luddite, there are sites like Blinkist where you’ll get ready-made summaries.

For now, I’ll categorize each book I’ll read in one of three categories:

  1. You’re reading for enjoyment and additional steps to read thoroughly wouldn’t help you reach that end. The classic example here is fiction.
  2. You’re reading partly for enjoyment and partly for insight. If something catches your eye, it’s worth extra attention, otherwise, though, you’re fine blasting through. This is the way I’d read most non-fiction.
  3. The goal is complete mastery. Whether you just want to understand, or you think the author has solved a problem you’re struggling with, you want to know everything the book has to tell you. This reading is not done half asleep in your bed, you have to read actively. Important textbooks are examples of books you’d want to read like this.

Closing Thoughts

How you’d read a book in the third category is the million dollar question. In search of a solution, I’ve picked up Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. I’ll publish an article detailing my insights, but for now, I have nothing of value. If you have any insights, feel free to share here.

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