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  • Vanessa Vella

Why I Failed At Books in 2019

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

Let’s start by addressing the obvious: is it even possible to fail at… books, of all things?? No, not really, but I am not above using a click-bait-y title to get you to read this blog. I assume you’ll keep reading since I’m being so honest about it.


Okay, some context: Each year I endeavour to read the same number of books as my age. The reason for the reading goal is that I love books and learning, and the age thing is just because it seemed like a fun idea. It also conveniently ensures each year gets a little harder but not by much, and that I get smarter each passing year as well.


I started doing this 4 years ago, pretty much on a whim - I’d been wanting to read more and figured I’d try this and see if it was a good way of gamifying that goal. and I’m happy I did. It has been fun, when I stay focused on what matters (more on that later!).


When I started tracking my reading, it provoked me to think about how I was spending my time, and how I could carve out more reading time. During moments where I’d be just as happy to engage in a useless, endless internet scroll on my phone, I would be more often reaching for my book. If I thought “I only have 5 minutes to read, that’s not going to do anything,” I’d more often pick up the book and read a couple pages because “it all adds up!” So tracking my reading did help me more consistently get it done.


Curious (and likely procrastinating from doing some kind of cleaning related chores), I decided to look up my numbers from previous years so we can judge me using actual numbers (Thanks, Goodreads!):

  • 2016: 21/36 (this was the baseline measurement year… I didn’t try very hard, I just did what I’d normally do so I could see how many books I read when left to my own devices)

  • 2017: 40/37

  • 2018: 38/38


The first thing that stood out to me while I was through these numbers is that I’ve read a lot of cool books. Books are so awesome! Even the ‘bad’ ones always teach me something, or help me move ahead in some way. I honestly feel like I could pick up any ol’ book and get something out of it.


One nugget of wisdom I’ll share about starting (or reanimating) a reading habit is: resist the urge to overthink or over plan. Just read anything and read every day even, if it’s only for 5-10 minutes at a time. Not only will doing that once or twice a day will get you through a book lickety split, but more importantly, daily reading will form the foundation of the habit. Once you get into a book you really like, picking it up to read it becomes a lot easier.


But back to the click-bait-y headline I worked ‘so hard’ on: this year I failed at books! But I failed in a non-spectacular, totally necessary sort of way, which feels like a successful sort of failure to me.


In the end, I read 35 books. Right at the start of the year, my life went a little bonkers and one consequence of that was my brain was so sleepy. It was hard to focus and enjoy reading, and since I have a longstanding policy of not forcing myself to do things (I am a friend to me!), I had to take a pause. Though I will also say that I definitely attempted to push myself along for a while, until it became obvious that I was just torturing myself and piling on the stress I was already feeling. So I smartened up eventually.


While that was a necessary decision, it really bummed me out on two levels: I am not accustomed to not feeling like reading. Clearly I enjoy it and it’s always strange when something we typically enjoy stops being enjoyable. It’s a bit of a mini existential crisis (“Who am I if not a great reader of all the books?!?” and so on).


It also meant intentionally allowing myself to get behind my goal, which is super fun as far as having a goal and tracking your progress towards it. I spent about 95% of the year behind schedule, and that was hella unmotivating. It’s an interesting test of wills when you know you won’t be able to achieve your goal in the timeframe you set out. Do you continue doing it anyway? Why or why not? Do you modify the goal? What do you do??


I decided to keep working towards my goal despite knowing I almost definitely wouldn’t be able to achieve it, and I’m excited to tell you why! Reading and learning are so important to me, that the number of books read in 12 months doesn’t actually matter. It’s simply a way to keep myself motivated and organized and engaged. A good test of whether a goal is intrinsically important to you is this exact scenario: if you want to keep going because you just straight up want to keep going, that itself is a very good sign. If you only want to keep going to check those boxes or get those points or hit that number, you’ve given up the locus of control. When that happens, it stops being about what’s important to you - and that’s a recipe for not following through.


After considering all these things, I carried on and tried my best not to focus on how far away I was from my goal. Happily, my love of reading came back gradually and I got back into the swing of things by the end of the year. I’m proud that I didn’t force myself and that I was smart enough and compassionate enough to let myself give up on my goal without stopping the habit.


I hope this little story about my book reading failure is a good example of how to deal when ‘real life’ messes about with your goal achievement plans (as it likes to do on a regular basis). It doesn’t have to be a choice between giving up or powering through no matter what - there’s a whole middle space to explore with many options to move forward even when life gets in the way :)


Here Are My Fave Books Of 2019… With The Tiniest Of Blurbs Because I’m More Of A Reader Than A Reviewer!

SEX AT DAWN, CHRISTOPHER RYAN & CACLINDA JETHA:

A super interesting take on the evolution of human sexual behaviour, with many mind blowing points and hilarious quips along the way.


HELP ME! MY PERFECTLY DISASTROUS JOURNEY THROUGH THE WORLD OF SELF-HELP BY MARIANNE POWER:

A hilarious and real AF story about the shadow side of reading all the self-help books (shout out to my pal Mark Brodsky for literally giving me this book to read!)


THE POWER BY NAOMI ALDERMAN:

If you are looking for a novel that provides you with a mind blowing thought experiment that will change the way you think about gender and social power, this one’s for you!


CIRCE BY MADELINE MILLER:

A super interesting novel about a dope witch from Greek mythology. It could help you feel better to know that even immortal beings can’t get their s**t together when it comes to family matters!


YOU DO YOU BY SARAH MCKNIGHT:

A lean, efficient and hilarious haranguing about why you should be nicer to yourself and take less s**t from others. Very practical advice!


EVERYTHING IS F**CKED BY MARK MANSON:

One of my favourite dudes, AND I got to meet him at a book signing. As always, a unique, intelligent and funny perspective on why hope isn’t useful. An excellent and pragmatic intro to complex philosophical concepts!


REAL LOVE BY SHARON SALZBERG:

One of the first books I read when my brain came back online, it’s all about self compassion and full of important messages for everyone. Highly recommended!


CRAZY RICH ASIANS TRILOGY BY KEVIN KWAN:

A great escape from your regular, non-crazy-rich life that will literally cause you to laugh and gasp out loud at outrageousness and also intermittently exclaim things like “Ah ma, noooo!”


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