Why I Love Book Bingo

By Libby Lewis, SAL Photographer


If you’ve met me—and I don’t mean if we’re friends, I mean if you’ve met me at all: mailman, in line at the store, next to me on the train—you know that I love book bingo. I’ll strike up a conversation about it with anyone—mostly because I’m obsessing about it, not only during the summer, but year-round.

During the summer, my conversations take on a more nuanced form. As I puzzle over specific categories that remain unfilled on my card, I’ll ask my dental hygienist if by chance she reads memoirs or poetry. During the rest of the year, my questions are more general, along the lines of what are you reading? or what’s your favorite book? but might veer towards questions about categories that have been on past cards and have proven challenging for me. For example, that notorious category, “set someplace you’ve always wanted to visit,” which felt so important I didn’t want to botch it. That category in particular has led to some pretty wild conversations in which I try to ensnare unwitting participants to delve deeper into the idea: what if where you’ve always wanted to visit was outer space or medieval England? (I went with Maine one year, West Virginia the next).

I’ve thought a lot about why I love book bingo and the reasons are varied.

I love it for the structure. I’m a lifelong reader, but in my 30s, I flagged. I wanted to read important books, books people were talking about, books you wanted to think about. But starting and growing my own business left me drained. I’d try to get back into reading but travel narratives devolved into magazine reading devolved into romances devolved into nothingness. Bingo gave me rules. It gave me a plan, a challenge, a goal. I’m never going to win the prize, and as the SAL photographer I work all of the events anyhow, but it gave me a personal path to accomplishment.

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I love it for the challenge. I love that that challenge can be personal but also public. I want to complete a blackout each year and for me that is incredibly personally motivating. But I know that there is a whole group that is participating in the same challenge. I don’t actually feel competitive about it, but as a competitive person, I am extremely proud of my blackouts and want to encourage others towards that same sense of accomplishment. However, if you are jazzed to have gotten a bingo, then I’m equally jazzed for you.

I love it for the community it creates. I’m on Instagram quite a bit, and I like to check in on the #bookbingonw or #whyibingo hashtag. I’ll study others cards. I’ll offer encouragement. I’ll take notes. And I know I’m not alone because I get comments on my bingo posts as well—books to try, ideas to flesh out. One participant is working towards an all women card, another an all person of color card. This is an exciting broadening of my horizons as I consider more fully what I’m reading and how it adds to the group and to me. Reading books isn’t generally a social activity, but my book bingo card connects me to other readers in a way that otherwise wouldn’t be possible in a way that a professionally outgoing but socially awkward person finds really agreeable.

I love it for the conversation it creates. I have a lot of brothers that read a lot of science fiction. Mostly, we talk about their kids. But when I began a text stream asking for suggestions for the one science fiction book I should read if I’m only going to read one, the suggestions were fast and furious (consensus was Asimov or Bradbury, titles never fully agreed upon). A friend from college that bingos with me will text books that she’s finished, books she’s considering, categories she’s stumped on. I visit her each year, leaving what I’ve finished and taking something from her shelf. (I’m not quite ready to forgive her for The Road which still haunts me.) The young adult category has been especially fruitful. Not only has it opened a line of chatter with my teenage nieces, but it’s given me some valuable cred with the younger set when I can discuss on a serious level books we’ve both read.

I love it for the connection it creates. I’m not kidding when I say I talk about it all the time. So naturally, friends and family have an interest. I’ll pop a card in the mail or send them the link to it online, and we have another avenue of conversation and connection. Although my mom confessed it’s not working out; she keeps falling asleep while reading. I’ll have to go over my “blackout” strategies with her: post-it notes, reward books, and the most crucial strategy of all—50 pages a night. When I meet another bingo fanatic at a SAL event or even the grand-prize contest winner (most exciting of all), the connection is palpable. Here are people that have challenged themselves and committed themselves to a summer of reading and accomplished their goals, and we can celebrate together.

I love it for the knowledge. I try not to softball too many of the categories. Occasionally, I just need to stop obsessing over a square and I’ll read whatever’s at hand, but I try diligently to read hard, topical, important books. If I’m only going to read one mystery novel, I want it to be one that I think is iconic (Agatha Christie). If I’m going to read a SAL speaker I want it to be one that I’ve really enjoyed in the past or am looking forward to in the future (Ann Patchett). I want to read books I’ve been meaning to read (All the Light You Cannot See) or that the world is reading (Underground Railroad) or that I should have read but never got around to (Maya Angelou). Book bingo has encouraged me to stay sharp and relevant.

If you see me at a SAL event, come say hi. I’d love to hear why you love book bingo!


Thank you, Libby! For more information on Libby’s photography, check out her website here. To see her work for SAL, you can find our event galleries on Facebook.

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