Be a better reader in 2011

Choose a book outside your comfort zone and accept a reading challenge in the new year

Published January 5, 2011 1:01PM (EST)

Last year around this time, I suggested that Salon readers make a resolution to read at least a couple of books they expected to hate in 2010. OK, I confess, the headline was a tad overstated. The point isn't to slog through a novel or biography you find unendurable, gritting your teeth all the way, but to consider the possibility that snap judgments and old prejudices could be keeping you from books you might actually enjoy.

My own personal resolutions? First, I vowed to read more books about science in 2010. In this I was mostly successful. One title -- Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" -- even wound up on my best-of-the-year list. That book was fairly light sledding, though, given how gracefully Skloot weaves together the story of 20th-century medical research with the lives of one American family, always keeping the human element in play.

Manjit Kumar's "Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality" was more what I had in mind when I made my resolution. This history of the bizarro-world puzzles of subatomic physics and the men who solved them was challenging to say the least. When you have a weekly deadline, you become leery of the kind of book where certain paragraphs have to be read two or three times before you can move on. Nevertheless, I found "Quantum" exhilarating and mind-expanding. I tend to shy away from books like this because they seem "hard," and in fact they are hard, but it's precisely the difficulty that makes them so rewarding. This was reading outside my comfort zone in the best sense of the term.

I had less luck with my resolution to read at least one contemporary French novel. I picked Muriel Barbery's "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" because it was a word-of-mouth hit for the small publisher Europa Editions a couple of years ago. I figured if this translation won over thousands of readers without the benefit of a full-bore publicity campaign, there must be something appealing about it. Alas, whatever others found charming in "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" utterly failed to work on me; I really did grit my teeth -- through all the intellectual grandiosity and phony pose-striking -- to the very last page. It was just so ... French. I'm open to suggestions for giving Gallic writers another shot in 2011, though.

The past year also introduced me to the world of online reading challenges. Inspired by the summer reading rallies run by many schools, these are entirely non-required projects whose adult participants are mostly book bloggers. (You don't have to have a blog to take up a challenge, but it helps.) You sign up, thereby publicly promising to read a certain number of books over the coming year, and then share your reviews of those books with the other participants as you go. Many challenge organizers provide lists of suggested titles, and some even offer prizes.

A few challenges don't specify what sort of books the participants need to read. They focus solely on quantity -- 100 books in 12 months, or simply more books than you read in 2010. Others aim to help their participants end the year with increased expertise. You can accept challenges for reading books on mental health or adoption, for books by writers from South Asia or Eastern Europe, or for Shakespeare's plays. Still others aim to correct for cultural biases, like the People of Color Reading Challenge or, spinning off of that, the Quirky Brown challenge for books "by Black authors depicting an offbeat Black experience."

Other challenges are purely revels in fannish enthusiasm. They include challenges that stick to a particular writer -- the choices range from Haruki Murakami to Lucy Maud Montgomery ("Anne of Green Gables") -- or that zero in on favorite genres: zombie novels, gothic novels, historical fiction, YA, books about food, or about Ireland and the Irish or Italy and the Italians.

My two favorites, however (and it will have to be a platonic favoritism, because my job is a reading challenge in itself), are the Chunkster Reading Challenge, for books of 450 pages or more -- because who couldn't use a little moral support when assailing a doorstop? -- and the TBR Pile Challenge. The latter is an ingenious concept: To count toward your total, a book has to be taken from your To Be Read stack (probably gathering dust beside the bed even as we speak), and it has to have been there for at least a year. That's two resolutions in one, when you think about it: reading more in 2011 and cutting back on the clutter around the house.

Here are links to some of the more intriguing reading challenges on offer for the new year:

Chunkster Reading Challenge 2011 (for books of 450 pages or more)

The 2011 TBR Pile Challenge

2011 Young Adult Reading Challenge

ZOMBIES! Satisfy Your Undying Hunger! Challenge

Historical Fiction Challenge 2011

Foodie's Reading Challenge

Science Book Challenge 2011

Italy in Books Reading Challenge 2011

2011 Irish Reading Challenge

2011 Eastern European Reading Challenge

South Asian Reading Challenge

POC Reading Challenge (for books by people of color)

Quirky Brown Reading Challenge 2011 (for books that eschew "the overly-subscribed-to depictions of the so-called 'Black experience'")

Lucy Maud Montgomery Reading Challenge 2011

Shakespeare Reading Challenge 2011

Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge 2011

Mental Illness Advocacy (MIA) Reading Challenge 2011 ("If it's fiction, a character has a mental illness. It can also be non-fiction ranging from self-help books to academic books on the topic.")

Adoption Reading Challenge 2011

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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