I Can’t: Counting Books Edition

By Anne T. Donahue

The summer between sixth and seventh grade, my best friend and I enrolled in a reading competition at the library. You were given a little notebook, and if you filled the notebook up with stickers (one book read meant you got one sticker), you’d get a prize. I filled three books, mostly because I only had my one friend (who went away for two weeks in July), but especially because I was and continue to be insufferable. My life was reading, my reality was book-based. I read a freakish amount of Lurlene McDaniels novels and was convinced I was a) dying, and b) would absolutely end up with an Amish boy named Ethan. It was an extraordinary time.

Obviously (and embarrassingly) this moment shaped much of my approach to reading. If I was going to read, I was going to read more than anybody, and I was going to earn my stickers and prizes as I went. Do I need validation to live? Yes. Do I need approval from strangers? Absolutely not! (Just kidding, yes: I do need gold stars on the regular.) Was I going to make everybody acknowledge my capacity for taking in words and pages? Girl, you know it. So I embarked on reading challenges, made numbered lists, and rode the wave of knowing I was earning my self-imposed reputation as a book obsessive. But the thing is, after seventh grade, it just got less and less fun.

My favourite part of reading is getting entirely engrossed in whatever I’m reading about. There’s nothing like doing something and spending the entire time counting down until you can return to your book and go back to that world, soaking up as much information or atmosphere as you can. But I found the more I kept track of what I was reading and how much, the less any of it felt like something I was doing for myself. I wasn’t reading the books I wanted to read when I wanted to read them, my choices reflected what everybody else was reading and their subsequent tallies. I’d never moved on from my 12-year-old incarnation, and while I’d obviously grown up into a person who still loves praise (and I cannot stress this enough: I love praise), my imaginary reading race wasn’t delivering the high it used to. Probably because: who cares?

Out of everything that should be a relevant competition, the number of books we’re reading shouldn’t be it. Reading is personal! It’s one-on-one time spent between you and something you desperately want to retain in your brain, and to rush that process is a serious bummer. My self-imposed reading challenges were never about what I was reading, but about how quickly I could toss another title onto the list of ones I’d conquered that year. I’d look at my friends’ progress and get jealous they could do so much and read a million words on top of that. Then, I’d see what they were reading, and would feel out of the loop if my books didn’t stack up or weren’t part of the must-read round-ups of the season. Reading was becoming a source of stress, and a brand of it only I was responsible for. Who has time for any of that? (And if you do, spend it doing something else.)

I think in general I’m tired of competition, but I’m particularly over it when I feel like something I love is part of the rat race. Sharing what you’re reading is wonderful! Keeping track of your titles is wonderful if you’re not defined by it! Show me what you’re reading, none of this is about you! I’m bad at balancing, and my competitive nature means that under no circumstances should I participate in a reading challenge.

So no more book counting or tallying for me. I love to share and recommend, but nobody needs to know that the latest great thing I read is book #2 or book #222 (I’ve never gotten close to 222, by the way). No more comparing or contrasting or assuming that should I still be stuck on a book that’s taken weeks to finish, everyone knows and is talking about it. No equating the number of books read with how smart or interesting I am. No strange quotas or deadlines. In 2023, I vow to simply read.

And then, like, talk about how much I loved whatever it is I’m reading. Just please keep me away from the sticker books.

Need a little more Anne? Read more from Anne T. Donahue right here!

Tags: Anne T. Donahue, books, top story, topstory

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