Reading Challenge: 52 Books in 1 Year

What I learned after reading 1 book every week for a year (and counting)

This is the first time I’ve read over 52 books in a single calendar year. All I can think is, Why didn’t I do this sooner?

In previous years, I pledged certain-to-achieve goals like reading 12 books in a year. One book for every month. But you know what’s wrong with setting a challenge like that? It’s easy. There is no challenge. It takes very little effort in intentionality to achieve a goal like that. I realized that if I’m not challenging myself, I’m not really learning anything. If I’m not learning, then I’m not growing. And as William S. Burroughs once said, “When you stop growing, you start dying.”

There are people in this world who can read 80, 100, 200+ books every year. I don’t think I’ll ever read 200 — unless those books are only a couple hundred pages themselves — but I mention this because I had an epiphany of sorts as I charged ahead into my 2019 reading challenge. As a writer, an aspiring novelist, sometimes I feel discouraged when I sit down to work on my stories. I tell myself that I’m a terrible writer. I tell myself that I couldn’t create a compelling storyline if my life depended on it. I compare myself to NYT bestselling authors or independent authors who’ve seen success in the craft. I look at all the books that have been written in the last year and feel like I’ll never write anything worth picking up off the shelf. Take a peek into any bookstore or online marketplace — there are thousands of books being published every year.

But there are also millions of readers, voracious readers, readers who devour book after book without breaking a sweat. It’s the Netflix equivalent of binge-watching. People love stories — in any medium, be it film or paperback or audio — and because they love stories, the world needs more and more stories. Stories are lessons. They serve to teach and inspire, to solve a problem.

As I look ahead to 2020, I recognize that everything has turned into “content” to be consumed — podcasts, movies, tv shows, video games, social media posts. And the kicker is, books are not exempt from this kind of consumption. Physical books, ebooks, audiobooks — these are all types of content. Sure, they’re longer form, but they’re all just content waiting to be consumed, to be enjoyed.

All my life, I took a purist approach to writing, turning up my nose to those who wrote-to-market or didn’t think about writing stories as an art form, but what I realized is that if I hoped to make a career of this one day, I had to reconcile the concept of writing as art with writing as a feasible business. That there isn’t any shame in it — but that’s a blog post for another time.

The bottom line is that I shifted my beliefs. Instead of allowing myself to be deterred by the thousands of books being published every year, I told myself that those thousands of books means that people want to read books — there’s a demand, a need for them. And in shifting my beliefs, I gave myself permission to write stories.

With that most important lesson out of the way, I wanted to share some smaller, personal observations as I reviewed my list of 52+ books for the year. But first, let me share what all I read this year.

My 2019 book list

  1. Robin by Dave Itzkoff
  2. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
  3. Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski
  4. Fortune Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career by Daniel Roberts
  5. Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski
  6. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
  7. Depression & Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim
  8. Unraveling Light by Elayna Mae Darcy
  9. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  10. Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan
  11. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
  12. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
  13. Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo
  14. Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo
  15. The Tailor by Leigh Bardugo
  16. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
  17. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
  18. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
  19. Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas
  20. Heir of Fire by Sarah J. Maas
  21. Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Youn
  22. Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas
  23. The Assassin’s Blade by Sarah J. Maas
  24. Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas
  25. Tower of Dawn by Sarah J. Maas
  26. Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J. Maas
  27. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
  28. A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
  29. A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas
  30. A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J. Maas
  31. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
  32. Firestarter by Stephen King
  33. Cujo by Stephen King
  34. The Gunslinger by Stephen King
  35. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
  36. On Writing by Stephen King (repeat)
  37. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.
  38. 100 Days of Sunlight by Abbie Emmons
  39. Story Genius by Lisa Cron
  40. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  41. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
  42. These Bright and Lovely Nightmares by Giovanni Diaz
  43. Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
  44. Wake by Amanda Hocking
  45. Lullaby by Amanda Hocking
  46. Tidal by Amanda Hocking
  47. The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
  48. The Wicked King by Holly Black
  49. The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black
  50. The Lost Sisters by Holly Black
  51. Elegy by Amanda Hocking
  52. The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
  53. Super Pumped by Mike Isaac (in progress)

If you sifted through that list, you probably noticed a couple of different things. Let me break down what those might have been.

5 learnings from my 2019 reading challenge

  • I’m a shift-reader. I’m also a shift-eater (AKA an isolationist eater). If you have no idea what that means, it’s when you focus on one group before going onto the next. In dine-speak, it means I make my way around the plate, eating one thing at a time before moving onto another. This isn’t something I intentionally do. I just do it without even thinking about it. Some folks claim it signals that you’re a control freak (for me, that’s true), or that you’re a completionist (also true), or that you may be detail-oriented (true), or possibly OCD (yup, ’tis also true). In reading, it means I run through books in specific sets. It means I could read all the books by Sarah J. Maas before moving to another author or a completely different genre. I could read multiple books in one genre (like poetry), before switching it up. I pick up a number of books that belong in a specific group before letting myself switch gears to something else. If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like single-tasking versus multi-tasking, you’d be correct.
  • I’m big on fantasy-romance. Magic? Cool. Faerie realms, curses, epic battles, and rip-your-heart out romance? YAASSSSS, please! And the more of these things in one story, the happier I’ll be. I love fantasy. I love romance. I love the genre of Young Adult (and New Adult). And I’ve learned there isn’t anything wrong with having a soft spot for YA. It’s the genre of firsts. First loves, first trials, first failures, and ultimately, first victories. Like many people, it’s about escape. I love nothing more than being transported to made-up places with made-up creatures and made-up conflicts and evils, and then seeing how the heroes can possibly overcome them all. And the more the authors have put these characters through their paces, the better. Show me complete and utter loss. Then show me how they claw their way out of that loss. Show me the smashed up, but still beating, heart of the story.
  • I’m not big on non-fiction. Non-fiction bores me. There, I said it. No matter how hard I try to stay awake, books in this genre put me to sleep every time. I’ve distilled non-fiction down to this: you take one topic — a person, a methodology, an event, whatever the topic is — and then you split it into various sub-categories and spend the rest of the time showing example after example to back up each of the sub-categories. I’m not saying anything is wrong with reading non-fiction. I’m just saying it isn’t my cup of tea. I prefer fiction because I enjoy going into it blind. I don’t like being able to predict what’s going to happen. I like all of the possibilities of not knowing what I’m getting into when I crack open a made-up story. I enjoy trying to guess what universal truths will be woven throughout the work. I enjoy being told the most beautiful lies. I have an immense appreciation for all of the work that goes into creating love-hate characters and the rich world-building. Imagination inspires me more than anything else possibly could. I like to shed my own life for a few hours and try on something new. I like to pretend.
  • I prioritized women authors. Before 2019, I’d bet the majority of my previous reads were written by men. Nothing wrong with that, I just know that it’s limiting. For women, society is finally shifting to a place where they have the capacity to pursue those creative paths that were once dominated by men. Women offer a fresh perspective on everything from fantasy to horror to literary fiction and it’s about time they received the support they need both professionally and at home to drop everything, shackle themselves to their writing desk, and spend months writing a story. They’re no longer tied down to child-rearing and managing a household. With the men in their lives doing their part to care for children and pay the bills and cook dinner and clean, women finally have a fairer chance — the resources and time — to work toward their dreams, too. Over two-thirds of the books I read this year were written by women, and they were some of the best works I’ve read in a long, long time.
  • I didn’t prioritize indie authors. Only a handful of the books I read this year were written by indie authors. Writers like Rupi Kaur and Amanda Hocking were actually indie when they experienced success and made the leap from indie to traditionally published. For 2020, I plan to read a balanced helping of indie and traditionally published authors. And when I do, I plan on comparing the collective works of one group versus the other. I’m willing to bet both are equally capable and visionary and that I learn a number of things about storytelling from each of them.

Interested in doing a reading challenge next year? Whether your goal is to read 12 books or 52, read on for some quick tips that’ll help you buckle down and make a dent in your To Be Read list.

Quick tips for your own reading challenge

  1. Goodreads. If you don’t have a Goodreads account, download the app and sign up (it’s free). You can review books, add books to your TBR list, and do things like create a reading challenge in-app. It’s a community-based platform, and personally, it’s the best way I’ve found to obsessively track my reading progress.
  2. Libby. Stop what you’re doing and download the Libby app right now. This free app helps you connect your public library card so you can place a hold on books you want to read. You can borrow digital versions of books (audio, ebook) and then read them on your phone or other device. I think you get like two weeks before you have to return the book, but for me, that’s more than enough time to finish a book. There are other similar apps, but I really enjoy the user experience and simplicity of Libby. Apps like this one are great when you want to save money and not have 50 million books lying around your room. Save space and money by leveraging your local library membership and just reading digital copies of books. It’s awesome.
  3. Time blocking. If your biggest challenge is setting aside time to read, check out this blog post on the art of time blocking. You’ll discover time you didn’t know you had, so there won’t be any excuses not to read. Even if all you have are five minutes a day, that’s still at least three pages a day — depending on your reading speed — which tallies up to 90 pages a month. If you jack around on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter every day, you have much more than five minutes. With some calendar blocking and intentionality, you’ll easily read more than one book every month. I promise.

All right. At the time I’m writing this, it’s December 1. The holiday season is one of the best times to kick back and catch up on reading. You have an entire month to add titles to your Goodreads TBR list and to download Libby and start placing holds on books you plan on reading.

Take some time this month to really figure out where your personal values lie and set goals for 2020 that satisfy those values (hell, don’t even wait until 2020 — work toward those goals now). May the stories you read be wicked-good.

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Sandra Gibbons

Sandra Gibbons

I share everything from writing to living a purposeful life.