My Reading Challenge: 36 Books

This beauty was pre-ordered so long ago that by the time it arrived, I had forgotten I’d ordered it. A surprise book? Heart.

This beauty was pre-ordered so long ago that by the time it arrived, I had forgotten I’d ordered it. A surprise book? Heart.

You would think that as an English and Creative Writing lecturer, I get to read a lot of books

And you wouldn’t be wrong. This is one of the perks of the job: the amount of books you discover, the unlimited library requests, the opportunity to talk to dozens of people about the books you love. Sometimes even about those you don’t like so much but are relevant, influential, ground breaking, all of that.

I love to read, always have. My cousins used to compare me to an early Rory Gilmore (first and second seasons). My mum worried about me because as a teenager, staying home and reading were my go-to. But she and dad gave me a literary name and as it turned out, all that time I was reading, I was working (knowingly or not) on becoming the person I am now, a writer, a lecturer, soon to be a podcaster too. My name tells it, I am a storyteller, and I’m rarely happier than when in the midst of a great book and soon to stop what my loved ones are doing to rave about it.

At the end of the first paragraph in this chapter of  Persuasion , I can sort of claim that Jane Austen specifically names me. My parents spelled mine differently.

At the end of the first paragraph in this chapter of Persuasion, I can sort of claim that Jane Austen specifically names me. My parents spelled mine differently.

I am that person that travels with more than one book because God forbid I finish one on the go and I’m stranded bookless. That person that after a long, wonderful day at the amusement park missed a train to go fetch Pride and Prejudice through the streets of Barcelona so I wouldn’t have to wait one more day to find out if Darcy and Elizabeth got over themselves and sorted things out.

Why then a reading challenge?

I like to challenge myself. Competition doesn’t interest me, but testing my mettle does. I’ve been doing this for longer than I would have articulated it so. Let’s look a bit back in time to spot the nodes of challenge and change. Ten years ago, after living for a while in Barcelona, I wanted a change. I had done writing at uni in Venezuela and missed it greatly – and whilst I was doing writing at work and enjoyed living in this amazing city, I felt the prickle of change. This came in the form of doing an MA in Creative Writing and moving to the UK.

Me in the year I decided to move to the UK to do an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University.

Me in the year I decided to move to the UK to do an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University.

Three years ago, after finishing my PhD and in the midst of job hunting, I was living in Brussels and trying to keep myself engaged. Long walks through the city listening to podcasts were great, but something was missing. I was bored. This gave me time to think about the things I had wanted to do and hadn’t got around to yet. I had friends who were vegetarian and generally loved vegetarian food, so I decided to challenge myself, to the shock of family and friends, to become one for a month. I chose February because it is the shortest (not the least bit ashamed) and I went for it cold turkey (ha!). After the month, which went by easily enough, I pushed the deadline to a year with the caveat that I would decided whether to make it permanent once the year had passed. You see, I’m stubborn enough for this. And the more people thought I couldn’t do it, well, the more I wanted to. And so it is that three years later, I, who rarely ate vegetables before, am a fully fledged vegetarian. No, I don’t miss meat. No, really. After that, having enjoyed the challenge, I went for another: learning to drive (in the UK, yes). It took me about a year but I passed my test on the first go on a cold December day. You can see me now and then driving about in Cornwall, signalling like it was a superpower that I must share with the world.

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Why a year?

I like the format of a year challenge. It gives you time to struggle, get used to it and enjoy it. It also has an end in sight, far enough to be challenging, close enough to be exciting. Many of my friends had completed reading challenges in previous years, so I decided to choose to do this for 2019. Why 36? Because that is how old I am this year, so I thought I would honour that.

How am I getting on, you ask?

Not too shabbily. I’ve read 20 books so far and will be finishing the 21st this week. According to Goodreads (where I am tracking the challenge) I’m two books ahead of schedule. I aim to keep it that way until the end, nice little buffer. You can keep track of my progress here. In a moment, I will tell you more about the books I’ve read so far, but first I want to share with you a couple of things I have learnt about challenges themselves, how they help you grow and what happens with those around you whilst you are doing a challenge.

  1. Having a challenge is a great conversation starter: when you do something difficult or slightly out of character, people are curious. With all my challenges so far, I’ve found that people want to know how I’m getting on, why am I doing it, how far I have to go, etc. This is not the reason why I do it, but it has been a nice, unexpected perk.

  2. People become invested in your success: this has been another nice surprise. I’ve done the challenges to push myself, to make it interesting and difficult. It always feels important to me, but I didn’t count on this becoming important to my community. One, friends and family will support you, like my sister cooking with two spoons without my request so that my sauce wouldn’t have meat juice in it when I was becoming vegetarian. Two, the wider community will too. This has been great with the reading challenge where many a recommendation has been made about books that can help me get to the finish line (more on this in the next section).

  3. You will want to keep doing it: at the end of a challenge, there is a huge sense of achievement but this is tinged with a little bit of mourning. There is an ending, and one of something you’ve been nurturing for long. Soon after the celebrations, you will find yourself thinking… what’s the next challenge?

Now, on to the books.

What about the books?

In a reading challenge, there are a few things you need to decide: how long is the challenge, how many books do I want to read and which books (and how) will I choose. Knowing that I had an already mad/demanding schedule, I decided to keep this last element simple. For the first two desicions, that was easy: it would be a year again and I would read 36 books. As to which books to choose and how, I was cheeky from the get go: short books were going to be my friends. I wasn’t interested in challenging myself to read all the peers in length of something like Don Quixote, and although the list does include regular-length and long novels, I knew that being open to short books would get me over the line. This includes poetry, plays, children’s books, novellas, manga chapters, you name it. And here is where the recommendations came in handy.

Another huge help, and a nice little gift I gave myself this year, was a subscription to Audible. I love audiobooks and had long wanted the subscription. I used to have a two-hour commute to work and in the winding country lanes of Cornwall, reading on the bus was not much of a choice for me. Having access to audiobooks has been amazing and a great help. If you can’t access Audible, think about trying out Librivox, a library of free, public domain audiobooks recorded by volunteers. A dear friend on a student budget.

One aspect that I have been including in my reading from a while back is diversity. I want to read about places I have never been to and from voices I have never read before. I want to relearn the world from someone else’s perspective. Expand my world as much as I can through literature. This has been a key component of my list so far and will continue to be. I have and/or will be reading myself into Oman, New Zealand, Nigeria, South London, Moominland… into the mind of an accomplice to a serial killer, a young black woman learning to cope with race violence and mental health, an artist silently whispering to herself, a girl from a survivalist family finding her way into her own world, ghosts talking to each other and shepherding a young boy to the afterlife or a lion that becomes real through storytelling.

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The greatest discoveries so far

Among the 20 books I have read so far, there have been wonderful discoveries.

  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, a book I had to teach on, has been one of the best literary novels I’ve read in a while. Takes a bit to get into it, but once you do, you’re spellbound. On top of that, it touches upon cemeteries which are part of my research, so it was a nice one to have on the list.

  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyikan Braithwaite has been one of the funniest ones. I must have read this in a day. Recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this is an engaging, hilarious, dark novel portraying an unusual and original relationship between sisters unlike anything I’ve seen. A different strand to something like the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, this one explores the outer borders of sisterhood. I am excited to be teaching this one on the Contemporary Writing module next year.

  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman was the funniest of the bunch and one of my favourite books right now. I had the pleasure of listening to Cathleen McCarron’s narration in the wonderful and very missed Glaswegian accent (I lived three years in the green city). A book about loneliness, kindness, trauma and the joy of connection. You can read more about it on Gemma Oxley’s review here.

  • Stone by Em Strang has been the first poetry one of the list. I bought it a while ago, proud to see a book by one of my peers from Glasgow Uni out and about. When I picked it up I was transfixed by a quiet search that soaks it and by Mat Osmond’s illustrations.

  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee has been the longest one I’ve read so far. It is a novel that illuminates the relationships between Korea and Japan across the decades and which takes a close look at what it means to migrate and to navigate being the other.

  • Now, Now, Louison by Jean Frémon is the delight of the list and a book I am reading as slowly as I can so that I can fully enjoy it. This was recommended by a friend, Shelley Day Sclater, who broadcasted that we should all read it. I’m so glad she did, because it is the most special book I have read in years. Subtle, poignant, delicate like Louise Bourgeois sculptures themselves. It is technically one of the most interesting books I have ever read and that is why I am pacing myself with it. If you want a recommendation out of my list to add to yours, let it be this one.

What is to come?

I keep making piles of the challenge books. These piles shuffle and reshuffle themselves through recommendations and additions.

I keep making piles of the challenge books. These piles shuffle and reshuffle themselves through recommendations and additions.

We’re over half of the year now and over half of the books. Whereas before I kept adding recommendations and want-to-reads to the list, I find myself now carefully picking what is to come. This part of the list will be a combination of been-wanting-to-reads, recommendations to pay attention to and books I will be teaching on soon. I’m curious about Angela du Maurier’s (Daphne’s sister, didn’t know she existed) Treveryan which I picked up in a charity shop in Redruth. It has been republished by a Cornish publisher and it takes place in Cornwall. I will be also reading A Whole Life from Robert Seethaler recommended to me by the wonderful Amy Lilwall – whose’s The Biggerers is one of the long reads in the list. And I cannot wait to be back in Scotland with Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project.

This challenge has made me more purposeful about my reading, especially about finding the time to do so. I look forward to getting to number 36, and to starting to think about 2020’s challenge. Before I sign off, I will share my top tips to succeed at your reading challenge. I hope this post has inspired you to read a bit more!

Top tips to succeed at a reading challenge

  1. Your challenge is about you, no one else. Focus on what you want to achieve and what you want to read and be ruthless about what makes it to the list. You can always have new challenges later on, so help yourself to succeed by constructing a challenge that matches what you want and how you read.

  2. Figure out how much reading it is and parcel it out around your other activities. This will depend on how much you want to read and for how long, as well as the other claims on your time. For me, knowing how much I would need to read to keep up with being on track has been really helpful in staying motivated.

  3. Talk about your challenge with your community. Renew your motivation and learn about other challenges and recommendations by opening up about what you want to achieve. You will find most people on your side!

  4. Be generous with yourself on how you choose. It has worked for me to include a number of short books to keep the number manageable. This too has made me read more children’s books, more poetry and soon more plays too. This makes it easy for you and helps you pace yourself for the longer reads. Books that can be read in a couple of hours are a great help.

  5. Find a way to keep track of your progress. I use Goodreads for mine, as I find it easy and informative. Many of my friends are also doing challenges, so it is good to see how everyone is getting on.

  6. Join a book club. If you are struggling to get some reading done, the fun and social aspect of a book club can be a great way to put some oil in the reading machine. It’s a great way to make like-minded friends and to read things you would never pick up otherwise. It helps you stay motivated and gives you an achievable goal crowned at the end by a nice cup of tea among friends or a pint in the pub.

  7. Audiobooks are your friends! A great companion to commutes or household chores, audiobooks can make even reading long books an easy treat. It’s like having a friend whispering a story to you. They can be expensive, but resources like Librivox or your local library can help you get used to them and get some reading/listening done. A great narrator is a treasure!

  8. Break it into bits. Breaking a long read into components can be really helpful at getting you through. A friend told me that she reads for one hour every morning before she sets out for the day. I’ve done one chapter per sitting, which works well for me and keeps the book’s structure in mind. Bitesizing your reading to things like 10 mins a day or 10 pages every time you pick it up can help you get far little by little.

  9. Take a walk through the public library or your favourite bookshop. Being among books always makes me want to read more and I find that seeing what is recommended or randomly picking something off a shelf (as I did not long ago in Heffers in Cambridge with The Bone People by Keri Hulme, my New Zealand book) can be a great way to engage you back into reading.

  10. Enjoy it and be kind to yourself. It can feel disappointing not to finish a challenge, yet sometimes this is what needs to happen. If that’s the case for you, remember that any reading you’ve done already is an amazing bonus and that books are always there to be picked back up when the time is right.

After all, reading challenges are just one of the ways to enjoy reading and literature more. Take the time to enjoy your challenge and your reading.

See you among the shelves!


by Sherezade Garcia Rangel