A Wordy, Weighty Challenge: How possible is 100 books in a year?

As we begin to regret those New Year resolutions of gyms and sobriety, spare a thought for Oliver Gaywood, who had aspirations of reading 100 books during 2014 as he travelled the world. Here he tells his tale and lays down the challenge to you.

Feature by Oliver Gaywood | 13 Feb 2015
  • books

"Read more", she said, "I can't see how that could go wrong".

I was looking for ideas for New Year's resolutions and my friend suggested something I could really get behind. In 2013 I'd quit my job, spent most of the year travelling and I managed to make my way through 78 books. With even more travel planned for 2014, and no time wasted by going into an office every day, I took on board my friend's advice and set myself a target of 100. It was a big total, but one I thought I could achieve – knowing full well that that if I failed I'd probably never have another year with as much free time, another year where I'd be able to get anywhere close to that number.

I started 2014, literally and erm... literaturely, in the islands off the east coast of Thailand; my New Year's revelry on Koh Phangan put into stark contrast with Alex Garland's criticism of the island from the sanctuary of The Beach almost two decades prior.

From there I went on a number of journeys – my body travelling around most of south-east Asia while my mind went far and wide. Graham Greene took me to Mexico and Edwidge Danticat gave a tour of Haiti. Other authors went beyond simply introducing me to new lands. Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy showed me the despair of North Korea, making me simultaneously horrified of the situation there and relieved that I was born in the UK. There would be further mind-opening reads thanks to the likes of Barbara Ehenreich battling away alongside America's working class and Ingrid Betancourt being held captive in the Colombian jungles. Even in novels I was humbled, most noticeably when Markus Zusak introduced me to a bibliophilic kleptomaniac.

Luckily not all the books I read were dark and heavy. Such are the power of words and the wizardry of writers that with a simple rearrangement of the same basic building blocks I was taught by historians and professors, I was awestruck by travel writers and journalists, and I was made to laugh by comedians.

Sometimes art imitated life, which gave it an extra dimension. I read David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day, a series of essays written about his trouble picking up the French language, while I was mumbling my way through basic Thai classes and felt relieved that I wasn't alone with my difficulties. I thumbed through Alain de Botton's A Week at the Airport only to have to go through a similar experience, although only for three days, five months later. I even forced myself through the start of the Heat Wave series, supposedly written by Nathan Fillion's character in Castle, just because I liked the TV show.

To try to reach my target I mixed my fact with fiction, often reading two or three books at once, made my way through young adult fiction, classics from years gone by and more than a dozen Booker Prize Winners, quickly learning that such an award doesn't necessarily mean much.

Even doubling up on my reading list, a hundred books a year works out at eight and a bit a month, or almost two every week. For most of the year I was within touching distance of that figure. After the first month I'd read eight, after quarter of the year I'd finished 23 and at the end of June I'd completed 47. Even on 30 September, when I should've notched up 75, I was up to 74 and my goal was looking achievable. 

There comes a time, though, when many people go through a lull in reading. For some of you, I expect it'll come halfway through this article. For me, it came in October. I was burnt out. I read a few slow books that didn't hold my interest which made me reluctant to pick up my e-reader and I managed only five that month. In November, after a long period on the road with plenty of time to myself, I returned with my girlfriend to her hometown. Suddenly we were inundated with social requests; her friends and family desperate to see her – and, by proxy, me. My social calendar has never been fuller and while it's great to have friends and things to do, it puts a serious limit on your reading time. In November I managed only four. If you're keeping track, this meant I was left with 17 titles to read in December – more than double my intended monthly target, more than one every two days. With Christmas, New Year's Eve and birthday celebrations, there were plenty of hurdles to come.

View Oliver's full 2014 reading list (via GoodReads)

Somehow they didn't get in the way too much. Not picking up on the revelation that I could read short books more quickly, I started off with Sachin Tendulkar's 486-page autobiography as I made my way through book after book after book. Only twice in the month did I dip into books with fewer than 200 pages – once only by two pages, leaving Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle as the only possible sneaky offender. It would've been easy to read only the shortest books I could find throughout the year but my plan was to expand my reading habits not just the notches on my bookshelf. The shortest book of the year was a 90-page collection of stories from The Onion, but this was more than counter-balanced by Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, which came in at 848 pages. By the end of the year my average book was 319 pages long. 

On Christmas Day I was on track. A mammoth month left me with three books to read in six days, which soon became two in four and one in three. Again, I turned to Vonnegut for succinct, high quality fiction, but this time I was thwarted. Although I made a good dint in to The Sirens of Titan, my calendar was just too busy: a friend's gig, an organised day of cycling and a Hogmanay party all proved too much and by the time I put down my e-reader for the year I was 65% of the way through, a tantalising 78 pages short of my goal.  

I failed. A total of 99.65 is not 100. It could be if I added in the other part books I'd finished: 39% of Grimm's Fairy Tales, 37% of G: A Novel and 12% of Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By; my method of doubling up on books coming back to bite me. It could be if I added in the dozen or so children's books I read while Christmas shopping. But I won't and I don't. My year ended with 99 books read, with 31,557 pages turned and with disappointment, something increased by the fact that I know I'll probably never have another year as care-free, with as much spare time to reach that goal.

In time I'll look back on 2014 as my year of reading, when I had time to pick up books at will and not have to worry about what I wasn't doing. I'll see it as an achievement and a time to look back on fondly. For now I'll be asking myself how offended people might be when told I'd prefer to read than spend time with them, also was it really necessary to hack my way through The Line of Beauty for quite so long?

The disappointment probably would've been okay if not for the e-mail GoodReads, a website that was instrumental in keeping my records for the year and for recommending me new titles to read, sent me at the start of 2015, hinting heavily that I should try to read more this year. How could that go wrong?

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View Oliver’s book list here.