Dive 18: How a reading program ruined my love of reading …and how I started loving it again
Hey, it’s Alvin!
I loved reading as a kid. So, for a few years, I took part in my elementary school’s reading program, Forest of Reading, which was meant to foster a love of reading. Each participant had to read all the books from the list of 10 fiction novels set by Forest of Reading in 5 months during the school year. There were even tracking sheets to record which books we read.
How I Lost My Love
Two books a month at 200 to 300 pages, each, doesn’t sound so bad. But remember, this is on top of classes, after-school classes, homework, extracurricular activities, and just playing with friends.
The organizers probably knew this, so they added a couple extra incentives: if we finished at least seven of the books, we could vote for our favourite, and go on a field trip. The author of the book with the most votes would win an award. It was kind of cool to have some impact on that. A field trip instead of class? We’d take that offer ANY day.
But there were days I was so busy; I wouldn’t have time to read. I’d become acutely aware I was running out of time. I had to rush. Then, the only way I could finish all the books on time was to skim them. But then I couldn’t emotionally engage with the story.
Even when I had time to read, there were books that simply bored me. Maybe they had characters I couldn’t relate to. Maybe it was set in a place I couldn’t imagine. Maybe I just didn’t like sci-fi.
But I had to finish the books to get the prize field trip, and I liked to finish what I started. So, I slogged through them. I was so disengaged, I don’t remember a single book I read for the program.
The last Forest of Reading program I took part in was in the 8th grade. After that, I graduated to high school, where the program did not exist.
It didn’t matter. By then, reading became a chore.
I read because I had to.
I hated it.
I’m sure the organizers of the program had the best intentions. The problem is the program shifts the focus from “making reading enjoyable” to “finish reading all our books.”
It’s such a prevalent problem among incentive programs, it has a name: a perverse incentive. That is: “an incentive that has an unintended and undesirable result that is contrary to the intentions of its designers.”
It’s a mistaken idea that we must reward people at the end of an activity to make the activity enjoyable. Yet, this idea is so deeply ingrained in us, it shows up everywhere.
Even Goodreads, a popular website for book lovers, challenges readers to set goals on the number of books to read in a year:
But who is it really for?
Those who hate reading simply won’t take up the challenge
Readers seeking information will just read enough to get what they want.
Readers who just need to set aside time each day can make do with a simpler reminder app.
Readers who love reading don’t care about these numbers. Have you ever heard a movie lover say, “hey, I set a goal to watch 49 movies this year”?
No, I won’t be setting this as my New Year’s resolution.
It doesn’t matter if you read one book or a hundred if you get nothing out of it.
So, what’s the solution?
How I Found My Love
After I graduated from university, I wasn’t in the best headspace.
I wanted to learn more about my mental health concerns and the world around me. So, I started reading online blogs focused on psychology. I also read about business since I started working. None of this felt like work. I was engaged with the posts because I was curious about the subjects I was reading about. My curiosity drove my reading habits. Some of those blogs recommended books, which is how my love of nonfiction started growing.
Watching anime was a favourite pastime of mine. And one blogger pointed out that one of my favourite shows often referenced a sci-fi novel named Hyperion, by Dan Simmons. It turns out, Hyperion is part of a series of four books with over 2000 pages of text.
I loved every page.
So much so, my foray into the Hyperion universe restored my love of fiction, too. It was also the first sci-fi series I ever loved.
Non-fiction and fiction books would often reference subjects I wanted to learn more about. It’s what inspired me to read a variety of topics. From history (Dominion by Tom Holland) to health (Breath by James Nestor). And I finally got around to A Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
I read because I want to.
Being able to read what I want, when I want, for however long I want led me to newfound love for genres I never previously cared for. It’s why I’m a big believer that the best way to make reading enjoyable is to let people read what they want. No goals, no objectives, no reading lists. There’s nothing wrong with taking suggestions from a reading list. I just don’t want to be bound to one.
Also, I no longer read all books cover to cover.
That being said, sometimes even good books start slow. It’s worth it for the author and ourselves to give the book a chance before we decide whether to drop it. So, I apply “the Rule of 50.”
The Rule of 50 is a heuristic introduced by author and librarian, Nancy Pearl. The idea is to read the first 50 pages before you decide whether to continue or drop it. For every year beyond age 50, you can read one fewer page before deciding.
For example, if you’re 60, you can decide after 40 pages.
If you’re 70, you can decide after 30 pages.
And if you’re still reading at 100, you can literally judge a book by its cover.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of gamified reading. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. Let me know what kind of book reading strategies you have. Do you have to make reading enjoyable? What’s your approach? Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful day. And I’ll see you next year.