Numerical Madness and an Insanely Good Book

On the last day of 2018, my husband was downcast about the Goodreads challenge.  Writers and bloggers were yakking online about the impossibility of meeting their goals.  And now our breakfast conversation mirrored online madness.

“I’m two books short,” he said.

I almost spat out my oatmeal. I’m the pop culture one, he’s the intellectual.   This was all my fault.  I’d told him about the Goodreads challenge. “Well, the whole thing is kind of dumb, isn’t it?”  And I confessed I’d canceled my Goodreads account.

“Now you tell me!”

Well, we soon recovered our sense of humor,  and I accumulated a pile of short humor books he could power through.  But he didn’t bother.

I did the Goodreads challenge for two years, and then I went rogue.  In some ways, I fear the numerical challenge represents the ultimate American loneliness.  Spend enough time online and you get the idea that reading is about speed and pages per hour, not satisfaction or bliss or language or vital information. There is no distinction between the demands of poetry and  romance novels, picture books and philosophical treatises.  Some of us read 1,000-page Victorian novels, others  Y.A. books; yet all are equal in the Goodreads challenge.  Stats up!

AN INSANELY GOOD BOOK.  I am devouring Stuart Nadel’s novel, The Inseparables.  I have had it on the shelf a couple of years, and I finally decided on a whim to begin it on New Year’s Day.  Such a good call!  Nadel, who won a 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation, has written an elegant, entertaining book about three generations of women trying to navigate a society hostile to women’s sexuality.  Henrietta Oliphant, a recent widow, is the feminist author of a popular novel about a woman’s sexual exploits, The Inseparables, which was trashed by the critics when it was published in the 1970s.  Henrietta, who taught women’s studies in New York before she and her husband moved to Massachusetts, has been ashamed of the book for years.  But since she is financially strapped, she has allowed the publisher to reissue it for an anniversary (in its original pink cover, no less).  And subsequent generations are  fascinated by the book, including her daughter Oona, an orpthopedic trauma surgeon who is in the process of getting a divorce and has moved back home, and her granddaughter Lydia, suspended from boarding school after a boy posted a nude photo of her on the internet.

The characterizations are superb and I am thoroughly enjoying this book!

Dress Like an Anarchist & Other Challenges


“In 2017, despite getting married, vacationing in Maine, and remodeling three rooms in my house, I managed to read 137 books.”

This is not a skit: it’s a quote from an article about finishing the 2018  Goodreads Reading Challenge. Four bibliophiles who read over 100 books a year talked about their reading habits and their challenge tips.

Goodreads is a fun site, where I’ve found excellent books, like Grace Dane Mazur’s brilliant novel, The Garden Party.  And I enjoy the Goodreads Reading Challenge.  And yet every year women bloggers and women writers publish articles about anxiety about the Goodreads challenge. Is this sublimation for other anxieties in the 21st century?  Or does the internet foster discontent?

Illustration by Laura Callaghan

Do we consume more books by participating in reading challenges?  Of course.  There is the Women in Translation challenge, the Pop Sugar challenge, the historical novel challenge, the TBR challenge, Japanese lit, Italian lit, German lit, and hundreds of others.  The problem is, if you do all these, you  won’t have time to achieve your personal goals.

I’m not a particularly political person, but after reading some 20th-century articles on anarchism and feminism, I started thinking about how the internet shapes our consumerism.  Marketers stalk us.   We are encouraged to consume more commodities. We must do more book challenges, post cuter selfies, read more books, get more followers and “friends,” and buy those adorable soft lounging clothes I now see at lifestyle blogs and crave, and why is there still a void?

In one of the articles I recently read, a feminist anarchist reminds us of what I used to know.

It is difficult to consume people who put up a fight, who resist the cannibalizing of their bodies, their minds, their daily lives. A few people manage to resist, but most don’t resist effectively, because they can’t. It is hard to locate our tormentor, because it is so pervasive, so familiar. We have known it all our lives. It is our culture.

I  told my husband that I might become an anarchist.  He said, “You’ll have to show people you are and dress like an anarchist.”

Well, I can’t afford a new wardrobe…

Happy Reading Challenges, People, and remember, you control the number—it doesn’t control you!

You’d Rather Be Reading, or Would You?

Or would you?

There used to be an online community, we idealistically thought. The internet was the best thing since the counterculture. Remember Readerville and the forums at Salon?   I  also belonged to several online book groups, and was delighted to meet fellow readers at book festivals.   We saw the best of the internet, because we spent little time there.  Our slow dial-up barely loaded webpages.

With the rise of social media platforms, everything has changed. Language has declined (think Twitter), and fake news and misinformation proliferate.  Online book discussions have dwindled from mini-essays to a sentence or two.  I often feel I’m on a long, reckless drive on the back roads of blogs, book clubs, and book reviews.  Occasionally I find something good.

Goodreads is one of the better book sites, though I didn’t appreciate it at first.  I couldn’t see the point.  One blogger says she moved to Goodreads so she could lose the trolls. (Something to think about.)  Personally, I like the consumer reviews, and  I also enjoy the Goodreads Reading Challenge, which is a simple matter of stating the number of books you hope to read. Every time you note that you’ve finished a book, a picture of the book cover pops up. It is very cute.

Weirdly, many writers at online publications have written lately about their anxiety over their Goodreads Challenge.  And they advise other worried readers how to meet their goals.  (Let me sum it up : read shorter books!) What saddens me is this evidence of how social media can depress people.  That number bugs them, and they feel distressed that others read more.

My favorite of these articles is Angela Watercutter’s light, witty take, “Goodreads and the Crushing Weight of Literary FOMO,” at  Wired.  She does read books, but feels she doesn’t read enough. “How do I know this? Fucking Goodreads.”

Watercutter joined Goodreads in 2010.  She didn’t participate, but got updates about what her “friends” were reading.

Every few days or weeks, just when I started feeling positive about my biblio advancements, one of these messages would come across the transom: “Updates from…” Upon opening it, I’d find out that someone who I knew had a full-time job and active social life had finished two novels in the time it’d taken me to get through the jacket blurbs on David Sedaris’ latest essay collection. Deflation followed. Not only did I feel uninformed and slow, I felt somehow left out. I like talking about books, and thanks to Goodreads I had a constant reminder of all the great books I hadn’t read and all the conversations I couldn’t yet join. It was pure literary FOMO. (A point of clarity: I was also that sucker who tried to participate in Infinite Summer, the challenge to complete David Foster Wallace’s behemoth Infinite Jest. That summer ended in nothing but infinite regret.)

Keep track in a notebook: it doesn’t announce the percentage!

Yes, I, too, follow people who read a book a day.  And I get notes on their Kindle progress.  Should I be reading more and faster?  It’s hard to obsess about a number on a website, though.

I’m a pragmatist. I would never challenge myself to an unrealistic goal.   And since this “challenge” is just for fun (I like the pretty pictures of the book covers!),  it’s  one of the least stressful things in my life!

If you are upset about your Goodreads Reading Challenge, I have three solutions: (a) read short books, (b) change the challenge number, or (c) or keep track of your reading in a notebook, which doesn’t announce the percentage!

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