This Year, Join Me in a 12-Book Reading Challenge

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Every other year, I take on an ambitious 52-book reading challenge. This year, I want to do something easier with less pressure — and I’d like you to join me. How about we all do a simple reading challenge together?

The Challenge: 12 Books in 2018

One per month. I don’t expect everyone to read upward of 50 books in a year; I think 12 books is fairly achievable for most busy people.

Now, here’s the twist: they all need to be themed. Because reading twelve books is great, but reading twelve books with the same theme is fun and gives you continuity for 2018!

Theme Suggestions

Choose whatever theme you’d like, but I have some suggestions:

12 books by women of color. I recommend Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Swing Time by Zadie Smith.

12 memoirs by people you admire. I recommend Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, Hunger by Roxane Gay, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

12 books about privilege in America. I recommend Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, and The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez.

12 dystopian novels. I recommend The Power by Naomi Alderman, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and World War Z by Max Brooks.

12 books about food. I recommend Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah, and Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.

12 books that take place in a country or city you love. For example, if you choose Italy, I recommend Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend (and everything else she’s written), The Decameron by Giovanni Boccacio, and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World by Torre DeRoche.

My Challenge: 12 Books From Countries Whose Authors I’ve Never Read Before

I chose this topic because I always enjoy broadening my horizons while reading. I will read 12 books by authors from entirely new countries to me. This seems like a great way to learn more about the world!

Now, which countries does this eliminate? Off the top of my head, English language books from the US, Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. Books in translation from Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Russia, Greece, Denmark. I’ve read several books in French by French authors.

I’ve also read books by authors from Nigeria (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), Ghana (Yaa Gyasi), Colombia (Gabriel García Márquez), Egypt (Ahdaf Soueif), Finland (Jyrki Vainonen), Antigua and Barbuda (Jamaica Kincaid) and Japan (Haruki Murakami).

I’m wondering whether I should count works by authors who were born in another country but immigrated as a young child (Junot Díaz, from the Dominican Republic to the US; Min Jin Lee, from South Korea to the US; Reza Aslan, from Iran to the US; Rupi Kaur, from India to Canada). What do you think? Díaz’s work is DRENCHED with Dominican-ness, but Aslan’s work that I’ve read wasn’t about Iran at all…

I have no doubt I’m forgetting some countries, but I’ll do my best. Any other country is a go.

How I’ll Find Books

Of course I’ll take recommendations from you, my lovely readers! In addition to that, I found a few good resources online: in 2012, Ann Morgan spent a year reading a book from every country in the world (she puts me to shame!!); here is her list of recommendations. Additionally, this is a list of required high school reading in 28 countries around the world.

Unsurprisingly, many lists of world literature are biased in favor of men and especially white men, so I’m setting a few extra rules:

  • 12 books, one per month of the year.
  • Each one must be written by an author from a country from which I’ve never read an author before.
  • At least six must be written by women.
  • At least six must be written by people of color.
  • At least two must be written by indigenous authors.
  • At least eight must take place primarily in the author’s home country.

My First Book: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

For my first book, I chose Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, who is from Cameroon. I’ve never read anything by a Cameroonian author before. This novel tells the story of a Cameroonian family trying to make it in New York City, when the 2008 financial crisis hits and their jobs and lives are thrown into turmoil.

It’s an all-around solid first pick, written by a woman of color and in a country that doesn’t get a lot of international press. My only hesitancy is that it takes place outside the author’s home country, but I know I’ll be reading plenty others this year that do take place in their home country.

(Update: started AND finished it on January 1. Woohoo!)

How to Read More Often

People often ask me how I’m able to read so much (72 books in 2017 alone!). Honestly, much of that comes down to my privilege. I’m self-employed, make my own hours, travel a ton, don’t have kids, and live in Manhattan so I get around on public transit. But there are ways to add more reading into your life, even if you don’t have a lot of time or money to spare.

Join your library and get a library card. All the books you want to read, all for free. Also, did you know you can borrow digital books nowadays? When I lived in suburban Massachusetts, I was able to borrow digitally from my hometown library, libraries in surrounding towns, and the Boston Public Library. That’s a lot of options!

Get a Kindle and bring it everywhere. This is the biggest factor in why I read so much. Break out your Kindle whenever you’re in line at the supermarket, having a coffee at a cafe, or riding public transportation. I always read my Kindle while getting my nails done because it only requires a quick tap to turn the page.

Replace phone time with reading time. You’re probably spending more time than necessary on Facebook or Instagram — when you get the urge to scroll through social media, crack open a book instead.

Have a ritual before you go to bed. Reading for thirty minutes is a great way to get your body relaxed before sleeping.

Set a good example for your kids. If you’re a parent, instilling a love of reading is one of the best things you can do for your children. Read to them every day. Go on library trips together. But it’s also important to let them see you reading for pleasure.

What category are you going to do for this challenge?

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77 thoughts on “This Year, Join Me in a 12-Book Reading Challenge”

  1. What a great challenge! I think I might take up your theme of authors from countries I haven’t read from. For recommendations, have you read anything by Orhan Pamuk (Turkey), Isabel Allende (Chile/Peru), or Milan Kundera (Czech Republic)?

    1. Love the challenge! I plan on reading at least 25 books this year, but I’m now thinking about making sure 12 of those are memoirs by people I admire. Great suggestion!

      I second Orhan Pamuk by the way 🙂

  2. I can recommend you isabel allende from chile. I had read most of her books. My favorite one is The house’s of spirits. But you can read Paula or Of love and shodows, all of them are great. Most of the books are related in her country. They are a mix of her family history and her country history. Beautiful!
    Also, from argentina (where im from) any book of jorge luis borges.
    I hope you like my recommendations.
    Good luck!

  3. I love this! A group of us from work just started a new book club Cafecito con Libros, with an emphasis on books by women of color. One I’m looking forward to is Umami by Laia Jufresa.

  4. Using Audible/Overdrive when commuting is also a great way to increase the amount of books you read a year. Behold the dreamers is on hold at the library! Hopefully it is as good as everyone says it is.

  5. This is a great idea. I read lots of books but it’s such an eclectic mix that having some kind of a rhythm might do me a world of good. I have a kindle too and love it to bits but you can’t beat the smell of real pages.

    1. True. I read a mix of real books and Kindle — I love having a wall of colorful books in my home, but Kindle is so convenient for travel, commuting, and when I get my nails done.

  6. Happy New Year!
    What a fantastic challenge! I’m from Barbados and recommend the following Caribbean works:

    – In the Castle of my Skin by Barbadian George Lamming
    – Wide Sargasso Sea by Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys
    – White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Trinidadian-born British writer Monique Roffey
    – Anything by Saint Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott

    Best of luck and looking forward to following along!


  7. If you are interested in some Turkey recommendations: Madonna In A Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali (SWOON), or maybe The Time Regulation Institute (a satire which I loved, but I think some people find it too dense) or Snow by Orhan Pamuk, which I adored on first reading and now find to be a bit more problematic, but still beautiful. And then come visit 🙂

  8. Great idea,

    I’m a female author, living in Dubai, UAE and recently published a romance thriller ‘Under the Desert Moon’, set in Petra, Jordan.

    My recommendation:

    I Am Malala, by Malala, Yousafzai, Pakistan

    Enjoy 🙂

  9. Love this! I was just thinking to myself how I used to seek out books by authors from countries other than the US and UK, and I haven’t done that in a while. So that’s my challenge – to read 12 books written by authors that reside outside of the US and UK.

  10. Love this idea! I feel like I learn so much more about a culture by reading fiction (written by an author from that country) compared to reading guidebooks. It also gives us a deeper level that we would otherwise not realize just by visiting a country, since we can’t get inside the heads of people that we meet.

    1. I completely agree. And it frustrates me when people recommend books about a destination — and it’s all books about rich white people *traveling* to that destination. Sigh.

  11. Excellent theme you have chosen! I’m going to also do 12 books in 2018, but have decided to have a ‘depth year’ and only read from the books I already own, but haven’t read yet. But on to recommendations, is Scotland ruled out? Because Autumn by Ali Smith was ace, and for Zimbabwe I recommend We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. Enjoy! I look forward to following what you like/dislike x

  12. If you haven’t, you must read The Kite Runner! Most of it takes place in Afghanistan and it is written by an Afghan-American man. I don’t know about how it is in America, but in Denmark it is an absolute must read!

  13. This is a great idea. I’m also always trying to read books from different countries but making a real effort like this probably works even better. How about a Kyrgyz novel by Chingiz Aitmatov? I also loved How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić (Bosnia and Herzegovina). Both are men though, damn. 😉

    1. It’s funny because I just thought of reading 2 books a month this morning before I even read your post. I love some of your recommendations, so I’ll definitely have to check those out. I got a Kindle for Christmas and have been reading nonstop since.

      I don’t read a lot of foreign books, hmm, maybe that should be my theme for this year? Anyways, I don’t think you mentioned reading a Chinese book, so you might like “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See.

      Good luck! Happy New Year!

  14. Reading twelve books is my goal each year but I’ve never considered reading by theme. I’m totally in! The first thing that came to mind for me is the theme of “living well” – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. It’s been a very important topic for me the past couple years. I already have a list going, now time to just dive in!

  15. What a great idea for a challenge! I read a pitiful EIGHT books last year which is appalling!! I can definitely manage 12 though this year, although I’d like to do more. I love the idea of a theme, particularly one that revolves around writers from other countries. Right now, though, I have far too many books laying around unread so once I get through those I’ll start on a challenge like this!

  16. This is such a great idea! I’ve never wanted to do a reading challenge because it always felt too limiting, but I love the idea of doing 12 books that all fall under a particular theme. I’ve already shared this with quite a few friends and we’re going to do it together. I’ve opted for the 12 books by authors from countries I haven’t read, though I was almost tempted by the themes of privilege in America or dystopian novels.

    Cheers for inspiring me to read more!

  17. What a great idea! I’m going to go with your suggested theme of a city that I love, since I just started a book the other day based solely on the fact that it takes place in NYC – Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney.

    I love NYC so much (I’m currently on my 4th rewatch of Gossip Girl, don’t judge me, yes I’m 39). I could never get into Sex & The City (SJP bugs the hell out of me) so I have to go back to high school for my fix. I have a ton of books on my nightstand, but I can’t think if any of them are NYC based, so I might need to do some research and hit up the library next month.

    Thanks for the fun idea – Happy New Year!

    1. Lillian Boxfish was one of my favorite books of 2017! I hope you enjoy it.

      I do have a recommendation, though: don’t only read books about middle-class-to-wealthy white people in New York City. It’s so easy to fall into that trap, but the city is far more than that.

      Behold the Dreamers was great, and another I would recommend is The Leavers by Lisa Ko.

  18. This is excellent–I’m going to go with your first suggestion and read (at least) 12 books by women of color this year. Also, great suggestions for finding time/resources to read more–I live in Brookline and my best friend is a librarian at the BPL, so she got me signed up for everything when I moved here in 2016. I read 53 books last year, many from the Boston area libraries on my Kindle on the T! Looking forward to your reading picks for 2018, Kate!

  19. I love this idea! I think I might generalise and do 12 books set in a different country (as in 12 different countries). But maybe have 6 of them for countries I’ve never visited. I need to make reading a priority this year!

  20. My reading challenge this year is to plough through some of my ‘to be read’ pile which has got completely out of control over the last few years. Once I’ve done that I’m going to return to this post to follow up on some of your recommendations and those of other commentators – it seems like there’re lots of great authors out there that I’ve never heard of.

  21. Angelique Pacheco

    Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga from Zimbabwe.
    Wild Swans by Jung Chang from China.
    Distant palaces by Abilio Estevez from Havana.

  22. I have a few reading challenges on Goodreads.

    I’d like to read at least 75 books this year (which would be an all-time record for me). I’ll also be joining the Popsugar Challenge this year.

    Another great way to read more books is to listen to audiobooks on Audible (or by using any other tool). I drive to and from work for four hours each day – and that way I get to do a lot of reading!

  23. I totally second the suggestions in other comments to read Kundera and Allende if you haven’t already! Also, if you want any Russian lit recommendations, I can happily provide. One of my favorites is The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. I just added to my list a book called The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva, which is the first book from a Dagestani author to be translated into English!

    Anyway, I love reading and I love your idea of reading 12 books with a theme. I’m sure you’ll have a great time and learn a lot!

  24. I love this. I spent a few days thinking about it. I’m going to do 12 books written by women, each set in a different country.

  25. I read romance novels, Kate. Can I still join even though my preferred books aren’t on your list? Anyway, I’m a book blogger. Glad that you enjoy reading too. I hope you reach your reading goal this year. Happy reading and have a wonderful 2018. ❤️?

  26. What a great challenge, I’ll keep thinking on my theme… Meanwhile, I second the previous recommendation for Chinghiz Aitmatov the Kyrgyz/Tatar author. “The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years” is his most well known book and I highly recommend it. Also recommended is Ismail Kadare for Albanian literature. “Broken April” will take you to the north of Albania during a blood feud. Both are beautiful works by excellent authors.

  27. I always appreciate your monthly book reviews. While our reading preferences don’t completely overlap, where they do – you are spot on with the books! I made an effort to read more in 2017 – going from 7 books the year prior to 34 last year. I’m sticking with a goal of 30 this year. In the spirit of your challenge – I’m going to aim for 12 non-fiction books, as I tend to read mostly fiction.

    If you are looking for a book from Norway – Naive Super by Erland Loe is a modern classic. The protagonist is Holden Caufield-esque.

    (I also just read Behold the Dreamers. Finished it in one day this weekend!)

  28. I LOVE all of these challenge ideas! I set an ambitious 36 book goal for myself this year since I know I can do it, but I often let reading slide when I get busy. I’m excited to read books that have been sitting on my GoodReads account for a long time.

    I wanted to write and recommend “S -a novel about Balkans” by Croatian writer, Slavenka Drakulic. It’s amazing, but definitely heart-wrenching. The writing is stunning and honest and it offers a fictional (but reality-based) account of a Bosnian woman’s experience in a rape camp during the Yugoslavian Civil War. It sounds depressing, and it is, but it’s also so powerful.

  29. This is such a great idea! I think I’ll stick with the 12 memoirs by people you admire theme, as I’m just about to finish my first one of the year (Christy Dignam from Aslan). There are so many more interesting people who’s lives I want to learn about. Happy reading, my fellow travellers!

    Kristen Gill

  30. Great challenge, think I inadvertently started doing this in last year when I decided to concentrate on reading more female and more non-English based authors. In turns it’s been constantly thought provoking, occasionally bland, general enthralling and sometimes confronting. Can I suggest Han Kang from Sth Korea or S P Somtow, though male his work covers a range of genres.

    Based on my experience it would be a shame to discount authors writing about their adopted countries, their experience is still, in many cases informed by their cultural heritage. I prefer not to select a number value on my year’s reading, my challenge for 2018 is to have a dedicated reading day every fortnight.

  31. I love Nadia Hashimi – Pearl that broke it’s shell & a house without windows – both great reads! She’s Afghan American… both these books take place in Afghanistan and draw attention to the treatment of women. Really great reads!

  32. Hi, Kate –

    This list of Writers to Watch this spring made me think of you. I’m planning on diving into a lot of these books. I find a lot of books to add to my ever-growing list through your blog, and I appreciate the thought you put into your reading choices. Here’s the list:

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