Here's Why People Are Divided Over Challenges That Encourage Reading | CBC News

Read your height. Read the world. Read the alphabet. Read anything, but read a lot of it. Read less, but read more critically. Read only library books. Listen to only audio books. Read only books with cats as the main characters (no, really, that’s a real challenge that exists).

As another new year begins, the options for joining challenges that promote reading seem endless, and they have become a popular way to encourage people to consume more books. Nearly eight million people around the world participated in the 2023 Goodreads challenge, for instance, and they had an average pledge of 43 books per person.

So far, just a week into January, over 4.4 million have signed up for the 2024 challenge. Suzanne Skyvara, vice-president of marketing and editorial at Amazon-owned Goodreads, a website and app for readers and book recommendations, says that’s the most they’ve ever had sign up in the first week of the year. 

“Our members tell us that they find it motivating to mark a book as ‘read’ on Goodreads and see how they are progressing toward their goal,” Skyvara told CBC News.

Reading challenges are widely supported by the book industry (bookseller Indigo does one, as does U.S. retailer Barnes & Noble), along with libraries and authors eager to connect with new audiences. But as many readers flock to these challenges, sharing their stats on social media, others find them off-putting and anxiety-inducing.

“I love to read, but multiple disabilities make reading challenges pretty inaccessible due to the expectation of reading a plethora of books in a set amount of time,” said Caley Krantz.

Krantz, 38, who lives in Vernon, B.C., struggles with skipping over words and processing text and audio. 

“It’s frustrating watching everyone posting and engaging in these challenges when it’s not an option to participate,” they told CBC News.

On TikTok, where #BookTok has a whopping 214.2 billion global views, some popular videos illustrate the feelings of inadequacy and overwhelm that some readers feel when they see others bragging about their hundreds of reads per year.

Others online are turned off by what they see as the gamification of reading. As a writer noted on Shondaland last year, “influencers recommend listening to audiobooks at 1.5 times the speed, and multiple Goodreads users told me they deliberately pick up shorter books to achieve certain goals.”

‘Sport or homework’And that’s not always very fun.

“It’s either sport, or it’s homework,” Jael Richardson, the executive director of The FOLD Canada, a foundation that celebrates diverse authors and storytellers at literary festivals and events based in Brampton, Ont., told CBC News.

“I try to make it neither.”

A stack of books on display at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) at the Rose Theatre in Brampton, Ont., on May 5, 2023. FOLD offers a 12-book challenge that, like Camargo’s, emphasizes literary diversity over quantity. (Herman Custodio)Each year, the FOLD (the Festival of Literary Diversity) releases its own 12-book challenge, encouraging readers to diversify their selections rather than trying to meet a specific number of titles.

January’s challenge, for instance, is to read a book by a Palestinian author; February’s is to read a book that’s been challenged in Canadian schools.

Many other challenges focus on the act of reading in and of itself. The FOLD challenge, on the other hand, aims to create more conscious readers while also amplifying voices that don’t get as much publicity, according to Richardson.

“Reading is a really, really important act that’s unique from all other kinds of media in that you consume it on your own,” she said.

“As a result, when it comes to difficult topics and difficult subject matter, it’s a really powerful place to create change in your own heart, in your own mind, and to cultivate empathy.”

People look at books at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) at the Rose Theatre in Brampton, Ont., on May 5, 2023. (Herman Custodio)Flavia Camargo, who lives in Ottawa, takes a similar approach to her own reading challenges. The 40-year-old ESL education counsellor is in three book clubs, two of which she runs. While she also sets a numeric goal — this year is 40 books — her aim is to read with more diversity. 

This year she created her own challenge, which includes reading a banned or censored book, one by a neurodiverse writer and another by an Indigenous author .

“Because of my book club, I realized it’s also important to challenge myself to read books out of my comfort zone,” Camargo said.

Each year, the FOLD releases a 12-challenge list in January, focusing on one challenge per month for the duration of the year. Its aim is to encourage booklovers to thoughtfully consider their reading lists. (The Fold)Many love the challengeBut plenty of people love the challenge of reading as much as they possibly can.

Since 2021, Brooke Nicholls has set herself a goal to consume 100 books a year. That works out to about two books per week. If that seems challenging, she says that’s the point.

“In 2021, it felt like a big stretch goal and I wanted to challenge myself,” she said. She was so enthusiastic she actually read 120.

“I love having the goal, and I really feel like the education I’m giving myself is paying off exponentially. Every year I’m smarter, more articulate, and have better critical thinking skills.”

Brooke Nicholls reading in her home in Brockville, Ont., in January 2024. (Brooke Nicholls)Nicholls, 32, a realtor in Brockville, Ont., loves to relax with print books, but says the key to meeting her goal is audiobooks, through which she mostly consumes business-related and self-improvement titles.

“I feel like I ‘hacked’ my brain by listening to audiobooks on 1.8 speed, so I can consume books while I drive or hike with my dog,” she said.

Robyn Kurtz, who lives in New Westminster, B.C., says they’re using reading challenges for motivation to get back into it “after virtually stopping since having kids.” This year they’ve joined two — their firsts.

“I’m pretty competitive, especially with myself, so that will help, but I am most excited about the potential ease of finding diverse books to read,” Kurtz said, noting that one of their two challenges provides recommendations.

“I want to stay motivated to continue to read rather than doomscroll, and I want to read more from historically underrepresented authors and topics that I may not have thought much about.”

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Challenges are good for the industrySocial media reading challenges encourage people to share what they’re reading, which helps authors with brand awareness, book sales, discoverability, library holds, audiobook sales and increased demand across the board, said Carly Watters, a senior literary agent with P.S. Literary Agency and co-host of the podcast The Sh-t No One Tells You About Writing.

“This helps create habits in readers which will help keep them life-long readers which also means life-long book consumers, which keeps our business and industry healthy,” Watters told CBC News.

Some libraries have jumped on the reading challenge bandwagon, too, where they can create prompts to promote their diverse collection.

Since 2019, Toronto Public Library has hosted its own book-a-month reading challenge, focused on trying out new books, genres and authors. Some of the monthly prompts include: a memoir by a Canadian author, a book by an author with a chronic illness and, of course, a book set in a library or bookstore.

The six books recommended by Toronto Public Library as part of its 2024 reading challenge include There is No Blue by Martha Baillie (memoir by a Canadian author), Escapes by Daniel Tunnard (book about playing games), The Librarianist by Patrick deWitt (book set in a library), Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (a nonfiction book by an Indigenous author), The Pit by Tara Borin (book set in the Canadian territories), and The Eyes and the Impossible by Dave Eggers (book from an animal’s perspective). (Toronto Public Libary/CBC Graphics)Sarah Bradley, an area manager with Toronto Public Library (TPL), notes that there are 3,000 people in the challenge’s Facebook group, where they eagerly recommend titles, chat about how they plan to interpret the categories, and discuss what they’ve read. And people have fun with it, she added, noting that some people might choose to do the entire challenge using only books of poetry, or only books written by women, or children’s books.

“It shouldn’t feel like work,” Bradley said.

“It’s not about a numbers game,” said Michael Wagner, TPL’s digital content lead. “We’re in this to help people discover books.”

And a love of books is why Krantz in Vernon keeps reading.

They’ve been reading the same book for two years: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. And they love it. Plus, it uses paragraph breaks, which Krantz says makes it the most accessible book she’s read.

“It breaks up the wall of text into manageable sections that my brain can process.”

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