As a teenager, one of my favorites part of winter break was that I could read whatever I wanted. I’d toss my backpack on the floor the minute I got home from the last day of school, crouch down by my white particle-board bookshelf, and scan the titles for an old favorite I hadn’t read recently. Christmas would inevitably bring a stack of new titles to refresh my to-be-read pile, and I’d tear through them, knowing that I had only a few more days before assigned reading would fill up all my time again.
When I grow up
, I remember thinking, I can read whatever I want—all the time
! I’d spend whole evenings—entire weekends, even—immersed in the worlds of my choice. I could scarcely imagine something so wonderful.
And then I grew up to work in publishing, which is a lot like going to school in that you’re reading all the time but not books of your own choosing. And life happened. To my shock, I found I could go months (!!!) without picking up a pleasure read.
Around this time last year, I decided to reclaim my reading time. But instead of plowing through to my TBR list, which is easily thirty books deep, I found myself eyeing Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge
. The idea is to complete a series of twenty-four tasks that invite you to read outside your comfort zone. The tasks from the 2017 challenge include “Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location,” “Read a superhero comic with a female lead,” and “Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.”
I spent most of New Year’s Eve filling out my challenge list.
It seems completely counterintuitive, doesn’t it? For so long I had ached for unfettered reading time; now I was pushing aside comfortable favorites and anticipated new releases in favor of books I didn’t even know if I would like. Why would I waste my precious reading hours on something I might not enjoy?
Part of it is that despite wishing that I had more time to read my own books, I actually enjoyed most of the assigned reading in high school and college. In fact, out of all of the books I read for my English major, there was just one that I didn’t finish. (Moby-Dick
; man, that Melville guy could’ve used a better editor. That book is a snore-fest.)
But here’s the real reason I wanted to “read harder”: I’m not adventurous. Once I find a dish I like at a restaurant, I order it every single time. I’d rather hang out with a small group of people I know well than meet new ones. I’m not a thrill seeker, and I feel most comfortable when my life is predictable. And there’s a cost to that—experiences I’ll never have, friends I’ll never make, sights I’ll never see.
For our first anniversary, my husband and I flew to Los Angeles. One evening, we ended up on the Santa Monica pier, and I got it into my head that I wanted to ride the Ferris wheel. For most people, that’s no big deal, but I’m acrophobic. I get sweaty palms and vertigo and have even ended up in tears, frozen in place, because I feel like I’m going to fall.
My husband thought I was crazy—why would I do something that could make me miserable? But I couldn’t be dissuaded.
On the way up, when the familiar symptoms set in, I regretted my choice. And when we stopped near the top, I could barely bring myself to look around. But when I did, I found myself in awe. We caught the incredible sunset, including the moment that the sun slipped into the water. To someone who grew up in landlocked Tennessee and never saw either ocean until her early twenties, that’s a huge deal. If I hadn’t pushed myself, I would’ve missed it.
I seldom find the courage to be bold in my daily life. Reading outside my comfort zone gives me the opportunity to challenge myself more frequently. All those new places and people and ideas that I’m too intimidated to encounter are so much more accessible through the pages of a book. The stakes are low; if I hate something I’ve read, well, no big deal. I don’t ever have to read it again. But falling in love (or even in like) with a book that I might have missed otherwise—that’s a total “sunset in the ocean” moment.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to report that I’ve only gotten through a measly twelve of my planned twenty-four titles. I did end up taking some time for old favorites and new releases, and life happened, as it always does. But of the twelve, there was only one that felt like a slog, and there were three or four unexpected treats.
Despite this year’s “failure,” I’m looking forward to the 2018 reading challenge. My attitude has shifted; it’s not that I have to read these books; it’s that I get to read them.
Well, except for task 24: “an assigned book you hated (or never finished).” Man. This is just setting itself up for some 'white whale' jokes. Well, back to the sea for me.
*UPDATE: We are a third of a way through the year, so we wrote about how we were doing with the Book Riot Read Harder 2018 Challenge. Check it out!
Meaghan Porter is a trained tap dancer, a gymnastics and Gilmore Girls enthusiast, and a managing editor at W Publishing Group. She is also wife to Jared and the source of gravity in the world to three-year-old Abby. You can keep up with Meaghan's future posts on Page Chaser's Instagram or Facebook page.