Liberating Myself From Self-Imposed Goals with 1,358 Pages of Tolstoy

Like many of you, I read a lot of books. I hadn’t intended reaching this particular milestone, but having already read 88 books this year, and with two months left to go, it looks like I am on target to complete at least 100 books in 2009.

In 1994, when I first started keeping track of the books I finished reading, my reading habits were quite a bit different than they are now. I was 25 years old, had roommates my age, an active social life, and I was studying for the GRE to get into graduate school. During that entire year I managed to read a whopping five books. Since the list is so short, I will share it with you:

Wilderness Tips – Margaret Atwood 3/19/94
The Culture We Deserve – Jacques Barzun 5/1/94
The Enigma of Arrival – VS Naipaul 7/10/94
The Machine in the Garden – Leo Marx 12/5/94
The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald 12/11/94

Kind of an interesting and odd list, don’t you think? Two of the five are non-fiction, which I don’t read much of these days. The Barzun I have no recollection of whatsoever, the Marx is a classic text in the field of American Studies, which is what I was headed off to study in grad school. Of the remaining three, at least one is a bona fide classic (Fitzgerald), one is often considered an important novel, perhaps even a baby classic (Naipual) and one is by one of the greatest authors alive (Atwood).

From late 1995 to early 1997 the number of books I read went up considerably thanks to grad school. Most were non-fiction but there was also a fair amount of great American literature thrown in as part of my degree. Works by Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Crane, Howells, Dreiser, and others were read and dissected in class.

Having to do all that reading for grad school did three things: it reminded me that I loved to read, it conditioned my brain to read older, and in many cases more challenging fiction, and the required reading lists left me chomping at the bit, wanting desperately to create my own reading list. When I finished my degree I couldn’t wait to get to the public library. I wandered the shelves four hours and discovered for the first time in my life some of the truly great authors: Willa Cather, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, and James Baldwin among others.

From then on, and through another Master’s degree, my reading habits kept up pace. In 2004 I heard a radio feature on a woman who had written a book about reading a book a week. I remember thinking that I easily read more than 52 books in a year. So I consulted my books read list (which by then was also in spreadsheet format) and discovered to my surprise that the most books I had read in a year was about 39. So I made it my mission to complete at least 52 books in 2004. Every year since then I have pushed myself to do more than the previous year. Even though it hasn’t always worked out that way, 2008 was kind of slow for me, it has been an encouragement to help me keep striving to read more.

And now this year it looks like I am going to break 100. I must admit that keeping an eye on the number of books that I read has had an impact on whether or not I tackle some bigger books. I still manage to dig into a chunky Trollope now and then. And this year I even managed the Wilkie Collins doorstop also known as The Woman in White. However, I feel like reaching the 100 book mark really frees me up to tackle a really, really big book.

So I am going to embark on War and Peace. All 1,358 pages of War and Peace. I am not sure if I am going to wait until I finish my 100 for the year. I am kind of itching to start now. And I am not sure, with my other reading, if I will finish it in 2009. And frankly, at this point I don’t even care if I actually make it to 100 books this year (big step for an OCD-head like myself to let that go). I just love the fact that nearing that unintended goal, I feel kind of liberated take on the mother of all chunksters.

Besides with a cover like this who could say no?

Do your reading goals, whether they be driven by book or page quotas, online challenges, book clubs, school, or any other sort of real or perceived pressure keep you from reading what you really want to?

19 thoughts on “Liberating Myself From Self-Imposed Goals with 1,358 Pages of Tolstoy

  1. Teresa October 31, 2009 / 7:47 am

    My reading goals usually involve books I actually want to read, so they don't really interfere. The only exception is my book club, which is a joy because I often get to read good books I wouldn't consider otherwise, but the flip side of that is that we sometimes read not-so-good books I would not have chosen and would abandon if I weren't reading them for book club.

    The main problem I have is that I want to read so many different things–and I want to read them all right away. So, in a way, every book I read is keeping me from reading something else I want to read. :-)


  2. Paperback Reader October 31, 2009 / 7:58 am

    Fabulous! It is a beautiful cover. Good luck.

    I have read 118 books so far this year and imagine that I will have read at least 130 books by the end of the year.

    I find that blogging and challenges have prevented me from reading a lot of the books that I intended to this year but they have also allowed me to discover other wonderful books. I am striving for some more freedom in my reading from now on.


  3. BooksPlease October 31, 2009 / 10:45 am

    I don't think I'll reach 100 books this year and it's those long books that slow me down! I decided not to bother about reaching any targets and yes it does make me feel free.

    Even though War and Peace is very long once I got started I didn't want to put it down. I had to, of course, as it is so long. I hope you enjoy it.


  4. Book Psmith October 31, 2009 / 1:49 pm

    You have to scratch that itch. I joined the 100+ challenge thinking it would be just awesome to reach 100 books and it was very anti-climactic. What has been so awesome this year is how many books I fell in love with this year. That is what I will remember…not that I broke a certain number. Because I joined too many challenges, my reading had very little room for spontaneity this year but did what I needed to to free up these last two months to read exactly what I want. Whatever you read…enjoy!


  5. Heavenly Housewife October 31, 2009 / 2:18 pm

    I used to be an English major. I had to read a lot of books I wasn't into. Now I have the luxury of just reading for pleasure–i read what i want, when I want. I find it so much more enjoyable this way.


  6. Lezlie October 31, 2009 / 4:59 pm

    Yay for you!! War & Peace is AWESOME!! The instructor in my DVD lit course just talked about it, and it made me want to read it all over again. I hope you love it!

    I think I always have the goal of 100 books per year in my head. I'd love to be one of those who can reach 200, but I'm afraid if I got serious about that goal I, too, would pass up books like W&P and Moby Dick all in the name of a pointless goal and that would be sad. Blogging and seeing other people's numbers made me a little jealous for a while and more numbers driven, but I think I'm over that now. 100/year make me feel like I'm making progress on my enormous mental TBR list but doesn't make me shy away from more involved reads just to make that goal.



  7. Diane October 31, 2009 / 5:15 pm

    BRAVO…for planning to tackle W and P.

    In 2010, I am only going to focus on books I really, really really want to read, not just so so books.


  8. Amanda October 31, 2009 / 5:46 pm

    I have a goal to read 52 books a year because I often read more than that. When I try to do more I find myself passing up big books because they take too long. I was hoping that this year I would make 75 books happen, but I don't know if I will reach that goal.

    BTW — I LOVED War and Peace. I read it a few years ago and then realized I read the wrong translation. Now I have the newest translation sitting on my shelves.

    Have fun!


  9. Jodie October 31, 2009 / 5:56 pm

    Woah I bow down to any Tolstoy chunkster reader! This year I've hit a big total for me (just passed 60) and while it's cool I'm really ready to dig into some big, big books now, which is what I think I'll start doing in November.


  10. Anonymous November 1, 2009 / 1:10 am

    I thought I would have 'number' envy seeing numbers around 100 when I'm still heading for 35 or 40 per year…but you are all inspiring. I haven't done any challenges yet, but maybe I'll set one for myself…to read as often as possible and only books I love.


  11. Rachel November 1, 2009 / 6:41 am

    I try not to give myself goals. I don't like setting myself up for failure!

    I prefer to just read what I feel like. If you're feeling like a bit of Tolstoy, go for it! There's nothing better than a sweeping saga at this time of year.


  12. Peter S. November 1, 2009 / 7:46 am

    Hi, Thomas! I got here via Mrs. B (literarystew). I love your blog! I see that you've read The Woman in White this year as well. It's my favorite read for this year! I'm actually in my Wilkie Collins phase — I'm reading Armadale, which is actually longer than TWIW at 800 pages!


  13. Thomas November 1, 2009 / 9:11 am

    Teresa: I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote that every book you read is keepinng you from something else. I guess if this were an economics class we could talk about the opportuntity costs of reading one book over another.

    PR: Well discovering all these great book blogs (like yours) over the last six months has really changed my TBR in unexpected but wondeful ways.

    Books Please: That's what I am looking forward to. Something that will draw me in and not let me go.

    Book Psmith: I love almost every online challenge I see, but once I have the fun of making the list I lose interest because there are too many other things calling my name.

    Heavenly Housewife: I didn't take even one Lit class in college. I think I am trying to make up for that.

    Lezlie: As much as I can obsess over a goal, the idea of 200 in a year does not appeal to me at all.

    Diane: One nice thing about my method of choosing books to read, is that I read very few so-so books. And I subscribe to Nancy Pearl's rule of 50. If you don't like it by page 50, you have permission to put it down. Life is too short and the TBR is too big to read things you don't like.

    Amanda: I don't even want to know which is the right translation. Because this is the edition I now own. I know the folks at Penguin won't let me down…

    Jodie: Once upon a time I thought Anna Karenina was a Tolstoy chunkster, but WP really trumps that doesn't it?

    Anon: In 2007 USA Today did a poll and found that 1 in 4 Americans read no books the previous year and once you factor that group out, the rest averaged about 7 for the year. Which means your 35 books is 5 times the number of the average American.

    Rachel: I love how you referred to WP as a “bit of Tolstoy”. Is that classic English understatement, or do you have a book that is 2,600 pages? LOL

    Peter: Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the compliment. I really did love my first Wilkie Collins experience. I think I have decided to allow myself one Collins a year.


  14. Ti November 1, 2009 / 3:03 pm

    I've been tied up with review commitments lately and it's stressing me out a tad. Most of the books that I agree to review are books that I want to read but some I am not that motivated to read right now. For one I am way behind with my book club reading and I don't like when that happens. I have been with my book club for 13 years and it should never take a back seat.

    I should be in much better shape come December.


  15. Mrs. B. November 1, 2009 / 10:30 pm

    Thomas, I haven't read War and Peace though I've heard that you should read the one translated by Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky. They also have a new translation of Anna Karenina which is supposed to be brilliant and much more true to the original.


  16. Thomas November 2, 2009 / 1:16 pm

    Ti: That is why I won't let anyone give me review copies. I can't stand being obligated to read anything.

    Mrs. B: Since I already bought this doorstop, I am going to stick with this translation.


  17. Rose City Reader November 2, 2009 / 11:45 pm

    Who are you??

    I swear that you are my reading doppleganger. All of it. The lists. The numbers. The thoughts.

    And (I am not making this up), I just finished my 90th book for this year and as soon as I finish my 100th (which is, as you can guess, my goal for the year), I am going to read War and Peace.

    I kid you not. It's been on my life list for too long and this is the year I am going to finish it (I started the year with Crime and Punishment to get another big one out of the way).


  18. Thomas November 3, 2009 / 3:38 pm

    Rose City: You may want to ask me about specific titles on my “books I have read” list. Not all of them are worth it.


  19. mel u November 3, 2009 / 5:54 pm

    I really enjoyed your reading history-I read War and Peace 40 or so years ago in the original translation and I read it in March this year in the new translation and it is a great read now-not a chore to be completed to put on your list!-

    I use challenges so I always end up reading what I want to-just for fun-

    what I do sometimes is read short easy to read books at the same time with a longer oneS as I do enjoy the feeling one gets fron completing a book


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