Reading challenge, 2020.

Prepare for a blog post of book lists.

After last week’s lengthy post, I wanted to write something easier for this week. And, since it’s still that month in which we all share the insane aspirations we have for the new year, I figured it was as good a time as any to share the ones I have for reading in 2020.

First, to update, here’s the progress I made since last I shared my reading list:

  • Putin’s Russia, by Anna Politkovskaya
  • An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, by Etty Hillesum
  • The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, by Michael Shermer
  • Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer (1/2 finished, 11 months on stack)
  • Voices of Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  • Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, by Gretchen McCulloch (2 chapters, 5 months on stack)
  • House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Exhalation, by Ted Chiang, (2 stories, 3 months on stack)

In the meantime, I also started and finished:

  • A Winter’s Promise (Mirror Visitor Quartet, Book 1), Jeanette Gilge
  • The Missing of Clairedelune (Mirror Visitor Quartet, Book 2), Jeanette Gilge
  • The Prince and the Dressmaker, Jen Wang
  • Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Ronan Farrow

Back in late December I went on an ill-advised book-buying binge. I’d meant to only pick up some picture books for my nieces and nephews, and on my first trip I’d diligently resisted buying any books not on my shopping list. But then I had to go back to pick up one more gift, and my resistance wore down. I bought three more books just for me, and and then went back a few days later for a fourth.

So, the books currently stacked on my end table to read in the upcoming months are:


  • Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, by Gretchen McCulloch (started, carried over from previous list)
  • Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer (started, carried over from previous list)
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich

Literary fiction:

  • The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood
  • The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
  • The Ballad of the Sad Café and Reflections in a Golden Eye, by Carson McCullers

Escape fiction:

  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
  • Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde
  • Dance of Thieves, by Mary E. Pearson

Overall, I’m trying to move away from explicit goals. I find that when my list becomes too rigid, it starts feeling like a chore. I like having books out that I feel excited to read, and I think it’s worthwhile to give myself that extra push into reading something challenging (like working out, or eating vegetables), but I don’t want to lose sight the fun that is supposed to be at the heart of reading. I want to enjoy reading for its own sake.

So instead of making myself a list of goals (or a list of rules, which this almost turned into), I’m framing this as a challenge. Because, um… those are different, right?

I’m sorry, I guess I can’t help myself.

Anyway, here’s how I’m challenging myself this year:

  • Books I start in 2020 must be finished in 2020.
  • Read and/or return any books I borrowed prior to this year.
  • Finish 1 book that intimidates me.
  • Read a book I bought over 5 years ago, but never read.
  • Read a book someone gave me as a gift over a year ago, but never read.

Originally, I felt my challenge focused too much on limiting the stack itself, but I don’t think that’s the problem. The real issue is having half-read books linger and pile up. The lack of momentum can become daunting. I’m hoping that by being able to finish books at a quicker pace, I won’t feel intimidated by a stack—and will have more fun contemplating it as a result.

Beyond this, I’m not trying to be too prescriptive in what I have to read. (Yes, you may laugh if the above already seems absurdly prescriptive.) I still have my usual pattern of non-fiction and fiction going at once, although I’m trying to switch between what I’m hesitantly calling “literary fiction,” even though I worry it makes good books sound pretentious, and “escape fiction,” which are books that I read primarily for entertainment, although I like them best when they’re still all of the best things a really good book can be. (Defining these groups probably requires its own post.) I’m also trying to be conscious in my efforts to mix in classics, books that have been sitting on my shelf for a while, and new books that are coming out this year.

My last binge should tide me over until April, so I should not let myself buy more books before then. Once I clear the current stack (which is subject to reordering as I see fit), then I have some books high on my list that I’m looking forward to.

I’ve also already got my big intimidating book picked out for the year, and some contenders for the “book I bought over five years ago” and “gift book I never read” slots. And the Carson McCullers books on my current stack are on loan from a friend, so I’ll be making progress on that front as well.

Overall, I’m happy with the parameters I’ve laid out, although whenever I do things like this I find I can get very carried away with the idea of a reading list and want to add on a bunch of other challenges, like “read more books about language and writing,” or “read a book from every inhabited continent,” or “read more collections of essays and short stories.” Maybe in 2021, depending on what I read this year, I’ll try to come up with more creative challenges.

One more thing. If you’ve read this far, you’ve seen what I have on my plate. But I’m also trying to be open to recommendations from other people, so that the books I read don’t become an echo chamber for my own interests. So I’m going to do a thing I’ve never done before and ask for comments. Do you have something you’re really looking forward to? Goals or challenges you’d like to share? A book you think everyone should read? Tell me about it. I may just put it on my next reading list.