I’ve known for a while that I don’t work well without deadlines. It turns out, however, that I also don’t make time for many things I enjoy without deadlines, or at least goals. I love playing violin, for example, but my practice habits are abysmal without an upcoming performance looming. I also love reading, writing, and composing music, but without a bit of structure and self-discipline I’m much more likely to spend a free hour watching Netflix than picking up a book. Middle-school me would be disappointed.
This is part of the reason I set a goal every year for how many books I will read using goodreads.com’s Reading Challenge feature. After a few glorious failures (turns out one hundred and seventy were both a tad optimistic), I’ve settled in at a goal of 50 books per year. I’ve succeeded and been close twice, and this year I’m on track to leave it behind in my literary dust.
The incentive to complete the challenge—to “win”—has almost certainly motivated me to read for fun more than I otherwise would. But it’s had some other effects on my reading habits as well, habits I’ve started to interrogate a bit and hope to change in 2019.
For one thing, I’ve tended to prioritize speed over depth. After all, I only have so many hours to read for fun given the demands of classes, rehearsals, other people, sleep, and—you know—Netflix. Gotta take advantage of them if I want that little bar graph full at the end of December. So I could spend a little time thinking or journaling about the book I’ve just finished, but it makes more sense just to get on with the next one. This, in turn, means I remember far less about the books I read than I’d like.
These challenges have also led me to avoid the types of books that don’t feel like progress. I’ve steered clear of lengthy books that I otherwise want to read because I could get through several 200-pagers in the same amount of time. And while I occasionally open a book of poetry and let serendipity (or providence) guide me, that also feels a bit like wasting time.
So this is my solution: a different kind of discipline. I’ve made a list of twenty authors—twelve who wrote after 1900 and eight from the centuries before—whose work I’m going to limit myself to. Some of them are favorites long overdue for a re-read (Lewis, Tolkien). Others are classics I’m a bit ashamed to have largely missed out on (Dante, Dostoevsky). But probably the largest group are authors I’ve read but whom I want to get to know better (Zadie Smith, Isabel Allende, even Plato).
Some of these authors, like Julian of Norwich and George Herbert, have only a small corpus of devotional texts that I’ve already read most of, but I think they will reward the kind of slow, meditative perusal that reading challenges discouraged me from.
I agonized at length over the list-making process, trying to balance genres, time periods, faith traditions, genders, ethnicities, and percentages of an author’s work I’d previously read. Those factors all played a role, but in the end, this is just a list of twenty people I’m excited to learn from next year. If this whole thing works, maybe I’ll do it again in 2020 and fill some of the gaping holes. Which is to say that I’ll take criticism of the list under consideration, but I reserve the right to respectfully and appreciatively ignore you. 🙂
Of course, I’ll still rate anything I read in full on Goodreads—I’m not going literary Luddite or anything. But I’m not going to set a goal. Too many things in our world are about winning and losing, and I’m going to see what happens when I take reading off that list.
The twenty authors:
Jorge Luis Borges
Julian of Norwich
Ursula K. Le Guin
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a BA in English literature and violin performance, and he completed an MA program in medieval studies at Western Michigan University in 2020. He is currently a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, which means his plans to be in school forever are working out well. When not writing, he can be found playing violin, drinking coffee, making excruciating puns, and trying to learn Old French.