By Monica Busch
This year, for the first time, I set myself a reading goal on Goodreads. 52 books is the aim. One book a week, at least, on average.
It’s an unattainable goal, almost certainly. I knew this when I opted in, when I considered that I have a full-time job, a part-time job, and am currently devoting the bulk of what free time I have to a long list of other responsibilities, all of which have pretty firm deadlines this year. (Think: wedding planning.)
But determined to force myself to do the thing I love (read books) and to demonstrate some sort of commitment to the thing I spent six years studying (reading books, basically), I determined that life is short and guilt-inducing, but internet notifications are forever, so: screw it. And here I am, two months in and three books behind to be on schedule, wondering why I’m doing this to myself.
In high school, when getting into college was the primary determining factor for all of my daily choices, I knew that I wanted to study English. And, having switched schools five times (yes, five times) in four years, bouncing around in public school systems in three different states, I knew that my education had … gaps. I’ve never actually been assigned, for example, To Kill a Mockingbird (and I still haven’t read it, whoops), or any Steinbeck or any Hemingway or, until grad school, even any Toni Morrison. The product of switching schools every year, dropping haphazardly into different district curriculums, I was piecemealing together an incoherent academic repertoire that left me feeling hopelessly disorganized.
I didn’t know everything I was missing, but I knew, as an avid re-watcher of “Dead Poets Society,” that I was missing some important foundational links.
Maybe that’s why, now, I am a context person. Certainly, this unmooring is why I try to teach my own writing classes in some semblance of chronological order, harping on the importance of understanding how different writers borrowed and stole and were influenced by one another, across centuries and continents. You do not create art in a vacuum, I’ve taken to repeating.
But while I am in this position — that is, having reached that teenage goal, twice over — I still find myself scrambling to play catch up. Except that this time, I am caught between the guilt of having never read Anna Karenina and the undoubtedly self-imposed pressure to keep my pulse on the publishing industry, all the while knowing I cannot possibly do both at once, flailing through used book stores and the New York Times Book Review. I can’t do it all, so when will be enough? Is there such a thing as having read enough books? What about just in one calendar year?
Us bookish folk love to brag about how many books we read last year. “I broke my reading goal and read 59!” “I am reading all of In Search of Lost Time this year, wish me luck!” Or, perhaps the worst contender: “I read that book in one afternoon!”
Not only do I read more than the average person, we are saying, we read better, with fewer distractions, and certainly faster than the average person.
I think I understand why we do this to each other —because life is just one big pissing contest — but I don’t understand why we do this to ourselves and I certainly do not understand why I am doing it to myself. Yet here I am, holding myself to goals I know I will more than likely fail to reach, yet pluckily optimistic that come January 2021, I too will be the proud owner of such insufferable statements as: Last year I read one book each week!
And then, god forbid, 2021 will bring an entirely fresh and horrific layer to this pressure as I struggle to outdo myself to prove that I can to… myself. When is enough actually enough?
But of course, as I well know, there is no answer to my question — when will I know I have read enough books — because that’s an impossible marker measured only in my own sense of self-satisfaction. And when it comes to that, well.
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