Guest column: A year in Extreme Book Nerdery

The “extreme book nerd” is a special niche of reader and it wasn’t until my second try (with a year of rest in between) that I was able to join their ranks, writes Katie Stokes.

The Idaho Falls Public Library’s “Extreme Book Nerd Challenge” just wrapped up its third year and will launch its fourth on Jan. 3.

The challenge is to read 50 books in 50 specific categories in 50 weeks.

Liza Evans is the Idaho Falls Public Library’s adult and teen programming specialist. She said the first year of the challenge saw only about a third of the 1,050 who signed up actually finish. “I think we had a lot of people who thought it would be really fun. But when they got started they thought, wow, this is way more work than I thought it would be.”

The second year, participation went down slightly. Evans says about 950 signed up and only 260 finished, but she wonders if part of the problem may have been the prize that year — a book bag. “The men weren’t as excited about a bag,” she said.

The library’s challenge has been highly successful each year, but 2017 was the biggest year yet with 1,157 readers signed up for the challenge and 523 finished. “Way more than we expected,” said Evans.

Evans believes what made the difference in allowing just under half the readers to finish the challenge this year was the Extreme Book Nerd Challenge Facebook Group. “A lot people are super active,” said Evans. “They go there to give help, and to get help. We had some serious cheerleaders.”

So what’s it like to read a book a week for nearly an entire year?

I asked that question on the Challenge Facebook Group and the general consensus was, no matter how much or how little you read normally, taking on the task of reading 50 books, at some point, will start to feel like work.

“I discuss books with others more. Once I know someone is also in the challenge, bang, there are all sorts of conversation possibilities. What did you read for this category? What will you read for that category. Exchange suggestions. Since I started the 2016 challenge in January 2016, I’ve joined two book clubs,” wrote Steve Piet, also a Post Register local columnist.

“I love it, but it can make you crazy,” wrote Joy M. Sorensen.

“Fun and challenging,” wrote Pilar Saslow.

“It’s exciting but somewhat like being in college!” wrote Marilyn Tobin Paarmann.

I can vouch for that. I read far more in the past three years than I did during four years of college as an English major. And I only completed one challenge.

Reading that much also has a certain affect on your brain. It gets to the point where you can begin to crave reading your next book.

That’s right, you can get addicted.

But because of the volume and the specificity of the categories, you are forced into and out of your addiction in violent bursts. For instance, I knocked down some numbers in quick succession in a run of thrillers, ghost stories, mysteries and excellent suggestions from bookish friends.

But my momentum was nearly crushed by a real stinker of a thriller that I ended up hating and struggled to read for nearly a month.

The good news is that it’s pretty fun to write a review of something you dislike intensely.

Likely one of the reasons the challenge has been so successful is the work and enthusiasm of the librarians. Defining each year’s categories goes on year-round. Evans said they keep an ongoing list and add ideas as patrons suggest them or as they read things themselves that spark ideas.

But not all categories work. Evans said each category must have at least 100 book options to be feasible in the final challenge category list.

This has led to some sad exclusions, such as “Inspired by a work of Shakespeare,” “David Bowie’s Favorites” and “Oprah’s Book Club” titles, each of which had too few possibilities to include.

Each year, participants have an overall least favorite category. In the 2017 Challenge, Evans said the “Man Booker” prize winner or nominee category was nearly universally hated. The literary prize is given annually to a book originally written in the English language. Until 2016, only books published in the UK were eligible for the prize, limiting the scope of possibilities for readers precipitously.

A category that appears in every year’s list is “A Book You Love, Read it Again.” Evans said, “We put it in every year. The book you read as a 14 year old is not the book you read when you’re a 40 year old.”

Except for that category and a few others revealed in a post-2017 challenge sneak peak (“A Western,” “A Wild Card Book,” “A Book with a Season in the Title” and “A Book from the Nonfiction 641s”), the list for 2018 is being intensely guarded until the Jan. 3 Extreme Book Nerd Challenge kick-off at the Idaho Falls Public Library.

Why? Each reader must turn in a chronicle of which book they read, the name of the author and the category it fits. Getting a head start on choosing books for categories is tantamount to cheating.

I don’t know if it’s in me to participate in a 2018 Extreme Book Nerd now that I’m soon to be the proud owner of the 2017 prize – a blue zip-up hoodie emblazoned with the Extreme Book Nerd logo – but who knows? I’m kind of addicted to the thrill of the hunt for my next great read.


Katie Stokes is the Commentary page editor. Email her at kstokes@postregister.com.


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