The Adults Who Treat Reading Like Homework

No one’s making them try to read 100 books a year.

H. Armstrong Roberts / Retrofile / Getty

When Stevie Peters was a kid, she used to read books for pizza. She remembers participating in Pizza Hut’s reading program, which still exists today, as her first experience with reading challenges. “When I was a kid, I read all the time, even if it wasn’t for school, so the idea of reading 200 books just so you could get a pizza was the best thing ever,” she told me. Peters, now 31 and living in Swansea, Wales (though she grew up in the United States), started participating in reading challenges again in 2016, though no one is giving her free pizza for doing so now that she’s an adult. Every January, she logs into her Goodreads account and sets a goal to read 50 books that year. She hasn’t hit that number yet—she said she usually makes it to 45 or so. Still, “I can definitely do 50,” she said. “I just want to keep challenging myself to read as much as I can.”

Though surely people have had personal reading goals for as long as there have been books, the book-tracking social-media site Goodreads seems to have institutionalized and popularized the practice of setting yearly reading targets. The Goodreads Reading Challenge started in 2011 and had 149,716 participants that year, according to the website. This year, more than 3 million people have pledged to read an average of 59 books before the end of 2019. (This number is skewed by some particularly ambitious folks—the majority of people pledged to read 1 to 24 books.) Other sites, such as Book Riot and PopSugar, have their own yearly reading challenges, and on Reddit, users strive for 52 books a year, one a week.

In 2018, only 16 percent of participants in the Goodreads Reading Challenge actually completed it, finishing 21 percent of the total books pledged. In earlier years of the challenge, those stats were sometimes higher—in 2011, 29 percent of participants finished the challenge, and in 2013, participants read 56 percent of the books pledged. This could be because in the early days of the challenge, only the most hard-core readers were participating—Goodreads started actively promoting the challenge to its users in 2015. But Suzanne Skyvara, a spokesperson for Goodreads, told me that the company doesn’t have data on what affects whether someone completes the challenge, and declined to speculate, saying the site prefers to focus on the fact that people are reading at all.

Still, the fact remains, more and more people are making reading goals that most of them will not meet. Why set yourself an unattainable goal? Why quantify your leisure reading at all?

Perhaps the most intuitive reason is the most common: Adding some structure to your reading life can be a way of making sure that you actually read. In 2011 and 2012, Donalyn Miller, a reading ambassador with Scholastic and the author of two books about reading habits, conducted a survey of adult readers’ practices, trying to figure out what keeps people reading when they no longer have the structural support of having to read for school. One of the key things she found was that “the only difference between a nonreader and a reader is that a reader has a plan for future reading and a nonreader does not,” she told me. It’s easy enough for reading to fall by the wayside with the responsibilities of adult life and the on-demand pleasures of Netflix and the like. “A plan for future reading” might just mean putting books one is interested in on hold at the library, or a loose plan to dedicate more time for reading. Or it might mean a yearly reading challenge.

Ben Gosbee, a 31-year-old accountant in Beverly, Massachusetts, says he read all the time as a kid, but noticed that in recent years he hadn’t been reading much. So he set a goal of reading 25 books this year. The number, he told me, is “something concrete to focus on”—he fears that if he had instead made his goal to read a little bit every day, he would have found excuses not to. As an accountant, he said, he’s very “numbers-oriented—I enjoy that kind of organization and sorting through data.”

Attainable reading goals can be motivating and improve the experience of reading, according to Neil Lewis Jr., a professor of psychology at Cornell University who studies motivation and goal pursuit. But “if the goal is unrealistic (given the realities of the person’s life) then it could actually be demotivating,” he told me in an email. “When people set goals like this, we often forget to take into account the other things that usually occupy our time and get in the way … If you have not been reading as much as you would like, it is probably because you are doing other things instead; are you willing to scale back on some of those things to make time for more reading?”

Indeed, some people find the challenges to be the opposite of motivating. Sue, a 50-year-old teacher who lives in Crowthorne, England, just joined Goodreads this year and set a goal of reading 20 books. (She asked to be identified by her first name only so that her students won’t see her private information.) So far, she’s not enjoying her experience with the challenge. She’s kept a list of every book she’s read in a notebook since she was in secondary school, and can see from that record that she actually used to read more books in a year when she didn’t set a numerical goal.

“I put down 20 books, which I thought was not a lot compared to what I have done,” she told me. “Ever since I’ve done that, I found my reading rate has slowed down. I keep getting messages from Goodreads saying, ‘You’re behind target on your reading schedule.’ I’m wondering if psychologically it made it feel more like a chore as opposed to pleasure. I almost wish I hadn’t gone onto Goodreads. It’s making me feel like I’m back in my school days.”

This is the curious thing about reading goals—they are essentially homework that people make for themselves. Like homework, reading challenges can feel like pointless busywork for those who aren’t feeling intrinsically motivated to read. Or they can bring a sense of learning and accomplishment.

It’s not always a numbers game either. Browsing the forum for this year’s Goodreads Reading Challenge, I found that a lot of users, in addition to pledging to read a certain number of books, have other goals as well, seemingly intended for self-improvement or to broaden their horizons. Some want to read more books by authors of color, or more classics. One woman wants to read 100 biographies and/or memoirs before she turns 40.

Halle Stoutzenberger, a 29-year-old data-entry clerk who lives in Atlanta, in addition to her Goodreads goal of 52 books a year, has a “side goal” of reading more fantasy this year. To help with that, she has set up what many readers call a “TBR jar.” (“TBR” stands for “to be read,” and among the crowd of those who like to quantify reading, you will often find folks reveling in or bemoaning the growing size of their TBR pile.) Stoutzenberger explained how the TBR jar works to me in an email: “Write down the books you want to include in your goal on scraps of paper. Then fold up the scraps and place them in a jar. When you’re ready to select a book, simply pick out a scrap at random.”

“The TBR jar can sometimes feel like a high school summer reading list because it’s something I’m requiring of myself, but it also makes a game of my ever-increasing list of books to read, so it’s fun in that way,” she said. “It definitely feels like something in between self-improvement and leisure, though.”

Other forms of entertainment straddle that line—watching documentaries, for example, can be both educational and fun—but reading seems to inspire this gamification, homework-ification, and quantification to a unique degree. Perhaps that’s because society tends to view reading as an intrinsic good, whereas other media—movies, TV, the internet—are often seen as time-wasters. “Given many [people] feel they’re consuming too much media, the goal is usually to limit consumption,” Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who studies goals, told me in an email. “In this sense, for many people reading is a virtue—so you want to increase it—while watching TV is a vice—so you try to limit it.”

Skyvara, of Goodreads, echoed this sentiment in our conversation, comparing reading challenges to weight loss. “Even if they don’t achieve their goal, they’re still probably reading more books than they would’ve,” she said. “It’s kind of like if you decided to lose weight and your goal is to lose 20 pounds and you’re able to lose 15 pounds, you’re still better off.” Of course, neither reading nor weight loss is an inherently virtuous pursuit—but both often get categorized as self-improvement, or as something people vaguely feel they should be doing. Both are very common New Year’s resolutions, for example.

Ultimately, the people I spoke with who seemed to be enjoying their reading challenges the most were the ones who didn’t seem to care much about completing them. Gosbee thinks he’s not going to hit his goal of 25 books this year, in part because when he reads nonfiction, he reads more slowly to try to absorb the information. But the real goal, he said, is just to spend some enjoyable time reading. (Miller pointed out that many people, like Gosbee, get some “self-awareness of themselves as a reader in the process” of doing a challenge, even if they don’t complete it.) Peters has developed a strategy of reading several books at once, so that if she gets bored of one, or just isn’t in the mood for that genre, she can dip into another. When she doesn’t make her goal, she said, it’s a little frustrating, but not a huge deal: “By the time January 1 rolls around and Goodreads asks you what you want to read for next year, I just shake it off and say, ‘We can try again.’”