Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Overwhelming Power of Self-Made Obligations

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I mentioned this on the blog already (and if you know me, you know this), but I love books. I love reading, obviously, but I just love books. I love being surrounded by them. I love looking at the different covers, the way they tell a story themselves. I love the fact that, for however many pages are inside a book, there is a whole world inside of one small object.

For the past few years, I’ve been participating in the Goodreads Reading Challenge. I love this challenge because you set your goals. Perhaps you don’t read often and you have a list of books to be read, staring you down from your bookshelves and nightstands. You can set a goal so that you make the effort to do this one thing. The prize for reaching your goal? It’s just that great feeling of accomplishment, maybe the desire to read more often. It’s just a personal challenge and you post about it on the website.

In 2013, I had declared that I would read 52 books that year. At the time, I was clearing about a book a week, sometimes in just a few days. I was able to read at work and there was a lot of downtime. At some point in the middle of the summer, that privilege was taken away. It was also around that time that I started to want out of that job. It was a funky period in my life, and reading definitely fell into the background. I still marked down the books I read, but I didn’t reach my goal and I didn’t really care.

2013’s grand total was 37.

For 2014, I picked something that seemed a bit more reasonable – 40. It was just a bit higher than what I had accomplished in 2013, meaning I would still face a challenge but that I would have less of an opportunity to fail. I made it, 40 books, finishing by the skin of my teeth on 12.31.14. The last book I read was The Illuminated Adventures of Flora and Ulysses (A Newberry Medal Winner, BTW!). I am not above reading children’s books but even I admit that reading that book was kind of a cop-out.

This year, I set the goal at 35. I made room for personal rough patches (they had obviously happened in the past), having a life, reading larger books (The Goldfinch has been on my shelf for almost a year, as well as Stephen King’s It. I’m also one of those people who intend on reading Infinite Jest at some point in my life.), and cutting myself some slack. I am currently on Book #16 of 2015…6 books ahead of schedule, 43% done, and we are only entering the second quarter of the year.

I’m stoked that I’ve read 15 books so far (one of them was my first fiction audiobook and, yes, that counts!), that there is plenty of room to take a breather if I need one or to pick up a bigger book and take my time. I also like the thought of trumping that goal, of going above and beyond and making up for my previous failed or rushed attempts. The kicker is, though, that I’m starting to stress about it and this is silly because:
A) I’m the one who chose the number of books in my challenge
B) I’m the only one who is going to care when the damn thing is over

I love books, but sometimes I feel like I’m sinking into a pile of them like quicksand. I’ve managed to turn something I love into an obligation. Obligations are a part of our lives, no doubt, but when passions turn into obligations, we have a problem. It starts to feel like a job, a task that needs to be checked off on the To-Do list, something we don’t want to do but needs to be done. It becomes a cumbersome process. These are actual obligations: Paying bills. Paying taxes. Going to work. Jury Duty.

None of those are fun. In my case, I will worry about what book to read before I’m even finished with another one. I will try to triumph through a book that I don’t really like, just to have it added to the list. I will buy a new book or take another book from the library when I already have so many unread books in my personal collection (physical and e-book).

Going back to what I said in the beginning, my love of reading goes hand in hand with my love of books. Before I started rampantly purchasing any e-book that sounded mildly interesting and was on sale or any book that had been hyped and praised and I wanted to check out, I used to approach the task with excitement and curiosity. I’d walk around the shelves. I’d pull out titles that sounded interesting, reading the dust jacket. I’d glanced at the first page and, when a book was right, I would read a few sentences and know this was the next book I wanted to read. If I found an author I really enjoyed, I would look up all the books they had written and get them as soon as I could. It was an unpredictable adventure.

Now I place boundaries. If I read too many YA books in a row, it’s time for an “adult” book. If there were too many female perspectives, it’s time for a male POV. If I read too many romances, it’s time for a thriller. If I read a book by an author I enjoy, that author’s other works have to wait because there’s that other popular book that I have to read instead. If I see that a book I am curious about has less than an average 3.5 rating on Goodreads, I rule it out. If I see that a book that interests me is actually part of a series, I have to scratch it from the list because reading a series of books would be too much of a dig in all of the other the books I want to read.


I love reading, but I’m experiencing a burnout because I’ve been turning it into this calculated attack to meet a goal or to be in the know. The girl who used to read the dust jacket and say, “yeah, this feels right today!” has disappeared and I freaking miss her. Finish book, pick up new book, bust my way through. I’ve read some great books this year and I’ve even stepped outside of my comfort zone a little more by introducing more mystery/crime and lyrical writing into the mix. I don’t regret reading any of the books I’ve read…but I do regret my approach to this.

The lesson I’m learning (and maybe you could learn too) is this: If something (heck, even someone, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing) turns into an obligation, step back to figure out why. Is it pressure you’re putting on yourself? Is it something you’ve simply grown out of? Are you worried about the money you put into it? Do you feel like you owe someone? Can a different approach fix this feeling?

Saying NO is something I want to do so much more. I have been trying, with the power of Lena Dunham, to say it more often. In the reading community, people tag the books they’ve stopped reading as DNF (Did Not Finish). For some people, it is an unthinkable option, a step towards failure.
I know quite a few, and I’m one of them myself. BUT…do you know how good it feels to stop doing something that’s making you uncomfortable or unhappy?

My goal, ultimately, is to bring back the fun that came with picking out and reading books. I don’t want to pressure myself or say, “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS RIGHT NOW BECAUSE YOU BOUGHT IT.” I don’t want to keep grabbing books at the library that I’ve heard about because they are buzz-y when I know the storyline isn’t something I’m currently in the mood for. I want to take a break from buying books so that I can shop my shelf. I want the experience to come organically. I want to continue reading, but I want to do it the way I always did. I want to continue the challenge by reading how I used to read.

The important thing for me to remember? The books will still be there. Even if those books I’ve failed to read are out of the picture, there are plenty more to choose from. Sometimes, a book isn’t right at first, but then is picked up and makes sense later. This happened to me with The Hunger Games! I’m glad I stopped when I first read it, because it wasn’t for me during that time in my life. When I picked it up a year later, I was mentally stronger and really able to engage with the story. Those popular bestsellers are still going to be sold or borrowable in the future (that’s the blessing of winning awards and being a bestseller!).

No matter what your obligation is, there’s a good chance it can be picked up later. You can pull it out of the closet, you can buy another one, you can welcome it when you’re ready.

There’s already enough stress in the world.
Don’t allow your self-created obligations to add to it.
Free yourself of those handmade burdens.

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