Many challenges this year, including a reading goal

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/8/20

When 2019 rolled over into 2020 and the 12 months that lay ahead were promising blank canvases, I did something I’d never done at the launch of any other year: I set a reading goal.

And like …

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Many challenges this year, including a reading goal

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When 2019 rolled over into 2020 and the 12 months that lay ahead were promising blank canvases, I did something I’d never done at the launch of any other year: I set a reading goal.

And like most new year’s goals and resolutions, I tackled my plans — at first — with focused attention.

Three weeks into the new year, I was on a roll, and at the rate I was going — with three books already in the rear view mirror — it would be a cinch to exceed my 30-book goal.

I was feeling accomplished.

My blaze of glory continued through February, but at a slightly slower pace. But I was undeterred since my reading that month included two thick 19th century novels that I couldn’t merely breeze through. And my new tally didn’t include my third reading of “Moby Dick,” since it was a re-read and technically not even that since I’d only listened to it — all 22 hours — on Audible, squeezing the thick classic in during my commute to and from work.

How I arrived at 30 as a goal, I don’t remember other than that it was less than 50, the number of books my wife — who was the inspiration for me undertaking this goal — aimed to read utilizing the same Goodreads app, and I didn’t want to set a goal I had little chance of meeting. That wouldn’t be good for the ego.

But other than ego, or perhaps my own self-improvement by reading more, nothing was at stake.

The “challenge” — all voluntary — involved no prizes for success or punishments for failure. There’s not even so much as a t-shirt on the line.

And though there would be no public glory in meeting the challenge, just as there would be no public shaming if I didn’t, I started to take the challenge seriously, and by that I mean that for every book I completed and checked off on the app, I was feeling accomplished.

As with meeting any goal, I enjoyed seeing my progress; in this case, that meant watching the progress bar expand on my Goodreads app every time I finished another book.

But then — there’s never a shortage of excuses when we need one — the new year started getting weird and by early March, when it started to look like the end of the world as we knew, I couldn’t even pretend to be caring any more about the challenge I’d set three months earlier.

Instead of reading novels for pleasure, I was reading constant coronavirus updates.

I’m envious of the folks I know who have taken full advantage of this weird time in history to accomplish new things, like reading more books.

And I’ve accomplished some things, too. Last weekend, I built an outdoor table. The weekend before, I brought down a big tree in my backyard that had died, cut it to manageable pieces and hauled them to the street. We’ve got a long to-do list that includes painting the kitchen.

I’ve been busy.

But I’ve not been able to maintain a focus on pleasure reading, and my challenge — initially so promising — stalled at five of 30 books, a mere 17 percent of my goal.

My wife, meanwhile, hasn’t lost pace, enjoying —among 17 other books she’s read so far this year — a thick biography of Queen Victoria. She’s reached 34 percent of her goal and is one book ahead of schedule while I lag behind mine by five.

I’m trying to kick start my efforts, to get the challenge back on track, but with only intermittent success.

The key has been finding the right book. Light reading — I love mysteries, for example, and can knock out a good one in a couple of sittings — seemed too light for these times. So I turned my reading attention to a classic which I’d never tackled before and, without the intervention of the events of 2020, likely never would have: Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron.”

I chose this imposing 14th century Italian book for a couple of reasons.

One, because it’s thick. My copy — complete with a long introduction, notes and index — is just over 900 pages. I like big books and cannot lie, reasoning that if a book is good, there’s that much more of it to love in a long one. I spent, for example, much more time reading “Lonesome Dove” than I needed to, not because the paperback I read 12 years ago was 945 pages and the print was small, but because I read it slowly by design, savoring it with zero desire to leave Larry McMurtry’s vivid characters and their world any sooner than I had to.

Second, because it seemed timely, even for a book written nearly 700 years ago. Completed by its author in 1353, “The Decameron” is set during the Black Plague epidemic in Europe in 1348. Like “The Canterbury Tales,” “The Decameron” is a collection of stories recounted by a disparate group, in this case seven young women and three young men sheltering in a villa outside the city of Florence to avoid the spreading sickness, passing the time telling stories. It seemed a perfect choice to read in these unsettled times, but admittedly, it’s slow going.

There’s an option on Goodreads to edit my challenge, and I considered it briefly. Maybe reduce my goal to 15? But that would be cheating and I’d only be cheating myself. And I can be a bit forgiving of myself, I think, because when I set this challenge for myself in early January, such an innocent time so long ago, there was no way to know the many other challenges that lay ahead.

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