I read for a lot of reasons. One of the stranger reasons I read is because of how much I like entering my reading into my Goodreads profile. You enter the books you’ve read, when you’ve read them, give them a rating and a review (if you want). Basic social media stuff, but that’s now why I love it; I love it because of what Goodreads does with all that data after you enter it.
I love how the data get arrayed out into neat bars and stats based on how many books you’ve read in a year, how many pages, when you’ve read the book versus when it was published, and what the longest book was that you read for that year. Basically, these are stats for a nerd, the way a baseball player might be concerned with improving his batting average or a runner might want to improve her best times. Suddenly, I want to read so I can fill my bars and I want to read a lot, all the time, even if I don’t really feel like it because I have to keep filling those bars. This is also the neurotic motivation I have for gathering Achievements for my Xbox Live gamertag, incidentally.
And hey, as long as it all motivates one to read more books, what’s the problem?
Well, the problem is that when you set a reading goal for the year, and if you really focus on hitting it, you very quickly turn into a mercenary about what you’re reading. Sure, you could be reading Infinite Jest right now (which I am) and it could strike you was one of the best books ever written (which, thus far, it does) but it still only counts for one book. It’s over a thousand pages long yet it only moves my “books read” bar up by one tick. It’s over a thousand goddamn pages. I could read three average novels in the same time period!
There was one month (May 2013, according to Goodreads) where I did nothing but read Shogun by James Clavell for almost the entire month! And sure, it was one of the finest books I’ve ever read in my life and absolutely compelling, but an entire month was spent on one book! What about my bars? I have bars to fill.
Sure, there’s the fact that the graph also tracks the longest book that you’ve read, but that also has a flaw: what’s the point of reading a thousand page book if you’ve already got a 1100 pager on that graph? I have Neal Stephenson’s Anathem sitting patiently in my “to read” stack, but what’s the point? That shit only clocks in at a mere 937 pages, which makes it too long for me to stay on track with my monthly book goal, but too short to make “longest book of the year that I read.”
So, what, I’m left with the joy of reading? Maybe I want to marvel at a masterpiece of speculative fiction from a writer who cosistently delivers interesting and intelligent work that always impresses me? Maybe I just want to read something great for the joy of reading?
Fuck that, man. I got bars that need fillin’.
One thought on “The Trouble With Long Books”
It’s amazing how the metrics we measure warp our behavior. Be it game design, economics, or statistical process control, if you start to measure something, people will change their behavior accordingly.
What’s sad is that the things that are truly worth measuring are almost always immeasurable. So we end up measuring the things that are of value by proxy, and eventually we invariably become more focused on the proxy than we should be.
My only recommendation is to keep the statistics that you’re tracking a moving target. Focus on books read for a while, then swap over to pages, then swap over to reading the most critically acclaimed, then switch over to reading the most heavily recommended by friends, then switch over to reading the oldest books in your queue, then switch over to reading the newest releases. By keeping the focus moving constantly, you’ll never be tempted to adopt bad habits to play to your metrics, and you’ll continually move in the desired direction of “quality reading.”