Readers, though, are disciplined, more devoted and committed to their goals, which, I’m happy to say, can be attained while eating a box of chocolates.
A few weeks ago, I asked subscribers of the Book World newsletter about their New Year’s reading resolutions. One thing is clear: They are an awesomely literate group.
As we set off into 2021, the most common resolution among the respondents involves not just spending more time reading but reaching a specific number of books — typically about 50 to 60. Several people noted that they often exceed that goal, but 2020 was an unusually distracting year. Doug Gordy, of Walnut Creek, Calif., laments that due to the pandemic, he “hit a bit of a reading slump in 2020” and “only read 184 books” (emphasis added, and envy too). This year, Gordy is aiming for 200 titles.
Christopher Alden of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., also found himself overwhelmed last year, “fretting over how to get toilet paper, masks, mail-in voting and presidential attacks on our democracy.” He wants to compete with “all those readers on Goodreads achieving their 1,000-books yearly reading goals and bragging about it like they won a marathon in bare feet.”
That would impress most people, but not everybody. Kathleen Marie Hill writes, “My 7-year-old granddaughter, an avid reader, lives in New York, and I live in California. We decided to each set a reading goal for 2021. She started with a million books.”
Another telling detail is how many people have resolved in 2021 to read more of the books they already own. This goal popped up so commonly that one suspects booklovers love buying books even more than reading them. Years ago, David Thornhill in New York purchased the “100 greatest books” from the Franklin Library. “The books look great,” he writes, but “have hardly been used in the past 25 years,” while he’s been seduced by more current novels. Now he’s determined to start with Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” and keep working through the set. “This time I really mean it.”
Elly Albrecht set down a simple rule in her home in Eugene, Ore.: “Before I buy a new book, I have to read at least two books I already own.” Her confidence is not inspiring. “I am a compulsive book buyer,” she confesses, “so we’ll see how it goes.” Anne Bowen of Carson City, Nev., has already thrown in the towel: “I will continue buying books I will never read and continue to lament the lack of time to read them.”
Best-selling decluttering guru Marie Kondo advises getting rid of those volumes you’ll never open. Ellen Morton replies defiantly, “Marie Kondo, you don’t know me!” In her Los Angeles home, Morton has a whole shelf of joy-sparking books she wants to read this year just “to prove Marie Kondo wrong.”
Not surprisingly, a number people plan to finally scale literary classics that have long intimidated them, including “literature that I never got around to, even from the old high school reading list.” (Your secret is safe with us, Cecily J. Young.)
Several have revived such perennial “resolution books” as Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” Robyn Andrews of Travelers Rest, S.C., knows she will read Cervantes’s “Don Quixote.” “Why am I so sure?” she asks. “Because I’m afraid Ron Charles will contact me to follow up this time next year!” (Yes, Robyn, get cracking.)
Other “big, fat, juicy books” that will be conquered this year:
●“The Anatomy of Melancholy,” by Robert Burton
●“Tristram Shandy,” by Laurence Sterne. (“No more excuses,” swears Kathryn Cummings in Santa Fe, N.M.)
●“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” by Edward Gibbon
●“The Life of Samuel Johnson,” by James Boswell
●“Ivanhoe,” by Walter Scott
●“The Count of Monte Cristo,” by Alexandre Dumas
●“Middlemarch,” by George Eliot
●“Remembrance of Things Past,” by Marcel Proust
●“Ulysses,” by James Joyce
●“The Gulag Archipelago,” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
●“Infinite Jest,” by David Foster Wallace
Into this category, we must add the completists, those tireless readers determined to work through an author’s entire oeuvre. Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Dostoevsky and “all the Brontës’s novels” are among the impressive goals!
Thomas Roller of Camp Hill, Pa., wants to “read more Evelyn Waugh and find out how to pronounce his name.” (One of those tasks is easier than the other.)
Ann Parks of Baton Rouge, La., plans to read all the John le Carré novels she’s purchased over the years. Then she’ll start on Ian Fleming’s spy novels. “Maybe by then,” Parks writes, “both Covid and the Trump era will be firmly behind me, and I can proceed to enjoy regular life.”
A curious reader named Diana Nolan in Levittown, Pa., has a delightful adventure ahead. She plans “to read books cited in my grandmother’s 1919 diary to see what contemporary fiction was like 100 years ago.” That postwar period was dominated by Zane Grey’s westerns and Mary Roberts Rinehart’s mysteries, so it will be fascinating to see what Grandma was up to.
Other reading resolutions for 2021:
Read more poetry
“When I was sent home from work in March,” says Susan Woods in Arlington, Va., “I turned to neglected, decades-old books of poetry on my shelf for solace from the news cycle and the uncertainty surrounding our knowledge of the virus. Happily, I’d bought Louise Glück back in my 20s and Sandra Cisneros.”
Jeanne Julian, who recently moved to South Portland, Maine, is determined to stop scrolling through headlines and instead spend more time with poetry. “My husband got me Mary Oliver’s ‘New and Selected Poems,’ for Christmas. I’m going to start there,” she says, “in gratitude for his thoughtfulness — he’s not a poetry guy.” (Oh, I think he is, Jeanne!)
Read more diverse books
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, readers are making an effort to read more books from Black authors, including Barack Obama’s memoir “A Promised Land.”
In Richmond, Calif., Lisa Scheffer is working through a broad study of Native American literature, from speculative fiction by Rebecca Roanhorse and Stephen Graham Jones to poetry by Natalie Diaz and works of history by Claudio Saunt.
Readers also expressed their interest in books written by authors in different parts of the world and books in translation. Staci Sturrock of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., writes, “I’m continuing with my goal to read one book from each country, starting with Afghanistan and ending with Zimbabwe.”
Keep a reading log
What’s the use of reading so much, if you can’t remember the treasures you’ve enjoyed? “I share Librarian Extraordinaire Nancy Pearl’s regret that she never kept track of the books she has read,” Carole Dickerson writes from Freeport, Ill. “This year I’m going to change that.”
Maggie Magennis in Stamford, U.K, is taking her literary diary a step further. She plans to record what she did and what she did not like about each book she reads. Authors: You have been warned!
The anti-resolution resolution
Why not use books to resist a culture that always celebrates more and faster? Kathryn Downie in Missoula, Mont., has had enough of the frantic pace. “I resolve to read fewer books,” she writes. “I want to slow down and savor the stories, process the ideas and give words room to breathe in this crowded brain of mine. It feels daunting, like resolving to take a single trip to an all-you-can-eat buffet full of tempting options. Wish me luck!”
Good luck, Kathryn — and to all of us readers in this bountiful new year.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.