Columns > Published on January 7th, 2019

The 'Narrow Your Horizons' Reading Challenge

It’s January, so there’s a decent chance you’re reading this in the gym. Because this is THE NEW YOU, and the new you reads articles on an elliptical machine, perhaps while a kale smoothie sloshes around in your stomach.

It’s crowded in that gym because most of us take up some kind of ambitious New Year’s Resolution, but for 80% of us that ambition runs dry by the second week in February.  

Every year we try to get better for six weeks. We jump on the treadmill. For 6 weeks. We eat right. For 6 weeks. We meditate. For 6 weeks. We do Rosetta Stone. For 6 weeks. And we take up new reading challenges which, statistically, none of us complete (more on this later).

Yes, we are worse at reading than we are at getting in shape. It’s a sad state of affairs.

What Can We Do Differently?

Whenever I have a question, like “How can we get people to read more?” I start searching. And I get frustrated when I see the same answers over and over.

SO MANY reading challenges contain some language about “broadening your horizons.”

Book Riot:

Hopefully you’ll find tasks that excite you and tasks that push your reading boundaries.


This year, there are 40 book prompts to broaden your reading scope... 

And SO MANY of the challenges involve reading dozens, if not hundreds, of books in a year.

Bigger, more, broader, deeper, faster—this is the language of reading challenges.

Whatever the common theme is, I want something else. Especially if the common theme isn’t working (I promise, this part is coming. Just a little more patience).

Which is why I’m proposing a new reading challenge: Narrow Your Horizons.

The Narrow Your Horizons Reading Challenge

The Narrow Your Horizons Reading Challenge consists of 6 things. I’ll list them up top for those of us who like to keep life simple:

  1. Narrow your challenge to 5 books
  2. Cut the extra nonsense
  3. Pick things YOU want to read
  4. Don’t like it? Stop reading it.
  5. Tend to your horizons
  6. Get anti-social

Now, I respect your intelligence, so if you want to know the why behind each step, read on.

Step 1: Narrow Your Challenge To Only 5 Books

Goodreads allows users to participate in a yearly challenge. It’s simple. How many books do you pledge to read this year? You can go as low as 1 and as high as 5,000. In 2018, over 4 million of us challenged ourselves. Less than 1% of us finished our self-set challenges. (Please note, this data is from late December, so it doesn’t account for all of you who stayed in on December 31st, reading your asses off, who rocketed that number up to a whopping .8%.)

There's a sneaky side benefit to a lower number.

More numbers? The average person reads 12 books in a year, but that average is hugely inflated by people who read a shitload. The median number, which is probably closer to the real number most people will read in 2019, is 4. Meanwhile, the average Goodreads challenge was 60 books in 2018. 

What do all these numbers mean? They mean that we over-plan and under-work. By a wide margin. Surprise.

Which is why 5 books is the Narrow Your Horizons number. It’s attainable, and it means you’ll probably read more than most people.

There's a sneaky side benefit to a lower number. A low number encourages you to take your time. Enjoy what you’re reading. Reading voraciously can mean reading huge quantities, but it can also mean reading with enthusiasm. A small number of paced, savored experiences might serve you better than a large quantity of experiences at maximum efficiency.

Try it. Narrow down to 5.

Step 2: Cut The Extra Nonsense

Most reading challenges are super fun at the beginning. You know, the part where you’re putting your list together, searching for titles, plugging them in. That’s fast-paced and engaging as hell. It’s aspirational. You can imagine where you’ll be at the end of the year. How much smarter. How literate.

Where do most reading challenges fail? That second week in February. You’re at home, alone, slogging through a book that you don’t want to read so much as you want to have read it so you can tick the box on your reading challenge.

The Narrow Your Horizons Challenge doesn’t have that problem because there’s very little to do outside of the actual reading. No spreadsheets, no research. It’s a reading challenge that narrows the scope of activities down to focus on READING. It’s a simple, honest challenge that doesn’t deceive you with a bunch of fun tasks up front, meanwhile the actual work of reading is waiting for you on down the line.

The entire thing fits on a post-it. 

Step 3: What Do You Want To Read?

Other reading challenges are all too happy to tell you what you should read. Which types of books and what sorts of authors you should read. Sometimes this is great. I have an abiding love for Like Water For Chocolate, which I read for class. It’s a book I never would have picked up if I hadn’t been forced.

But I’m not your professor. And you’re a grown-up. And we’ve seen time and again that prescriptive diets, prescriptive fitness activities, and prescriptive lifestyles don’t give us good results. Which is why I’m going to ask you the questions nobody else asks: What do you want to read? What do you like?

Imagine a diet that asks what you want to eat. A personal trainer who asks you what sorts of things you like to do. That’s what this is. A reading challenge that asks you what you want AND ACTUALLY LISTENS.

Wander the bookstore. Wander the library. Pick up books and hold them in your hands. Look through your bookshelves at home. Look at the eBooks you’ve bought without ever reading. Just look around until something jumps out at you. Something that you simply want to read.

If you’re still having trouble, I have a thought experiment for you: In 2019 you can read 5 books. No more. After 2019, you will not be able to read another book. You’ll still remember all the books you’ve read throughout your lifetime, and you'll still be literate. But some cosmic force will prevent you from ever reading another book. This means you can add 5 reading (or re-reading) experiences to your life, and that’s it.

Which 5 would you choose? List them. Read them.

Step 4: Put The Book Down

If you’re living life the right way, you’re quitting more books than you finish.

If you force yourself to march through a book you don’t like for this challenge, it doesn’t count. Simple as that. In fact, if you’re not loving a book enough that you carry it around with you, if you don’t look forward to reading it on your lunch break, on the toilet, whenever you get a spare minute, it’s probably not good enough, and I don’t want you to count it. Put it down, try something else.

This challenge removes any incentive for plowing through something you're not enjoying. 

Step 5: Tend To Your Horizons

Read 5 books because you want to read them, not as a means to an end. If it turns you into an inhuman monster, I take full responsibility.

Let me be clear: engaging in this challenge is no excuse to be lazy about self-improvement, and I’m not suggesting that expanding your horizons is a bad thing. What I’m suggesting is that a lot of us have two goals: being a better person and reading more, and a lot of us try to kill those two very different birds with one stone. And most of us miss both birds. 

What would happen if you expanded your horizons through something other than books for a while? Watch movies that are intellectually stimulating or challenge you in some way. Try a TV show you don’t think you’ll like. Listen to classical music if that’s something you have never really tried. Follow new and different people on Twitter. Go see a stand-up comedian who may show you something different.

You could even take a horizon-expanding reading challenge and apply it to another format. For example, the most famous of these reading challenges is probably Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge. You can easily adapt their categories to another medium. The challenge to read "A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse" becomes the challenge to watch a movie by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse. The challenge to read a self-published book becomes the challenge to play a truly indie board game. "A book by a woman and/or AOC (Author of Color) that won a literary award in 2018" becomes a challenge to listen to a podcast by a woman of color who won an award (for podcasting or in another field).

Continue to broaden your horizons. But for the duration of this challenge, consider broadening the range of methods and tools you use to broaden your horizons. Maybe you’ll find that your horizons are better broadened when you open yourself to a greater variety of formats. Maybe the voices you really need to hear are working in a medium other than print. Maybe you’ll come to find that reading is the best way for you to broaden your horizons, you’ll miss it, and you’ll go back to it.

Read 5 books because you want to read them, not as a means to an end. See what happens. If it turns you into an inhuman monster, I take full responsibility.

Step 6: Get Anti-Social

If there’s one thing nobody needs, it’s another gym selfie. And I’m proposing that #AmReading posts are the book world’s equivalent of the gym selfie.

Bro, we don’t care about your #HugeGains, whether they’re bicep- or page-based.

What if, instead of taking that gym selfie, you picked up something heavy? What if, instead of taking a picture of the book on your desk, you read the damn book?

Narrowing your horizons, in this challenge, means narrowing what you want to get out of the act of reading. If what you want to get is validation via social media, this will be difficult for you. There are no hashtags for this. No online reading groups.

Read a book, finish a book, and if it’s great, tell people about it online. No need to hide a good book’s light under a rock. But I don’t want to hear what you’re planning to read, currently reading, and I definitely don't want to see a picture of a closed book on a your table. How are you #Reading a closed book you're photographing, posting, and hashtagging?

Remember, it's about the reading. Not the moments before. Not wasting time taking a picture when you could be turning pages.

Instead of getting all over Instagram, print off this sheet. Cut it into quarters. Keep one for yourself and hand out the other three to people you like. Explain it to them. Talk to real people, flesh people. Because they are your friends. Those folks making these other challenges online? They’re not your friends. Hell, I’m not your friend.

Narrow down your social horizon. Be better friends with the people who are actually your friends. Do stuff with them. Talk books with them.

That's it. Simple, clear, and do-able. I think you can do it, and I think it'll help you out. But honestly, it doesn't matter what I think. All that matters is that you're reading.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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