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My 2021 Reading Challenge: 10 Goals to Expand My Literary Horizons

January 4 2021
Share My 2021 Reading Challenge: 10 Goals to Expand My Literary Horizons

Before 2020, I always went into each year with no plans or expectations of what to read, usually picking my next book on a whim. However, as my To Be Read list continues to grow exponentially, I have found myself needing to develop strategies to determine what I will read next, to make it through my list in the most effective fashion.

One trend that I have been curious to try is a reading challenge. Popularized by websites such as PopSugar, these challenges encourage readers to step outside their normal reading habits through checklists that include prompts such as “a book featuring one of the seven deadly sins” and “a book about or by a woman in STEM.” However, being the nonconformist that I am, I wanted to develop my own goals and challenges for what books to tackle in 2021. I’ve currently developed ten reading goals for the year ahead, and I’m excited for these prompts to expand my literary horizons. Hopefully you can find some goals and books to add to your own list as well!

Self Made
by A'Lelia Bundles

Read a Biography About a Historical Figure I Know Nothing About: In addition to branching out into historical fiction, I want to expand my horizons on the subject of history through reading a biography about a figure I know nothing about. I am honestly surprised I haven’t heard more about Madam C.J. Walker, the subject of SELF MADE. Just from reading a few anecdotes about her life, I cannot wait to dig into her story. The daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Madam C.J. Walker went on to build a beauty empire from the ground up, became the first self-made female millionaire in American history, and devoted her life to philanthropy and social activism.

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Self Made
A'Lelia Bundles

Now a Netflix series starring Octavia Spencer, Self Made (formerly titled On Her Own Ground) is the first full-scale biography of “one of the great success stories of American history” (The Philadelphia Inquirer), Madam C.J. Walker—the legendary African American entrepreneur and philanthropist—by her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.

The daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Sarah Breedlove—who would become known as Madam C. J. Walker—was orphaned at seven, married at fourteen, and widowed at twenty. She spent the better part of the next two decades laboring as a washerwoman for $1.50 a week. Then—with the discovery of a revolutionary hair care formula for black women—everything changed. By her death in 1919, Walker managed to overcome astonishing odds: building a storied beauty empire from the ground up, amassing wealth unprecedented among black women, and devoting her life to philanthropy and social activism. Along the way, she formed friendships with great early-twentieth-century political figures such as Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington.

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Bowie's Bookshelf
by John O'Connell

Read a Book About Books: What better way to add more books to your TBR list than reading a book about books? Better yet, what if they were on David Bowie’s list of the most influential books he read in his life? While my TBR feels infinitely long at this point, as a bookworm and David Bowie enthusiast I cannot pass up the opportunity to find out what titles influenced Bowie and his musicianship. I just started this one and have found out that Bowie’s fictitious band Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was in part inspired by Alex and his Droogs from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and my mind is already blown.

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Bowie's Bookshelf
John O'Connell

Named one of Entertainment Weekly’s 12 biggest music memoirs this fall. “An artful and wildly enthralling path for Bowie fans in particular and book lovers in general.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.” ―David Bowie

Three years before David Bowie died, he shared a list of 100 books that changed his life. His choices span fiction and nonfiction, literary and irreverent, and include timeless classics alongside eyebrow-raising obscurities.

In 100 short essays, music journalist John O’Connell studies each book on Bowie’s list and contextualizes it in the artist’s life and work. How did the power imbued in a single suit of armor in The Iliad impact a man who loved costumes, shifting identity, and the siren song of the alter-ego? How did The Gnostic Gospels inform Bowie’s own hazy personal cosmology? How did the poems of T.S. Eliot and Frank O’Hara, the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov and Anthony Burgess, the comics of The Beano and The Viz, and the groundbreaking politics of James Baldwin influence Bowie’s lyrics, his sound, his artistic outlook? How did the 100 books on this list influence one of the most influential artists of a generation?

Heartfelt, analytical, and totally original, Bowie’s Bookshelf is one part epic reading guide and one part biography of a music legend.

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The Only Good Indians
by Stephen Graham Jones

Read a Horror Novel: I am an absolute wimp when it comes to anything scary. The last horror book I remember reading was Stephen King’s CARRIE, and I read it in broad daylight to lessen the spook factor. However, 2021 is a new year, and with this clean slate I am going to challenge myself to read something in a genre I normally stray from. I am going to dip into horror literature with Stephen Graham Jones’s THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS, at once a tale of revenge and a piece of social commentary. The book follows four American Indian men who are haunted by a supernatural entity after committing a regrettable act during their youth. Given that Stephen Graham Jones has been described as the Jordan Peele of horror literature, I am looking forward to a scary read that comes with a hint of thought-provoking themes as well!

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The Only Good Indians
Stephen Graham Jones

“One of 2020’s buzziest horror novels.” —Entertainment Weekly

The Only Good Indians is a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, yet warm and heartbreaking in the best way, Stephen Graham Jones has written a horror novel about injustice and, ultimately, about hope….And it gives me hope that this book exists and is now in your hands.” —Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin at the End of the World

“Bloody and brutal at times, but also intimate, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful.” —Rebecca Roanhorse, New York Times bestselling author of Trail of Lightning

The creeping horror of Paul Tremblay meets Tommy Orange’s There There in a dark novel of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.

Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.

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In Five Years
by Rebecca Serle

Read a Book Everyone Talked About in 2020: I never knew how behind the curve I was reading-wise until I joined bookstagram this past year. Originally intending for my account to solely be centered around what books I was reading, I was quickly surprised to see how active a community bookstagram is, and I found myself collecting several book recommendations from fellow bookstagrammers. One book that drew a lot of chatter on bookstagram in 2020 was Rebecca Serle’s IN FIVE YEARS for its gorgeous cover, buzzworthy ending, and intriguing premise. Dannie Kohan’s life is going swimmingly: she just nailed the most important job interview of her career and her boyfriend has proposed to her. She falls asleep content, and when she awakens, she is five years in the future, in another man’s apartment, wearing another ring, for exactly one hour. She wakes again in her own home, but Dannie can’t shake that one hour. I can’t wait to (belatedly) join the conversation after I read this book!

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In Five Years
Rebecca Serle

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A Good Morning America, FabFitFun, and Marie Claire Book Club Pick

In Five Years is as clever as it is moving, the rare read-in-one-sitting novel you won’t forget.” —Chloe Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Immortalists

Perfect for fans of Me Before You and One Day—a striking, powerful, and moving love story following an ambitious lawyer who experiences an astonishing vision that could change her life forever.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Dannie Kohan lives her life by the numbers.

She is nothing like her lifelong best friend—the wild, whimsical, believes-in-fate Bella. Her meticulous planning seems to have paid off after she nails the most important job interview of her career and accepts her boyfriend’s marriage proposal in one fell swoop, falling asleep completely content.

But when she awakens, she’s suddenly in a different apartment, with a different ring on her finger, and beside a very different man. Dannie spends one hour exactly five years in the future before she wakes again in her own home on the brink of midnight—but it is one hour she cannot shake. In Five Years is an unforgettable love story, but it is not the one you’re expecting.

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Milk Fed
by Melissa Broder

Read a Book Before its TV Adaptation Premieres: Speaking of not being ahead of the curve, I don’t think I have ever read a book before its television or movie adaptation was released. In my effort to be more in-the-know pop culture-wise, I am planning on reading a book before it hits the small screen and becomes a major topic of conversation. Melissa Broder’s MILK FED is shaping up to be the next big pop culture phenomenon. While the book is not set to be released until February 2, 2021, the television rights have already been bought in a competitive situation by Liz Tigelaar’s Best Day Ever production company. Tigelaar has most recently served as executive producer and showrunner for the Emmy-nominated Little Fires Everywhere, so I already have high expectations. My excitement for this adaptation is also fueled by MILK FED’s compelling plot. Rachel is a bisexual, lapsed Jew who has turned her calorie counting into a religion. When she meets Miriam, a zaftig Orthodox Jewish woman at her local frozen yogurt place, Rachel grows entranced both by her and the sundaes she creates in this tale of hunger, desire, and spirituality.

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Milk Fed
Melissa Broder

Milk Fed is a novel of appetites; a luscious, heartbreaking story of self-discovery through the relentless pursuit of desire. I couldn’t get enough of this devastating and extremely sexy book.” —Carmen Maria Machado, author of In the Dream House

A scathingly funny, wildly erotic, and fiercely imaginative story about food, sex, and god from the acclaimed author of The Pisces and So Sad Today.

Rachel is twenty-four, a lapsed Jew who has made calorie restriction her religion. By day, she maintains an illusion of existential control, by way of obsessive food rituals, while working as an underling at a Los Angeles talent management agency. At night, she pedals nowhere on the elliptical machine. Rachel is content to carry on subsisting—until her therapist encourages her to take a ninety-day communication detox from her mother, who raised her in the tradition of calorie counting.

Early in the detox, Rachel meets Miriam, a zaftig young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop and is intent upon feeding her. Rachel is suddenly and powerfully entranced by Miriam—by her sundaes and her body, her faith and her family—and as the two grow closer, Rachel embarks on a journey marked by mirrors, mysticism, mothers, milk, and honey.

Pairing superlative emotional insight with unabashed vivid fantasy, Broder tells a tale of appetites: physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual longing, and the ways that we as humans can compartmentalize these so often interdependent instincts. Milk Fed is a tender and riotously funny meditation on love, certitude, and the question of what we are all being fed, from one of our major writers on the psyche—both sacred and profane.

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The Thirty Names of Night
by Zeyn Joukhadar

Read More Queer Novels: In 2020, I made it a goal of mine to read more books by queer authors, and I succeeded. However, I found myself particularly gravitating towards memoirs; as I write this post, I am currently reading I HAVE SOMETHING TO TELL YOU by Chasten Buttigieg, and am listening to the audiobook of IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado. Therefore, my goal for 2021 is to expand the scope of my queer literature to encompass more fiction. I’m hoping to start this goal by reading Zeyn Joukhadar’s THE THIRTY NAMES OF NIGHT, which has been high up on my TBR for several months now. In this coming-of-age novel, a Syrian American trans boy searching for a new name and attempting to cope with the loss of his mother comes across the journal of the Syrian American artist Laila Z. While reading Laila Z’s journal, he discovers the connections between the artist and his mother, and uncovers the history of his queer and transgender community.

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The Thirty Names of Night
Zeyn Joukhadar

Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2020 by PopSugar and The Millions

The author of the “vivid and urgent…important and timely” (The New York Times Book Review) debut The Map of Salt and Stars returns with this remarkably moving and lyrical novel following three generations of Syrian Americans who are linked by a mysterious species of bird and the truths they carry close to their hearts.

Five years after a suspicious fire killed his ornithologist mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. He has been unable to paint since his mother’s ghost has begun to visit him each evening. As his grandmother’s sole caretaker, he spends his days cooped up in their apartment, avoiding his neighborhood masjid, his estranged sister, and even his best friend (who also happens to be his longtime crush). The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Syria.

One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She famously and mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but her journal contains proof that both his mother and Laila Z encountered the same rare bird before their deaths. In fact, Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s—and his grandmother’s—in ways he never could have expected. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story reveals the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. Realizing that he isn’t and has never been alone, he has the courage to officially claim a new name: Nadir, an Arabic name meaning rare.

As unprecedented numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the New York City skies, Nadir enlists the help of his family and friends to unravel what happened to Laila Z and the rare bird his mother died trying to save. Following his mother’s ghost, he uncovers the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself, and discovers the family that was there all along.

Featuring Zeyn Joukhadar’s signature “magical and heart-wrenching” (The Christian Science Monitor) storytelling, The Thirty Names of Night is a timely exploration of how we all search for and ultimately embrace who we are.

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Cantoras
by Carolina De Robertis

Read a Historical Fiction Novel Set in a Non-Western Location: I am a huge history nerd and this often manifests in my reading habits, however my interest has primarily been grounded in American cultural history. I am hoping to shift my perspective in 2021 by not just branching out into historical fiction, but by picking up a historical novel not set in Europe or North America. CANTORAS has one of the most compelling plotlines for a historical fiction novel I have read in quite some time. The book is set in Uruguay during the 1970s when a brutal military government took power and declared homosexuality a dangerous transgression. Despite the odds, five women find each other and, together, an isolated cape for which to call their own. Over the next thirty-five years, the women return to the cape—together, in pairs, with lovers, or alone—as they fight to live authentic lives.

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Cantoras
Carolina De Robertis

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The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde

Revisit a Classic Novel: When I was a senior in high school, I read THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY for the first time, and I fell in love with it. Oscar Wilde’s ruminations on hedonism and the role of art in society, as well as his lush prose, were unlike anything I had ever read before. Additionally, Wilde knows how to write absolutely iconic characters. Dorian, Lord Henry, Sibyl, and Basil (my favorite) have stuck with me ever since my first read. Considering I first read THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY quite a while ago, I figured the time is right for revisiting one of my all-time favorites. I am excited to see if I pick up on any new details or insights during my reread that I may have missed the first time around!

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The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde

A stunning new edition with deluxe cover treatments, ribbon markers, luxury endpapers and gilded edges. The unabridged text is accompanied by a Glossary of Victorian and Literary terms produced for the modern reader.

The young, beautiful and highly susceptible Dorian Gray is pulled into the hedonistic haze of London’s high society, where he falls under the pernicious influence of Lord Henry Wotton. Oscar Wilde’s nightmarish tale gorges on pleasure and sin, corruption and vanity, as the story takes further dark twists and a Faustian deal threatens Gray’s very soul. He will go to any lengths to keep his fleeting beauty and youth, but his painted portrait reveals the truth of his dark and twisted nature, changing its appearance at every misdeed, until the monstrous horror of Dorian’s scarred soul is too much for him to bear.

The FLAME TREE COLLECTABLE CLASSICS are chosen to create a delightful and timeless home library.

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A Little Life
by Hanya Yanagihara

Read a Book Over 500 Pages: I’ve been meaning to read A LITTLE LIFE since my friend recommended this to me in 2019, but I have struggled to find both the time to read it and to mentally prepare for its heavy themes. However, I do not want to let 2021 go without reading (or at least starting!) A LITTLE LIFE. If 2021 is anything like 2020, I will be at home a lot, which will give me plenty of time to read this tragic and gripping tale of the friendship between four men, and the addiction, trauma, and grief they each navigate.

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A Little Life
Hanya Yanagihara

I’m not exaggerating at all when I say I cried for 700 pages of this 832-page masterpiece. I have never loved a character more deeply than I love Jude, the main character in this ode to male friendship, who is scarred and broken from an unspeakable trauma. Reading about Jude’s ever-changing relationships with his three best friends from college was one of the best experiences I’ve had as a reader—and certainly as a crier.

Read the review of A LITTLE LIFE.

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Let Us Dream
by Pope Francis

Read a Book to Inspire Me for the Year Ahead: Let’s face it—after the absolute year of insanity that has been 2020, we all need some inspiration heading into 2021, which is why I’m making this goal a must on my reading challenge. Enter Pope Francis and LET US DREAM. In his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis sheds light on three crises that have shaped his life, and how his response to them changed his life for the better. He then offers a critique to the systems and ideologies that have allowed for the pandemic to proliferate, and presents a blueprint for change. I’m looking forward to reading his uplifting and practical words of wisdom.

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Let Us Dream
Pope Francis

In this uplifting and practical book, written in collaboration with his biographer, Austen Ivereigh, the preeminent spiritual leader explains why we must—and how we can—make the world safer, fairer, and healthier for all people now.

In the COVID crisis, the beloved shepherd of over one billion Catholics saw the cruelty and inequity of our society exposed more vividly than ever before. He also saw, in the resilience, generosity, and creativity of so many people, the means to rescue our society, our economy, and our planet. In direct, powerful prose, Pope Francis urges us not to let the pain be in vain.

He begins Let Us Dream by exploring what this crisis can teach us about how to handle upheaval of any kind in our own lives and the world at large. With unprecedented candor, he reveals how three crises in his own life changed him dramatically for the better. By its very nature, he shows, crisis presents us with a choice: we make a grievous error if we try to return to some pre-crisis state. But if we have the courage to change, we can emerge from the crisis better than before.

Francis then offers a brilliant, scathing critique of the systems and ideologies that conspired to produce the current crisis, from a global economy obsessed with profit and heedless of the people and environment it harms, to politicians who foment their people’s fear and use it to increase their own power at their people’s expense. He reminds us that Christians’ first duty is to serve others, especially the poor and the marginalized, just as Jesus did.

Finally, the Pope offers an inspiring and actionable blueprint for building a better world for all humanity by putting the poor and the planet at the heart of new thinking. For this plan, he draws not only on sacred sources, but on the latest findings from renowned scientists, economists, activists, and other thinkers. Yet rather than simply offer prescriptions, he shows how ordinary people acting together despite their differences can discover unforeseen possibilities.

Along the way, he offers dozens of wise and surprising observations on the value of unconventional thinking, on why we must dramatically increase women’s leadership in the Church and throughout society, on what he learned while scouring the streets of Buenos Aires with garbage-pickers, and much more.

Let Us Dream is an epiphany, a call to arms, and a pleasure to read. It is Pope Francis at his most personal, profound and passionate. With this book and with open hearts, we can change the world.

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Photo credit: iStock / DmitriiSimakov

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