Picture this: It’s Thanksgiving Eve, and I’m lounging in a beach chair in San Juan. The sun is warm and bright, temperature just shy of 90 degrees, and the tide is rolling in. A normal person might be sipping a piña colada, enjoying the sand and surf, taking full advantage of this paradise for some rest and relaxation. But instead, I am hunched over my phone, filling out a Google Sheet as carefully as I can with my dark sunglasses on. Why? Because ten minutes before, I got a text from my friend, reading, simply, “It’s out!”
I had been waiting all month for this. The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt list was announced. It was time to plan my list for next year, vacation be damned.
I love reading challenges. I’m not a competitive person, but I like to push myself in ways big and small. Reading challenges are the best way for me to do that with an activity I already do year-round, because they help me expand the list of things I read. I’ve been doing this specific challenge since 2015, along with setting a general book goal for myself every year. Am I mad? Maybe so. But I am not the only one.
Book challenges come in lots of shapes and sizes, and there are plenty of reasons to do them. So if you’re thinking about getting started with one in 2020, let’s take a look at what’s out there and what you might get out of it.
There are several types of challenges to help fit what you’re looking to get out of your reading journey. If you use Goodreads (and honestly, you should), you can set yourself a challenge for how many books you can get through in a year, shifting the marker as you see fit. (You can also keep a book journal to achieve the same effect off-line.) This type of challenge also offers you a greater degree of flexibility with what you read, since you just have to keep up with your count.
Other challenges use prompts, like the PopSugar Reading Challenge. These give you specific requirements that a book needs to fill, such as a book with a pink cover or a book that takes place in a country starting with the letter C. This means you have to pick 50 picks that fit into 50 different prompts, which in itself can be a challenge. What I personally love most about these kinds of challenges, though, is that you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone.
See, I love very specific genres and authors, and if I let myself, I will read books that fall under those headings only. It’s sort of like when you eat takeout only because cooking means putting in extra effort. Horror novels are my pad thai—comforting and delicious, but they’re not going to help me explore new ideas. With this kind of challenge, I have to read spy thrillers, nonfiction, romance novels, things I would normally overlook. And what a weird blessing it has been, because I have found some of my favorites this way!
There are also challenges that dictate exactly which books to read. A great one, if you’re looking for a varied reading list that spans genres and decades, is the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge. Based on the books seen read by Gilmore Girls protagonist Rory Gilmore during the seasons of the show, you’ll read everything from The Art of War by Sun Tzu to Christine by Stephen King to Gidget, the classic novel of summer surfing that inspired the TV series. Perfect for a super eclectic reader (or someone who wants to become one).
There are also plenty of challenges that are more about specific genres of books, such as challenges to read 52 comics in 52 weeks, or that focus solely on spending some time in space. There are others still that emphasize where you get your books, like the Library Love Challenge that encourages people to take out at least 12 books from their local library to read. There’s even one where you read 26 books that each start with a different letter of the alphabet. And there’s a master list so you can keep track!
“But why would I want to take one of the few leisure activities I have and make it into an obnoxious checklist?” you might ask. Well, to the reader who I assume will ask this, I will say: there is no right or wrong way to do a reading challenge. While there are suggestions for how to do them, and checklists and spreadsheets are often involved, you can do as much or as little as you want. I have friends who take lists and choose to read only a half, or a third, of the books on them. I know others who look at prompt lists and use them as a guide to finding cool new books without commitment.
A reading challenge is like any other challenge—you do it for the personal satisfaction. I do it because I like planning and strategizing what I’m going to read while letting myself be open to surprises.
But there’s another reason I take part in these challenges that might not be as obvious: no matter what challenge you pick, there’s always plenty of people in that boat with you. When I first started doing the challenges, I had friends whose interests were piqued and started doing them with me. They don’t all do them every year, or necessarily complete them, but it gives us something to further bond over. If you are on Goodreads (again, you should be), you can join discussion groups to get ideas to fill prompts, trade thoughts, do monthly reading groups together, and just generally geek out about books. It could even be a good starting point to found a local book club! It’s not hard to find people who will want to jump onboard with you.
Whether you’re ready to take the plunge in 2020, or if you’re just perusing to see if this is something that might interest you as you roam the stacks, I hope this short guide has helped. Just remember the central truth to any and all reading challenges: the whole point is to have fun reading!
P.S. Yes, I have already filled out my spreadsheet for 2020 with books from my TBR…even though I wasn’t technically finished with my 2019 challenge at the time. What can I say, I get excited! Want a sneak peek at my list? Here are the first four books I’ll be diving into this new year.