In 2018, I made the choice to keep track of all the books I’d read in a single year: when I started them, when I finished them, those sad few I abandoned prematurely. I’m surprised and only mildly horrified it never occurred to me to do this before.
In 2018, I read 30 books.
In 2019, I read 23.
And as of early March of this year, I had finished only two.
This put me on the concerning track toward failure. I was not on pace to meet my annual goal (the one I had imposed on myself with no consequences awaiting me one way or the other) of 30 books, and thinking back on my previous years’ quantitative accomplishments filled me with shame. But wasn’t there something to be said for the fact that the two books I had finished were both nearly 800 pages?
The first was a modern classic: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The second was a classic’s classic: Middlemarch by George Eliot. As friends plowed through novel after novel, I worked to bat away the expectations I had of myself and embrace the slowness, the difficulty, and the late-arriving gratification of moving through a longer work.
I sought to retrain my brain and reframe my thinking—where before I saw plodding and drudgery, I now aimed to see precision and diligence; where there had been dread, there now was expectancy.
As with all feats of persistence, satisfaction’s counterpart is sacrifice. It’s similar to the way you discover new depths and capabilities within yourself when training for a race. Except when you’re reading, not only are you learning those things about yourself, but you’re also learning them about the characters and the author. As with real people—and who’s more real than fictional characters in whom you see your own self mirrored?—you have to spend time with them to afford them the opportunity to change. If you write them off, you’ll never see how they could have surprised you or what they could have taught you in the end.
However, for me, this practice of endurance came at a cost. The more I progressed with these works, the more frequently I had to forgo starting new ones . . . or doing basically anything else. But, over time, the more I chose to wrestle with the task I had set for myself, the more I grew to appreciate this act of discipline. And the thing is that I was choosing. It wasn’t a mandate someone else had put on me. It was a deliberate choice I was making to chip away at a goal I wanted to meet. I had nothing to prove to anyone but myself—though, of course, we’re often our own cruelest critics.
The concept of expectation is something these novels brought to the forefront of my mind, where it’s stayed, inconveniently, throughout this strange spring of 2020. As time unspooled before me and with the agency to fill it as I willed, I found I gravitated toward books and away from nearly all else. This brought up the question, Why do I do those other things at all? Yes, there are standard obligations, but why have I bowed to others’ expectations and placed them unflinchingly upon myself? It’s questions like this that I continue to ponder and hope to have some answers to by the time life is back to “normal.”
I continue to sift through the difficult notion of expectations, and as I do, it is a cognizant choice to weigh each day, and each new book I pick up, on its own. Comparison is the thief of joy, as they say, and I fight daily to unfetter myself from my tendency to compare and instead aim to see things anew, as if for the first time. This is freedom.
Structure is good. Boundaries (such as those imposed by a quarantine) can be healthy and often spark creativity. Choosing to draw lines around your life—the things you eat, your reading selections, the music you let wash over you all day, whether you will or won’t text that person after all this time—can be helpful in crystallizing what you really want. Goals are worthwhile, but they and expectations are not equals, and I’m learning to measure myself against the former rather than the latter.
My reading goal for this year is to complete 30 books. My expectations for this year? Simply, to read.
Andrea Avey, a native Tulsan, was an English teacher for five years and now works in the private sector. She devours literature and writes as often as she can.