Last Friday marked the end of the school year around these parts–the yellow buses shuttled kids home for the last time, my Instagram feed filled up with posts comparing 1st day/last day school shots from proud parents, and I reached my self-imposed deadline for my own “academic year.”
If you’re just tuning in, at the beginning of this “school year,” I decided to set myself some assigned reading to rev up my reading life and motivate me to read some of the books I’ve been putting off for years.
Each term, I assigned myself three books and awarded each book a “percentage”—how much it would impact my term’s “final grade” at the end, if you will. Having never before formally assigned myself a schedule of when I wanted to read certain books (thinking those days were over and done with when I last walked across a stage with my diploma), I didn’t know what to expect. Would I hate feeling like I was back in school? By the end of it, would I feel like I did at the end of college–burned out from reading, just because I was so tired of having to always do it to the tune of a deadline?
As I’ve mentioned before, during my college days, I was usually assigned anywhere from 1,000 – 2,000 pages to read every single WEEK (being an English major, and being an English major who often took 3-4 English classes per semester, in addition to the other courses I had to take to graduate). While I always tried to read all that was assigned to me in any given week, there were so many times I had to skim and get by when I’d only read part of what was assigned, and I often felt a bit overwhelmed and behind where I should be as a result.
Subsequently, when I graduated from college, my reading life was a little lackluster for awhile. On the one hand, because I had a much greater appreciation for good literature, I often felt like I should be reading all the classics that I hadn’t managed to get around to yet. Because I’d been taught how to gain a greater appreciation for things like writing style and ambiguity and symbolism and subtlety, it was hard for me to pick up any kind of “fluff” read because I tended to tear them apart. So I tried to stick to reading mostly classics or more “literary” books though they were often slow burns, and it would sometimes take me a couple of months just to finish one.
Long story short, my reading life suffered for a few years after I graduated. While I still was pretty much always reading (or at least, I was always in the middle of a book), I no longer felt the passion for it I had as a youth, when I’d regularly be finishing a book a day or every other day. Finally, though, I had an epiphany of sorts a few years back when I let myself just read whatever sounded good without worrying about how “literary” or “important” it was, and my reading life took off again.
I was coasting along merrily at that point until the beginning of this current scholastic year, in fact, when I felt like the pendulum had maybe swung TOO far in the other direction–that is to say, that I was reading TOO many “fluff” reads and not enough stuff of substance to really challenge and stretch myself.
And thus the idea of assigning myself books over the course of this school year was born.
Now that we’re at the end, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the outcome overall–I’ve been pleased to see that I am nearly as motivated to finish things by self-imposed deadlines as I am to finish things by deadlines imposed by others, and I’ve also been pleased to see that this new experiment of giving myself assignments has actually made me read MORE, not less (because now that I’m so used to being able to read whatever I want, I make sure I have time for all those more “fun” books, too, in addition to the books I’ve given myself as assignments).
In fact, I feel like this past school year, I’ve struck a near perfect balance between reading a lot of books just for fun and pleasure and reading books that have stretched me and made me think and that make me appreciate much more greatly the power of the written word.
(And, let’s face it—I will always LOVE that feeling of being able to put a checkmark or highlight through yet another book I’ve finished on one of my printed-off recommended reading lists!)
This is all to say that I plan on continuing this experiment for a second year. I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to make any tweaks to how I’m currently doing things, but I’ve loved the extra feeling of accomplishment in my personal reading life that this has given me.
On to the breakdown, though!
For a quick recap (in case you don’t want to go back to visit that original post), each of the three books I assigned myself fell into one of the following categories:
- a “heavy hitter” (aka, a book most people would agree is a “classic”)
- a young adult award winner, or “teen star” (I used the Newbery awards as a guide)
- a “power boost” book (one that was meant to stimulate personal growth in some way)
The Grading Breakdown (from original post):
* “hard hitter” book – 40% of course grade
* “teen star” book – 30% of grade
* “power boost” book– 30% of grade
The following were opportunities for extra credit:
* anything off another recommended reading list (+10% to grade)
* poetry, full book (+10% to grade)
* parenting books (+ 5% to grade)
* any book out of my reading comfort zone (+ 5% to grade)
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Assessment Breakdown of Winter Term Reading
1. “Heavy Hitter” – A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
- Total Number of Pages: 284
- Number of Pages Completed by Term End: 284
- Percentage of Pages Completed: 100%
- Rating Awarded on Goodreads: 3 stars
- Reasons for Rating Given:
- As I’ve written before, it’s always a bit hard for me to give ratings to most classics, the reason being that while they’re not often all that enjoyable to actually read, I can almost always see why they’re considered “important.” This particular classic, though, got off to a particularly rough start for me, and I was super tempted to give it just 1 or 2 stars for about the first half I was reading it, mainly because I’m not a huge fan of Hemingway’s choppy style (especially of his awkward, unnatural dialogue), and I definitely was not a fan of the main character (nor of his love interest, as I felt she had basically no personality). I also knew going into it that I would be starting with a bias against it as I don’t like reading war novels. However, the plot picked up significantly in the last half of the book, and there were several nuggets found scattered throughout that gave me a lot to think about—about how the reality of war rarely ever matches the romanticized version of war, how tragedy and hardship can increase our sensitivity to current pleasures and happiness, etc.
- That being said, I still felt like this was a book that though I’m glad I read once, I’ll be more than happy to never read again. I never could get over how much I didn’t care for the writing style, and the book felt like a constant refrain of “booze, women, and rain,” as other people have said of Hemingway. Basically, I generally like reading books that end with either some kind of moral or a bit of hope or with some illumination into the more noble parts of human character and life, and this one didn’t give me any.
- The link I’ve included above is to the version I read which was interesting because it includes pictures and excerpts from the earlier drafts of the novel. One thing I found fascinating was that Hemingway rewrote the ending something like 39 times, which made me at least more appreciative of the ending that made it in (though I hated it all the same, ha ha). I will say though that this particular version has, um, a pretty interesting choice for a cover.
2. “Teen Star” – The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
- Total Number of Pages: 316
- Number of Pages Completed by Term End: 316
- Percentage of Pages Read: 100%
- Rating Awarded on Goodreads: 5 stars
- Reasons for Rating Given:
- I knew when I assigned myself books for the year that the Hemingway pick would probably be rough for me, so I made sure to couple it with this YA book that I’d heard nothing but rave reviews about. Although this book also had a war in it, the war was more in the background (so I guess I don’t hate ALL war books–I just hate war books told from the point of view of the war front itself). I’ve read a LOT of WWII books over the past couple years, but this one was different enough in that it told how that war actually IMPROVED the life of the protagonist, as it gave her the opportunity to escape an abusive home and finally see the world for herself. This felt very much like a rags-to-riches story reminiscent of A Little Princess (one of my childhood favorites), and I loved having a main character that I could cheer for but who also had believable flaws.
- I actually enjoyed reading this one so much that I picked up the sequel soon thereafter (The War I Finally Won), which I gave 4 stars to on Goodreads.
- If you’re looking for a young adult pick that reads quickly and has endearing characters, give this one a shot. (And I would consider this one a steal at only $6.40!)
3. “Power Boost” – As a Man Thinketh, Vol. II by James Allen (and compiled by my dad!)
- Total Number of Pages: 171
- Number of Pages Completed by Term End: 91
- Percentage of Pages Read: 53%
- Rating Awarded on Goodreads: probably between 4 and 5 stars
- Reasons for Rating Given:
- First, a bit of background (as far as I understand it, anyway) behind this book–James Allen published a slim volume in 1903 called As a Man Thinketh that was all about the power of thought in determining one’s destiny. The book became a self-help classic, and if you go onto Goodreads, you will see thousands upon thousands of reviews written by people who talked about how life-changing it was. What many people might not realize, however, is that Allen wrote many other works, many of which contain further illumination about the connection between thought and character, thought and life experience, etc. My dad, an avid reader of the great philosophical thinkers, decided to compile this companion volume in order to shed light on all those other gems on the subject that are not found in the original volume.
- First off, I must admit that I have not read the original As a Man Thinketh (though it’s only a matter of time, as this companion volume reprints it in the appendix, and I plan to read it when I get there). I imagine that reading that would give me an even greater appreciation for the additional thoughts found in this compilation.
- Some general thoughts so far about the book–for starters, I realized quickly that this wasn’t going to be like most of my “power boost” books in that I wouldn’t be able to go through it quickly if I happened to get behind in my reading. This is very much a book that is meant to be savored and pondered and chewed over, so most days, I just went with a chapter. Each chapter is fairly short (generally 3-5 pages), which I felt like was the perfect length to give me enough to think about, but not enough to overwhelm. This is the main reason why I am not finished with this one by the deadline.
- I definitely have had to read this with a highlighter in hand, as there are just SO MANY powerful quotes in here that leapt out at me. I’ve always been pretty interested in the connection between our minds and our experience of “reality” as know it, and Allen couples that with some concrete examples of ways that our minds can be molded to change our characters, improve our habits, and make us better human beings.
- The only reason this might not get 5 stars? While I can get behind almost all of Allen’s ideas, there are a couple instances where I think he might take the mind/experience connection a little too far, such as in suggesting that all suffering would be eradicated if you just learned to change your mindset. While I suppose that could be true, to a degree, I think that suffering is a necessary part of the human experience and that it can help to refine us. Overall though, this is an incredible compilation filled with ideas that will definitely take you far beyond what you’ll find in most any other self-help book.
4. Extra Credit Opportunities
- Total Number of Other Books Read During Term: 10
- Number of Books Falling Under Extra Credit Categories: 2
- Title of Extra Credit Book: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
- Category That Title Fulfills: Book That’s Out of My Comfort Zone
- Extra Credit Percentage Awarded: +5%
- Quick Thoughts:
- High fantasy is definitely more in my husband’s realm than my own, so you can imagine how excited he was when the book club I’m a part of chose to read a novel by his favorite author of all time (Sanderson) as the selection for the month of April. (He’s always trying to get me to read more of “his” kind of books and usually only succeeds when I lose a bet to him.) While this isn’t my first Sanderson book (I’ve also read the first one in his Mistborn series, as a result of an aforementioned bet that was lost), it still wasn’t enough to change my mind about the genre overall. I will say that Sanderson is a talented writer and that he has a great gift for coming up with unusual fantasy worlds and concepts (and I appreciate that his stuff is a lot deeper than most fantasy books), but this one just got a middle-of-the-line rating from me of 3 stars. Fantasy’s really just not my thing.
- Title of Extra Credit Book: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
- Category That Title Fulfills: Anything Off Another Recommended Reading List (in this case, this was a Pulitzer finalist)
- Extra Credit Percentage Awarded: +10%
- Quick Thoughts:
- Some of the readers I most closely follow listed this book among one of the best they’d ever read, so I knew I had to pick it up and see for myself what all the hype was about. What I found was a book that blurs the line between realistic fiction and magical realism about an older couple who have always desperately wanted a child and who seem to one day make one out of snow. The setting (in Alaska) is such a big part of this book that it’s almost a character unto itself, and this one constantly had me guessing about what I could believe and what I couldn’t. Overall, this was memorable and beautifully written and one that I’ll probably think about for a long time to come. (My rating on Goodreads: 4 stars)
Final Grade on Summer Term Assigned Reading: A (100.9%)
(40% HH + 30% TS + 15.9% PB + 15% EC = 100.9%)
For now, my summer reading plans include reading just whatever the heck I want (and just trying to keep up a regular reading habit period, seeing as I’ll be having a baby shortly). Stay tuned for next year’s assigned reading list though, which I plan to post at the end of August!
And if you’re not following me on Goodreads yet, check me out here! I make sure to give a rating AND a review to every single book I read on that site, so it’s a good way to keep up with my reading habits, as I don’t review or discuss all of the books I read here on the blog.
Linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy!