Love the book, not the number

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I hate reading goals.

I don’t believe in them. I think their purpose is often grossly misguided. “How many books have you read?” is often given more importance than “What books have you read?” Really, the most important question is, “Do you like to read?”

A few years ago when my daughter Claudia was still in elementary school (I call her Claudia here, in an effort of anonymity, after the girl in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), she had to earn a certain number of Accelerated Reader (AR) points each 9 weeks. Each book on the AR list is assigned a point value based on its arbitrarily-assigned reading level, and then a multiple-choice comprehension test determines how many of the assigned points are earned.

For most of the kids I talked to, books were chosen based on point value. I heard, “Nah, I’m not going to read that one. It’s only a 7-pointer,” or, even more disheartening, “Nah, I’m not going to read that one. It’s not worth any points.” What happened to teaching kids to love reading for the sake of reading? This AR system only taught kids to read because they had to. The plot of the book wasn’t important, the desire to read the book had no relevance. Only the point value mattered. Plow through it, take the test, get your points. Did you like the book? Who cares. I understand that kids will still have to read the required reading crap, like Beowulf and The Heart of Darkness, but do we have to hijack their pleasure reading too?

I recommended a book to a friend’s daughter, but she said she wouldn’t read it because it wasn’t on the AR list, and therefore she wouldn’t earn points for it. If she can’t get points, then it’s not worth reading.

My niece, who reads so much she’s made a Youtube channel about it, didn’t get on the AR Honor Roll list (for those with the MOST POINTS) because she also recognized that this AR thing is absolute bunk. Her friends looked at her in wide-eyed disbelief when her name wasn’t called on awards day for reading AR books. Her mom asked her why she didn’t make the list at awards day at her school, and she told her that she didn’t want to be told what to read. “Too many books I want to read aren’t on the list,” she shrugged.

So, for the kids who already love to read, AR is stifling. For the kids who hate to read, it reinforces their hatred of reading. Fortunately, at my son’s school, they’ve recently ditched AR in favor of “just record how many minutes you read every night.” It’s working better. I still get the “How many more minnnnuttttes?” whine, but at least he gets to pick the book he’s interested in. And it doesn’t matter if he reads two books or 200 books. He’s reading, and that’s the point. And there’s no will-this-be-on-the-test anxiety associated with it.
Goodreads has an adultified system of annual goal-setting for number of books read per year for their patrons. “What’s your reading goal?!” they yell on their Web site. “See what your friends have listed as their goal! How many books do YOU want to read in 2016?” My answer: all of them. I want to read all of them. Every single book. I wish I could pop them in my mouth and gobble them up, Cookie Monster style.

I never set a goal. Why? Because, honestly, I don’t care how many I read every year. Sure, I fall prey to the stats on Goodreads and am interested in how many and what exactly I read over the past year. Not to sound clichéd and snobbish, but I savor quality over quantity. I’d rather read five 600-page tomes of literary nirvana than ten 300-page pieces of “meh.” If I want to read it, I read it. If I don’t, I don’t. This year I read a translated French novella, Beside the Sea, that clocked in at around 80 pages, and I also read the much over-hyped A Little Life (don’t get me stahted) that was 850 pages. Well, 150 pages of actual story and 650 of nauseous repetition. They count for the same thing on a “reading goal” list, but in my heart they carry much different weight.

And I don’t want to be like my friend’s kid who will say, “Well, I’d like to read that book, but it’s 600 pages long, and I’m trying to meet my reading goal for the year . . . and, well, that’ll just put me behind. So, never mind. I’m so sorry, Mr. Best Book Ever That I Missed Out On. You’re just too long to bother.”

Never mind, indeed. Read what you want, when you want, as much as you want. What’s MY goal? To enjoy my books.

3 thoughts on “Love the book, not the number”

  1. All of this!! I had no idea about this system. When I was in elementary, if we were labeled “advanced readers” it mostly just meant our teacher knew we liked reading, and she’d let us hang out inside to read during recess. Your niece is the greatest.

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    1. Good! Love to read and read what you love! When I taught 2nd graders , I would hug a book and say, I love this book!
      My class would say, ” You say that about every book you read!”. So I say to let children read what the like. The important thing to do is to read!!

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  2. While I cannot quarrel with your logic in this post, I must say that I do think that numbers matter in at least one place. I am very proud of the total number of books in my library. That has nothing to do with reading goals, admittedly, but it is about numbers of books. Thus, while recently reading McCullough’s biography of the second U.S. president, I felt quite a sense of accomplishment when I learned that my personal library is larger than was John Adams’. Never mind that books were much harder to come by and comparatively much more expensive in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I was still proud of myself. All of this is to say that, while I do not see any point to setting reading goals, I certainly see a point to setting a goal of acquiring more books. Just having the books…lots of books…is a fulfilling goal in and of itself, completely irrespective of the actual reading and enjoying of their contents.

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