I know what you’re thinking: I may have many talents, but following through on reading challenges is not one of them. Remember the book collection weight-loss challenge? And the classics club challenge? And the AP Challenge, which was moving along so nicely until Paradise Lost? And what about the fact that I am now a book and three quarters behind schedule in the Numbers Challenge, which only started last month?
I know. Trust me, I know. But the thing is, this is Purgatory. We have SO much time – hundreds upon thousands of years. If I read everything right away, what will I do for the remaining millennia while the little bird that measures eternity flies back and forth across the ocean carrying a single grain of sand in its beak?
I’m starting a couple of new challenges this month. Neither one is strictly a reading challenge, but they both address my relationship to books and my habits as a reader and reviewer. First, as of July 15 – after an early-morning jaunt to Books, Inc. to buy my copy of Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life (I’m so excited!!), I’m going to lay off on buying books for a while. I want to put a significant dent in the books I already own before acquiring new ones.
I realized recently that I have been assuming for a very long time now that I will never read every book I own. If you saw the size of my book collection, you would have no trouble understanding why I have this assumption and would class me as a level-one realist. But it occurs to me: why assume? It could be true; I would go so far as to say that it is probably true, but I thought it might be fun to forget these realities for a while – to act on the assumption that it is possible, if not likely, that I will finish reading my book collection before I die.
I am going to be open-minded about how this challenge will work. At first I experimented with some rigid limits. No book buying for a year – I knew that would never happen almost as soon as I thought it up. Then I thought of a program in which I could buy one new book for every x number of current books I read. I plugged various numbers in for x and observed how each number affected me emotionally. Plugging 20 in for x terrified me. 10 made me feel a little better, and 5 felt entirely do-able, but it also made me feel a little wimpy. There are times (though not recently) when I’ve read through five books in a single week. If I’m going to reward myself with a new book every 2-4 weeks or so, why even bother calling it a challenge?
So, after much consideration, these are the rules:
1) After I purchase The Book of Life on Tuesday morning, I will adopt a general policy of not buying books. This applies to new, used, and Kindle books. Cold turkey. Bam – just like that.
2) While the spirit of this challenge is to encourage me to read through the books I already own, I am welcome to occasionally borrow books from libraries and friends, preferably only 1-2 at a time.
3) I am allowed to buy books as gifts (but no fair “forgetting” to give these gifts and keeping them myself – and yes, I have totally done that in the past).
4) I am allowed to redeem gift cards that I am given (hint, hint, people), but I am allowed to chip in no more than $5 to round out the total if the book(s) I am purchasing runs over the amount on the gift card.
5) There is a chance that I will take one or more classes during the time that I am participating in this challenge. If so, I will buy (used, if possible) all books that are required or recommended for each course.
6) Finally, I expect that I will slip up sometimes. When I do, there are two more rules. First, I will read the book(s) that I bought right away – no fair declaring an urgent need to buy new books only to stash them on shelves to read three Februaries from now. If I feel strongly enough about a book to break the rules of my challenge, the least I can do is read it right away. Second, if I do buy a new book, I will write about the purchase here on this blog, explaining my reasons for granting myself an exception to the overall rules of this challenge.
I am not setting an end date to this challenge, although a couple of good options do come to mind. I could say that it will last a year – until July 15, 2015 – but that seems awfully conventional, doesn’t it? I could also run the challenge until the end of the calendar year 2014 – essentially for five and a half months. But that involves all the emotional complexity of the Christmas season and New Year’s, and I’ve come to believe that one should avoid life changes at that time of year as much as possible. Finally, since my birthday is on January 16 – six months exactly from my last officially authorized book purchase – I could run the challenge until then and then go crazy bonkers nutso in Green Apple Books as a reward for my abstinence.
But I’m not going to set a specific end date. I would like this challenge to be the beginning of a long-term change in my relationships to things, money, and time. The older I get, the more I recognize that possessions, money, and time are interchangeable commodities and that people’s lives are defined by the ways they balance (or fail to balance) the items in this triad. My goal in starting this challenge is to halt the growth of my book collection (i.e. to slow down the pileup of things) and to refocus my finances so I can meet some other goals that are perhaps more important than the never-ending accumulation of every book that has ever sounded good to me. When I was a kid, books were the one thing my parents would always buy for me, any time I asked, and I’ve continued this pattern in my adult life. My hope is that over time this challenge will shape itself into a long-term lifestyle of occasional, well-reasoned book buying (which is not to say that going crazy bonkers nutso in Green Apple on my birthday won’t be allowed every so often – come to think of it, I think this challenge may need a Rule #7…) 🙂
The second challenge I plan to start soon is called the Countdown to Concision challenge, except when I decide to call it the Alphabet Challenge (you’ll see why, below). This isn’t so much a reading challenge but a reviewing challenge. As you may have noticed, I love to exaggerate and digress and summarize plots and tell you long, amusing stories about 1993 – and this is all well and good. However, I would like to work on my ability to write more disciplined, focused, concise reviews of the books I read. Over a year ago, I made a list of 26 books that I already own (see below for an exception) and am excited to read, in alphabetical order by author’s last name – one book for each letter of the alphabet. I pulled that list out today and edited it a little bit, and here it is:
1) James Agee – A Death in the Family (4000)
2) Russell Banks – Cloudsplitter (3600)
3) Vikram Chandra – Red Earth and Pouring Rain (3240)
4) Manuel de Lope – The Wrong Blood (2920)
5) Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose (2628)
6) John Fowles – The French Lieutenant’s Woman (2365)
7) Rebecca Newberger Goldstein – 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (2128)
8) Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty (1915)
9) Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled (1723)
10) Sebastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement (1551)
11) Daphne Kolotay, Russian Winter (1396)
12) Camara Laye – The Radiance of the King (1256)
13) Hilary Mantel – A Place of Greater Safety (1130)
14) Audrey Niffenegger, Their Fearful Symmetry (1017)
15) Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero (915)
16) Richard Powers, The Echo Maker (823)
17) Daniel Quinn, Dreamer (741)
18) Mary Renault, Fire from Heaven (667)
19) Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (600)
20) Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun (540)
21) Thrity Umrigar, The Space Between Us (486)
22) Mario Vargas Llosa, The Storyteller (437)
23) Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Shirt (393)
24) Xu Xi, The Unwalled City (354)
25) Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (319)
26) Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (287)
The number after each book will dictate the word count of my review. I’m starting with 4000, which is around the longer end of my comfort zone for a typical review, and then with each book I will cut the length of the review by 10%. My goal (besides reading all the books on this list, which of course is very exciting) is to become a more disciplined writer of concise, analytical reviews in a variety of lengths and formats. When/if I finish this list, I actually have two more lists (What?? you ask. I got all excited with my list making last New Year’s Eve. Sue me.) that each bring the word count down to SEVENTEEN, so even shorter reviews might be in my future.
Finally, I want to share a pattern that I noticed today when I was making some changes to this list. I want to proceed delicately here, since what I’m about to say could be a tiny bit offensive to a small segment of the population. But here goes: Books written by authors whose names start with Q are really, really stupid. And when I say stupid, I mean talking gorillas. I mean cat detectives (who also talk, I suppose). I mean apocalypse porn with pictures on the cover of demons raping each other. I mean porn of all kinds and how-to manuals for survivalists and the autobiography of Dan Quayle. The only book I own by an author whose name starts with Q is Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, which is the one about the talking gorilla. Specifically, it’s a book-length Socratic dialogue between a man and a gorilla about the theory that the story of Cain and Abel is actually a metaphor for the Neolithic Revolution. I read this book several years ago and was fairly transfixed by it – partly because the metaphor the talking gorilla is setting up is a fairly intriguing one but also because I was so fascinated by the fact that a book like this exists. But I really had no desire to read it again, so when nothing else written by an author whose name starts with Q appealed to me, I chose another one of Daniel Quinn’s books – Dreamer – as my Q selection. This book does not seem to involve a talking gorilla and got good reviews on Amazon, and for now it is the best option I’ve got for the Q slot. Please note that I do not already own this book, so I will probably be violating Challenge #1 in order to complete Challenge #2. But I’ll berate myself for that when the time comes. In the meantime, if anyone would like to recommend a work of fiction by an author whose last name begins with Q, I would love to have your suggestions.
The Countdown to Concision challenge will begin as soon as I finish all of the books that I am currently reading, plus The Book of Life. I suspect this will be around the first of August. I don’t plan to read straight through this list of 26 books without interruptions: I will still be finishing out the AP challenge (slowly but surely) and moving forward with the Numbers challenge and reading other books that appeal to me just for the heck of it. I’m looking forward to it, though, and would love to hear from any readers who want to read along with my list or create one of their own.
Have a good week, everyone!