On Tracking Your Reading Habits, Setting Goals, and More
Amanda Nelson is the Special Guest on This Year-End Episode of Reading Women
As our last episode of the year, Reading Women host Kendra Winchester and special guest Amanda Nelson talk about bookish spreadsheets, stats, and goals!
From the episode:
Kendra: Before we go into our goals for the upcoming year and recap a little bit about our goals this year, I want to ask you a little bit about why goals work for you and how that has changed your reading over time. So I guess the first question is, how long have you been tracking your reading? And how has that changed over the years?
Amanda: I have always tracked my reading in some way or another. Like in high school—this is terrible; please don’t judge me for this—but when I was in high school, I had a list of books that people had to read if they wanted to enter my friend group, which is the worst. I know! It’s awful. It’s just awful. I was such a snob. Somebody asked me to make it—in my defense!—Somebody asked me to make it. And I collaborated with the other members of my friend group to make this list. And that was largely comprised of like this stuff, of course, that we had read in those past few years because teenagers were the worst and recency bias and all of that.
So I’ve always tracked my reading in some way or another. It has become more granular and spreadsheety, the older that I’ve gotten as opposed to just writing it in a notebook. So that’s one way it’s changed. I was also, you know, I think that when I was a kid or when I was a teenager and when I was first getting into the bookish internet and had just started my blog, which was called Dead White Guy—it was about the classics—I was mostly tracking for my own . . . like . . . checking off things. Like, I want to read all of Jane Austen. And then I would track it to make sure that I was doing that. Or I wanted to read all of Dickens or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or whatever it was. So it was almost like a . . . for my own, I don’t know, bragginess because I was such a literary goofball and snooty.
And then as I got older and as I got, you know, working at Book Riot and realized that the way that I was reading wasn’t actually the best representation of my interests. I got more into spreadsheets. I got on Goodreads, which I do not like as much as a spreadsheet. But that’s because I track fifteen thousand things, and Goodreads just isn’t great for that.
Kendra It’s true.
Amanda: Yeah, you can’t. . . . Like you can make shelves and stuff, but that’s not. . . . I wanna make a pie chart. I want to make fourteen pie charts. If you look at my spreadsheet now, there’s a lot of pie charts and graphs and stuff. And Goodreads doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that I want. So it’s definitely gotten more . . . I don’t know . . . identity focused, like I’m way more concerned with who I’m reading as opposed to what necessarily. And it’s gotten more, more, way more specific than it used to be.
Kendra And even though Goodreads updates their stuff. Like now you can mark, finally, if you’re rereading a book.
Kendra You know, that happened, what, a couple of years ago? And now it’s like, you can mark whether or not the book is in your library. One thing with the audiobooks, though, with Goodreads, it’s like they put CD. So it’s like it counts CD as a page. But now that’s not even relevant. Because there aren’t CDs.
Amanda: It’s not. It’s not. Have you ever tried LibraryThing?
Kendra I have. And I just have so many books. Like trying out is just so labor intensive.
Amanda: Yeah, same.
Kendra So I start tracking my reading when I was about sixteen, and I would write down everything that I read in this book called “The Book Book,” very original, I’m sure. And so then I moved everything over to Goodreads. But Goodreads. . . . It doesn’t, like you mentioned, track identity things or any sort of intersections of diversity. And so it’s like you could read, keep reading, and you would never really notice. When did you first notice that your reading was just white dudes?
Amanda: Yeah, super white. Just the whites. I had been in Goodreads for a while. I think I have been tracking my reading and Goodreads for . . . let’s see. Book Riot started in 2011. So probably two years before that. So probably 2009. And I didn’t pay attention to the diversity of my reading at all until I started working at Book Riot. Because Book Riot has an editorial diversity mandate, where a certain percentage of our coverage has to be authors of color. And of course, if you’re writing for a book site, you can’t really write about stuff you haven’t read. So I needed to start paying attention to what I was reading in that way, so I could meet the editorial standards for my job.
And I went back, when I realized this, and I think this was probably in 2013 or 2014, when I went back and realized like, I’ve never noticed this before. I should see, like, how I’m doing with reading diversely. And so I looked back at the last year, and I had read 4 percent authors of color. And this is when, you know, I read a lot. Like 120, 130 books a year. Which is nothing compared to, like, Liberty, who hosts all the books and reads 400 books a year. But that’s a lot. And it is my job. So it’s fine. But I was only reading 4 percent authors of color. It was over half men, which makes sense. I mean, I read a lot of classics at the time, so it was—as my blog was titled—it was a lot of dead white men. And I was really shocked. I was really, really shocked by that because I have always considered myself to be a consumer of any kind of story. I really thought. . . . I don’t know. I don’t know what I thought. I thought I was better than that.
But I think that we all probably think we’re doing better than that. But the reality is, if you’re not making a conscious effort to do better than that, you’re probably not. Because we . . . well, I’m getting off on a tangent now. But our tastes don’t develop in a vacuum. We all say, you know, I just want to read a good book. And that’s true. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way. But if you’re not . . . if you’re just pursuing what you think a good book is without paying attention to any other aspects of it, you’re going to just end up reading white authors because what we consider a good book is a matter of taste. And our tastes don’t develop out of nothing. They develop out of how we were raised and, you know, what our teachers gave us to read when we were growing up. And of course what’s marketed to us. And what’s marketed to us is overwhelmingly white authors.
So that’s how you end up accidentally participating in these systems where only stories by white people are being told, even though as readers, I would not consider myself racist in my reading. But I was reading in a way that was not diverse and that was certainly biased towards white stories. So that’s when I had like a “come to bookish Jesus.” I was like, I can not continue this way! Both because my job doesn’t allow it. But also as a reader, that’s just not the kind of stories I want to be telling or I want to be consuming all of the time. So that was probably . . . I actually have my spreadsheet open right now . . . I started, yeah, so that would have been 2013 because I started tracking it seriously with like a spreadsheet in 2014.
Kendra: Sometimes it comes suddenly. You realize the books that you’ve been picking up aren’t diverse in different ways. I feel like once you figure that out in one intersection—you know, like, oh, look, I’m reading a bunch of dudes, why aren’t I reading women? Or whatever that might be—you can begin to realize other intersections of identity you’re not reading. Did that, at anytime, feel overwhelming, like all the work that you felt like you needed to do to read more diversely?
Amanda: Yeah, and it still does. Well, I don’t know if I would say overwhelming. But I’m still aware of the areas that I’m not making an effort or making as much of an effort as I wish that I were. But, you know, I mean, we’re people. And you can’t focus. . . . You can’t fix everything all at once. Or if you can, like, Godspeed. I couldn’t fix everything all at once. And it was a matter of not seeing all of my blind spots at first. I saw this one. And then as I began to realize all the other ways in which I wasn’t reading diversely, it was like, Uhhhhh. . . . Where do I. . . ? What to do? So I just focused on one thing at a time. And every year I would take on a new intersection of diversity that I thought was important, that I wanted to work on personally, and also that I wanted to take the site in. So if I wanted Book Riot to be covering more books in translation in a certain year, then I would have to be reading more books in translation, as an example, in my own reading life.
So it can be overwhelming, and I think that one of the reasons why readers—or people who are trying to be more conscious consumers of any industry—hesitate is because there is that feeling of like, well, I can’t do it perfectly, so why even bother? Like, I’m just going to do it. I’m just going to take the easy way. And I see this in my own life outside of reading a lot. Like, you know, every time I go into Target to buy socks, I have this bad like, ugh, fast fashion, bleh. You know. But it’s across the street from my house and whatever. And I’m a single mom, and I don’t have time to go anywhere else. And so you have to give yourself, I think like, some slack. You’re making an effort. And if you are making an effort to diversify your reading, you have to start somewhere. And if starting with every single possible intersection that you can think of that you’re not participating in overwhelms you, then just pick one and focus on it for a while. So give yourself some grace, I think. But it can be overwhelming.
Kendra: That was definitely my experience. But I’m very much. . . . My tasks. You know, I can put in little boxes and like, Okay, “Start here.” And so, you know, when we did the podcast, I realized, you know, we started it because we realized we were reading men. So I focused on women for a year. And I was actually looking at my spreadsheet. You can see the change, you know, in like 2016 where I read way more women than before. And the next year we focused on people of color, how that changed over time. And this year I’ve only read, out of almost a 140 books, I read 12 to 14 by men. So I was like, I think I’m doing pretty well. Like it’s progress. And so I feel like once you realize and train yourself to pick up books that are diverse in this particular way you’re focusing on, it sort of like just integrates into your reading life.
Amanda: Yeah. I didn’t have to. . . . I don’t really have to focus on it anymore when it comes to reading women or reading people of color. It’s not something—I track it still—but it’s not something that I have to actively try to do because it is just integrated into my reading life now. So those are the stories I gravitate to because as I was attempting to figure out what my tastes actually were outside of, you know, the marketing kind of machine, I realized that I love reading books by people of color, and I love reading books by women. So I gravitate towards those naturally now. It’s not something I have to make myself do or that I have to be intentional about. So every year that I focus on a different aspect of the lived experiences of humanity, it becomes easier, it just becomes easier. And it does doesn’t hurt that publishing has also started paying attention to this too. So the books are easier to find, which was not true, I don’t think, ten years ago. It wasn’t as easy to find books by authors of color that got big marketing budgets or that were being sent out in galleys to people. That wasn’t really happening. We had to make a big fuss for that to happen. So it is easier now.