How many books have you read this year? How many books could you read in 24 hours? Have you read everything Agatha Christie ever wrote? Have you tried William Faulkner? Just when exactly were you planning to finish War and Peace?
Welcome to the reading challenge, a perennially popular aspect of the more lighthearted literary blog, where readers set themselves personal reading goals and encourage others to join in, starting contests to complete particular lists or tot up big numbers in specific fields.
Challenges based on a geographic area are a favourite, with current groups devoted to Russian, Southern United States, Japanese, African, Australian and Canadian books. There are also challenges devoted to genres such as graphic novels or mysteries and to particular authors. Some function almost as scavenger hunts, requiring participants to work their way through mixed lists featuring any book set in a particular place, any book on a particular theme and even any book with a particular colour of cover. Some challenges remain personal resolutions (read Ulysses); others attract hundreds of followers.
"I couldn't help but join in," said Nicola Mansfield, a challenge enthusiast who lives in Niagara Falls, Ont., and who began joining challenges when she started blogging in 2007. "I went a bit crazy the first few years, overdoing it, but I've tamed the beast."
For Mansfield, who read 299 books last year, taming the beast means paring back to five challenges a year: She has just completed a mystery and suspense challenge, and is working on challenges to read graphic novels, the books on her own shelf and all the advance reading copies that publishers send to her blog for review. She also participates in the Canadian Book Challenge, which she won last year. She says she doesn't organize her own challenges, because all the good topics are taken.
Participants like Mansfield enjoy the sense of belonging to a like-minded reading community that goes with the challenges, and use these readers to get suggestions for new titles and new authors. Some say stretching your reading habits is the whole point.
"If there weren't reading challenges, there are so many genres I would have missed out on," said Shesten Melder, a Mesa, Ariz., blogger who writes about young-adult literature and organizes the Dewey's Read-a-Thon, a twice-yearly 24-hour challenge. "Manga was something I had an attitude towards. ... I thought they were just for teenage boys. ... I tried it and love it." Melder also discovered she loves comics in general, and that she dislikes dystopia literature.
One Canadian challenge has made pushing readers outside their comfort zone its theme. Last fall, Toronto blogger Jen Knoch, organizer of a physical and virtual book club called Keepin' It Real, launched reading roulette, a complex challenge in three parts: First, participants compiled a list of pet peeves (which included vampires, Harry Potter, child narrators, Stephen King, anything Latin American and novels featuring kings and queens). Then they rebutted others' dislikes with passionate recommendations. Lastly, participants were called on to read a recommended book from their hated category. Only a few rose to this last part of the challenge, which produced one convert to the Harry Potter books and one unrepentant reader still skeptical of historical fiction.
Many of the challenges are imbued with this notion of self-improvement or intellectual expansion.
"People like to imagine themselves as intellectual, but when all you're reading is reports or tech manuals [in your work] you feel you're missing out on all the great thinking you did in school or when younger and still exploring the world. So these provide a set of artificial structures and deadlines to get the job done," said Newfoundland poet George Murray, editor of bookninja.com. "They remind people that exploring the world needn't stop when you get a job. You have off hours. What you do with those hours can be Grand Theft Auto or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Your choice."
Not everybody is convinced, however. Alex Good, editor of the independent Canadian book-reviewing site goodreports.net, thinks the contests are mainly about the readers' vanity, an extension of showing off one's bookshelf on Internet book sites such as goodreads.com.
"Reading ... is a solitary pastime, but at the same time we like people to know that we're the kind of people who read, and even [to]judge us by what we read and how much we read," he said. "We all want people to admire our bookshelves; that's a large part of what they're for."
Like Good, blogger Jessa Crispin of bookslut.com is skeptical of the competitive or at least quantitative element of the challenges.
"They seem like New Year's resolutions," she said. "I understand that mentally, with more than 250,000 books published a year, you have to sort your reading. It's okay as an organizing principle ... it's not really about the books, it's about the words consumed .... [but]if you have to be competitive, it's better than eating goldfish."
Enthusiasts, however, say the competitive aspect is merely for fun, and that nobody cares much who actually wins. Dewey's Read-a-Thon, for example, gives out hourly prizes to random participants because it would be impossible to determine an actual winner from numerous unsupervised participants reading from any genre they please.
"You could read all Dr. Seuss, you could read all your university books, comic books, magazines, whatever you want to read," Melder said. "The joy is being able to escape everything and do something you love. There is this camaraderie of people all over the world doing the same thing. … It isn't about pitting people against each other. It's about expanding your horizons."
You can thank Alexander Pushkin and Ivan Turgenev for the blogosphere's most lively CanLit challenge. In 2007, John Mutford, a schoolteacher in Yellowknife, had enjoyed expanding his knowledge of the Russian classics in an online reading challenge and began hunting for the Canadian equivalent.
"CanLit has always been my passion so I went on to see if there was another one to join," he said. "I was surprised there wasn't one, with a country as large as ours and with such a rich literary tradition. ... So I started one."
His annual Canadian Book Challenge, sitting on his blog The Book Mine Set, is just wrapping up its fourth year. It currently has about 50 followers, who he predicts will have read and reviewed more than 900 books by the time the challenge ends next week (although there would be lots of duplicate titles in that number). The challenge is to read at least 13 Canadian books in any genre between one Canada Day and the next, and post a review anywhere online. Mutford himself tries to read one title from each province and territory - that is why he chose the number 13.
"I have some people who have read 13 Lucy Maud Montgomery books," he said. As well as those by the author of Anne of Green Gables, works by Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland and any book featured on the CBC Radio competition Canada Reads are perennially popular. This year, many participants are reading Room by Emma Donoghue. Forgotten titles by well-known writers also show up: Mutford's favourites include Mordecai Richler's The Incomparable Atuk, a satirical novel about an Inuit who moves to Toronto that was published in 1963.
The winner last year was Nicola Mansfield, who read 45 books; she looks set to win again this year, so Mutford plans to draw names for the prizes, most of them books donated by authors and publishers.
He hopes that for the upcoming fifth anniversary year participants can read 1,000 books, and he has added a 24-hour read-athon to encourage them, starting July 2 at noon.
When the cumulative challenges reach 10,000 books, he thinks he'll step down, but in the meantime, Mutford, who allows participants to define "Canadian book" however they choose, is still looking for the meaning of it all.
"I was curious to know if our collective literature had some sort of Canadian feel or common bond," he said. "I'm still not sure of the answer to that. I think so, but it's as hard to pin down as the Canadian identity itself."