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Is there such a thing as competitive reading?

Lately I have been hearing a lot about competitive reading, and the pressure to have read ‘the right’ book.I have written before that there is nothing more off-putting than feeling pressure to read a certain book within a certain time frame, whether for a book club or in secondary school, so I agree that competitive reading sounds like a bad idea.

Sally O’Reilly recently wrote an article for the US version of The Conversation, titled  ‘Books are delightful as they are – don’t fall into the trap of competitive reading‘ about the importance of ignoring the pressure to read competitively, and to instead immerse yourself completely in whatever book you choose. She wrote:

“Are we so obsessed with being able to tick a book title off a check-list that we risk forgetting that reading is a physical and emotional activity as well as an intellectual one?”

But, I have to wonder about what is behind all of this talk of competitive reading. For, from where I sit, it looks like reading is an almost completely and happily selfish pursuit that has little to do with what anyone else thinks or ticking boxes. While I wholeheartedly agree with O’Reilly that anyone should feel free to read (or listen to) any type of book they choose, I don’t really see that this is not already the case. And by claiming that reading has become competitive, are we skewing  and misinterpreting the nature of conversations about books?

When people ask if I’ve read a certain popular book, I don’t feel like a failure for not having read it, but either an interest in picking it up next time I’m at the library, or trying to find a book that we have read in common. We are not competing, but finding a common grounding, embracing the joy of finding out if we have read and loved or hated the same book, whether it is popular fiction, a classic or the latest ‘it’ book.

For me, this is part of the pleasure of reading, and if there is one reason to cave in to the temptation to read a new release that is attracting a lot of attention, it is to get the chance, selfishly, to talk about it.

You could also say initiatives like the Goodreads Challenge, in which readers attempt to get through a certain number of books, equates to competitive reading. However, Goodreads itself brands the challenge as a way to, “Motivate yourself to read more books”. In this case, the only competition is with Netflix, Facebook, or any of the other activities that might distract potential readers from books.

However, judging by such articles as the one in The Conversation, and by posts on social media, you would think that readers were viciously attacking or ridiculing other readers for their choices of books. On the contrary, on Twitter I see an endless number of posts like one that I spotted today, reading:

You only read one book a month? You’re still a reader

You only read graphic novels? You’re still a reader

You only listen to audiobooks? You’re still a reader

You only read one genre? You’re still a reader

Whatever, and however much you read…yes, you’re still a reader.

The concern about competitive reading brings to mind a quote on getting older that I love. US columnist Ann Landers famously – and wisely  – said:

“At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all.”

Similarly, it seems wise to understand that few people are concerned about the genre that we read, the authors we prefer or the formats we like to use, whether paper or audio. No one cares if you haven’t read the latest Lianne Moriarty, or Sally Rooney’s much-discussed Normal People, whether you prefer comic books or the memoir of your favourite rock star, find your books on the bargain table at the newsagency , Target, or the local bricks and mortar bookstore.  I don’t, and if I ask you if you’ve read the book I just finished, don’t take it as a challenge. I just want to talk about books.

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