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A stack of books from the author's reading challenges. The title reads: Challenge Accepted: A Tale of 3 Reading Lists in 2024"

Challenge Accepted: A Tale of Three Reading Lists

So far, 2024 has been full of challenge – book club reading challenges, that is. I’ve been participating in one run by a friend for a few years, but came across two additional lists just at the end of 2023. My to-be-read pile is taller than ever, and I couldn’t be happier.

That’s my actual stack in the cover photo, which includes a few titles that I haven’t squeezed into a challenge, yet. Not shown: several audiobooks in my queue, plus the blank categories I haven’t filled.

Why a Reading Challenge?

We are a family of readers, to be sure. Our house has six bookcases of varying heights for three people. You might think I wouldn’t need the external stimulus of a reading challenge to get me to pick up any one of dozens of possibilities, some old favorites, some as yet unread.

But that’s just it. In the immortal words of the Pet Shop Boys, “too many choices,/ If, when, why, what? How much have you got?/…/ Which do you choose/ A hard or soft option?” When I’m picking a book to start reading, decision paralysis sets in. I’m overwhelmed with assessing my mood and then actually finding something to fit it. Half an hour can easily slip by while I attempt to make up my mind and then I’m frustrated by that “waste” of time.

The lists short-circuit that paralysis and frustration loop.

Each reading challenge has its own vibe. That’s a big part of why I’m enjoying the process of working through multiple lists at the same time. When I need a break from the most serious of the three, I can flip over to the one where I fit in the most fiction. When I’m in a murder mystery rut, I find something in the list that has more nonfiction than novels.

Book Talk

The reading challenge that I’ve participated in for the longest time is run by a friend from high school. Several other friends from that time are also in the group, but most of the participants are from other areas of J’s life. That brings a wider mix of recommendations and experiences, which I appreciate.

One of my favorite quirks of Book Talk is that J makes the categories herself, drawn from a variety of sources, but mostly guided by her own tastes. This challenge gets me to read more nonfiction that I’m otherwise inclined to, and on topics that usually wouldn’t cross my radar. Iconic sports figures? Check. Award winners in various categories? Check. A completely arbitrary choice of a book about water, whales, windsurfing, or weathermen? Indeed! I’ve got water covered for that one.

This is also the challenge that sends me to shelves other than my own for selections. The Teen has made several recommendations that I’m looking forward to, including pulling titles from my husband’s many, MANY science fiction novels. I’ve also visited our town’s public library for choices, which is a terrific way to also support this valuable resource.

2024 Nowhere Bookshop Reading Bingo

I’m a huge fan of Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess. If you haven’t read about Beyoncé, the giant metal chicken, you really should. “Knock knock, motherf*cker” is a catchphrase of my friend group for exactly this reason. Lawson owns Nowhere Bookshop in San Antonio, which runs an annual reading challenge bingo card.

This one is more general overall, with the most categories open to the reader’s own interests. Sponsored by a bookstore, the bingo card features a category for their own recommendations and one for a 2024 debut release. I love that Lawson adapted last year’s “Roman Empire” Tik Tok trend for this year’s challenge with a square for whatever your own obsession is. This will be an excellent reason to re-read Frankenstein or Dracula.

I’m amused by the extra degree of difficulty in a reading challenge as a bingo card. I’m one book away from my first bingo, though I intend to cover the card.

Academic Reading Challenge

My most recently-joined challenge is also the most intellectually challenging. The group is designed to get academics out of our research niche and reading more broadly. Not all of the selections have to be scholarly work, although they can be if you wish. Mostly, though, this list has the heaviest-hitting topics, including housing/homelessness/use of urban space, conspiracy theories/conspiracism, and mental health/illness. There are bonus categories to extend the challenge if you’re so inclined (which I am, of course!)

Besides the topics, this group is the most rigorous because it has definitions for the categories: academic books must be at least 175 pages, novels at least 200 pages, audio books must be unabridged, and so on. There are even points for the categories, for a bit of extra push. So what if the points don’t mean anything?

Community, Not Competition

What I love most about these three reading challenges is the sense of camaraderie as we search our shelves for matching titles. Strangers share suggestions and their reactions to titles, sometimes even mailing a book to someone else in the group. The organizer of the Academic Reading Challenge is doing a series of blog posts about the categories to inspire everyone, and provides a helpful spreadsheet to track both suggested and read titles. Strangers bonding over a shared experience is one of the deepest pleasures of these groups.

Across all of the groups, I’m reading more work by and about people who aren’t like me. From sexual and gender identities to religion to nationality and ethnicity to socioeconomic status, I am understanding more about the broader human community, including a sharp awareness of how much more I have to learn.

I’m only competitive with myself. I got to 23 of 26 categories in the 2023 Book Talk challenge, and I’m determined to pace myself better this year so I can complete the list.

I also really enjoy making a game of finding titles that do double or triple duty. Although the combined total across the three lists is 69 books, I won’t need to read that many unique titles. A dozen or more titles are on two lists, and a few show up three times. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s What Happened, for example, is simultaneously Book Talk’s book about the US Presidency, Nowhere bingo card’s book that came out over 4 years ago, and Academic Reading Challenge’s book about a specific election or elections in general.

How About You?

Do you participate in an annual reading challenge? If so, is it a goal you set for yourself or is there a group working on the same list? Do you read primarily fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or a mix? I have a few professionally-oriented titles, but most of mine are for fun and overall joy in language rather than specifically for development.

What’s your favorite genre for fun reading, and what do you avoid? I’ll always read a mystery, but I stay away from westerns and romance. “Luckily” for me, I’ll get to read both in 2024.

Tell us about it in the comments.

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