Thursday, October 18, 2018

Reading as Performance

It's that time of year again: as the weather begins to change, we realize the year is coming to a close, and the panic begins to set in. It's a feeling we all know too well, the little voice that whispers the unthinkable, the words you knew were coming but didn't want to admit it to yourself:

You will not meet your reading challenge this year.

We begin our calendar year with the usual promises: read so many books, read certain books by certain authors, read particular books with particular themes...our reading challenges come in all shapes and sizes. We read, we share, we read some more, we commiserate, we lie about what we've read, we take reading shortcuts (it's fine to read three novellas in a row, right?), but most importantly, we read with an audience in mind. In my conversations with colleagues and friends, it's seeing friends read more books that tend to get under our skin and cause us to nitpick these unknown rules of reading. However, the real culprit isn't our own version of reading FOMO, but our need to perform the act of reading rather than simply enjoying it. 

When we think of the "performance of reading" we often think of the philosophical conversation between "silent" reading and reading that can be acted out for an audience. In the case of our social media-driven reading challenges, the struggle lies in the performative nature of reading: are we reading the most books? the most challenging? the most interesting? the most socially conscious? Basically we are asking whether or not we are the "best" readers, on paper at least.

Every year, I make the same GoodReads challenge: 75 books in one year. And every year I never make this number. The closest I got one year was 73 books and that was only because I spent the last two weeks of the year reading short graphic novels, novellas, and "classic" children's books (you know, the ones that you can argue are also for adults but short enough to be read in one sitting). In other words, I cut a lot of corners. I finished that year a little deflated because I couldn't get those last two books in before the deadline. As I look back on this now, I realize my error. I should have basked in the accomplishment of reading that many books. I should have looked back on my year of reading and revisited some of my favorite bookish moments. Instead, I chided myself on not being better with my reading time management. 

Embarrassingly enough, I didn't check my privilege that year. The average American reads about 12 books a year and I should have been grateful that I had the resources, the time, and the chance to read as many books as I did. Since then, I have been kinder to myself, but not necessarily smarter since I continue to set the same challenge of 75 books. This year, I will be nowhere close to my hefty goal; however, I think I am okay with that. I'm thinking back over my busy year and I am holding the books that I did read very close to my heart. I still had a full year, even if the numbers don't show it.

So what's the lesson here as we all make the scramble to finish our reading challenges? If the challenge serves as a motivator for you, that's wonderful. Read, read, read til your heart's content. But if the challenge serves as a source of anxiety or guilt, then maybe focus on the joy of reading rather than the performance as a reader. Just remember, being a Furious Reader means reading with passion and excitement and spreading that joy to others. We aren't keeping quantitative notes and neither should you. Enjoy the challenge but don't ever let it define you.
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