Reading Is a Competition Now

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

As a kid, I could tear through tens of books every month. Today, at age 23, I struggle to find the time and motivation to sit down and actually read a book cover to cover.

Like millions of others around the world, I use Goodreads to track how many books I’ve read. I like to look back over my reads the way I look at my own Instagram stories, to feel some kind of vague pride, or perhaps a drop of serotonin. One feature of Goodreads and other apps like it is that they are social: You can see your friends’ reading activity. This can be a lovely way to share recommendations with friends, make sure everyone knows how cultured you are, and to stalk the reading habits of ex-boyfriends. While this can motivate you to commit and find the time to read, it can also exacerbate the dreaded feeling of “not doing enough” of your favorite hobby and not having the perfect curated bookshelf of intelligent reads.

In other words: I have forced myself to finish a book I wasn’t enjoying just to check it off my Goodreads list (Frank Herbert, I’m so sorry, but Dune is the chewiest book I’ve ever attempted).

Halimah Begum from London, the literature editor of The Everyday magazine, gets it. “Tracking my reading does motivate me to read more, particularly because I find it quite satisfying to watch the percentage of what I have read go up. But there is definitely a downside to it,” she says. “I am often worrying and pressuring myself to read more so that I can keep up with my reading goal, which at the moment is 60 books for the year, and so far I’ve read two. Sometimes I feel stressed out by it because I don’t want to fall behind my goal and not meet it at the end of the year.”

Online culture has cultivated a constant pressure to be “grinding,” with the omnipresent eyes of your followers judging how you spend each second of your time. Billionaire bootlickers preach the doctrine of the constant hustle; that in order to be successful, you have to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of the day, which generally includes waking up at 4 a.m. and having cold showers (ew). While this is usually applied to girlbossery, this mindset has seeped into all aspects of our lives, with no activity being exempt from the pressure to be done as well and as often as possible. From exercise to skincare routines, our Spotify playlists to the hours we sleep: Everything we do has to be tracked and ranked, be it against our own personal goals, or worse, other people’s.

I asked Nicole Villegas, an occupational therapist and mental health practitioner, about why we are obsessed with tracking everything we do. “Health-related tracking for sleep, steps, energy levels, menstruation, mood, and the like can give us a picture of what’s currently happening and aid in the healing journey,” she tells me over email. “When we track things like the books we’ve read, friends we’ve visited, or how many socks we’ve knitted, we’re gathering data about our non-obligatory hobbies. It can also help us validate our experiences. It’s a powerful tool to help us look back at our progress and acknowledge how our time has been spent.”

I can definitely identify with that — as in, sometimes I find myself scrolling back through my step counts from months ago to just, like, see how far I walked on October 18. I did 20k steps! I shouldn’t really care, but looking back does instill some sense of pride in those morsels of achievement.

But what if you, oh, I don’t know, cheat? Unlike pedometers, you can fool Goodreads; if you, like me, say you’ve finished a book that actually you only read halfway, or mark a title as completed before even taking the book off the shelf. And for what? So that the number of books I’ve read so far in a year appears bigger? I look at my friend’s reading numbers and compare them to mine, like it’s some bizarre literary Miss Universe pageant. If I miss the reading goal I arbitrarily set myself at the start of the year, I feel like a total failure.

“It takes the joy out of it a little bit,” agrees Halimah. “You become so focused on meeting a goal, and when it becomes goal-centered it ends up being another thing on the to-do list.”

The social aspect of apps like Goodreads doesn’t help. While it can create a sense of camaraderie to have the same interests as your friends, or have a channel to share recommendations with like-minded people, it can also add to the pressures to hit a certain goal. What if people think I’m a slow reader, or have bad taste? What if they make assumptions about me based on the fact I’ve read three books on mortuary science in the past month?

“Setting goals or tracking progress on public platforms adds a layer of extrinsic motivation that has the potential to be both supportive or add too much pressure,” Villegas says. “The social side of tracking apps can also contribute to a sense of pressure to perform or give in to social comparisons. When it comes to reading, people may be tempted to finish books that aren’t a good fit, instead of following their interests.”

Despite all this, I do particularly enjoy looking back through my reading history. When you look back at where your interests or book recommendations took you, and how your tastes have evolved, it can help you to reflect on how you’ve grown as a person over the years, or in my case, remind me that I know far too much about embalming. And isn’t that the point?

“When it comes to relaxing hobbies and goals, it’s important to ask whether or not the goals support or get in the way of the intended relaxation,” says Villegas. “If the goals or intentions encourage you to prioritize time to do the hobby you enjoy, it may be worth keeping them. If the goals add unnecessary stress to the hobby you’re doing for fun, it’s time to reconsider them.”

Obvious though it may be, we can often forget what the point of doing hobbies actually is. “Maintain that intention to relax as you navigate your book-tracking app and if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or pressured, set it aside,” Villegas continues. “At the end of the day, it’s you and your book.”

Leena Norms, who works in the publishing industry, makes thoughtful YouTube videos about books and reading, among other topics. She recently released a video titled “You’re going to fail your reading goals,” where she discusses the dangers of setting your goals arbitrarily high and gives some tips on how to read more holistically for enjoyment, not performance. Something she says in this video captures the entire struggle of setting goals for hobbies:

“Counting how many things you consume is a really weird way to measure how much you enjoy a hobby: If you’re managing a garden, you don’t count how many times you put your Wellies on and got out there, you look at how much enjoyment you got, how many potatoes you grew. It’s not how many pages you turned or how many bits of soil you flipped over, it’s like, what came out of that for you? What grew in you? What soil did you turn over in yourself? I think that’s something that’s hard to put a number against but also way more important than how many books you read.”

Leena is right: Reading shouldn’t be about how many arbitrary milestones we hit, rather about what we get out of it and how it changes us. Something we don’t have to “smash,” but just do for the joy of it. Still, even knowing that, my brain sometimes won’t let me relax into relaxing. What I really need is to give myself permission to do things that I enjoy at the pace I end up doing them, else I won’t enjoy them at all. My alternative method in 2022 will be to track my reading in my notes app instead, then perhaps add them all to Goodreads once the year is over. I still won’t be attempting to finish Dune, though — fuck that, life’s too short.

Reading Is a Competition Now