How to Read More Books in 2020
I was asked by a friend to write this. Thirty minutes later, here it was:
- Watch less TV. Don’t let it be your default evening activity. Love higher and better things.
- Don’t let social media be your default activity either. I periodically delete my Facebook app, and on my iPad I have it set to turn off after thirty minutes of daily use (which is still probably too much).
- Think of your mind as a colander with a tight mesh; your goal is to keep filling it full of broth. Yeah, most of it leaks out, because it’s a colander. But as long as you keep filling it, it will be full. And some good bits of the broth will stick to the edges and become encrusted on the mesh—and then make more good bits stick to them as time passes. (This metaphor is kind of gross, but it works for me.)
- Count audiobooks as books—as long as the kinds of books you’re reading through audio are the kinds of books that you can really receive in in that medium. Some books are too hard for audio. I tried listening to Religious Affections years ago, and I just couldn’t keep up. But just about any fiction book on double speed (or even triple, depending on the reader) is something I can receive. I can enjoy the story, chuckle at the jokes, and feel fully a part of the experience the author intends for me through audio. I find I can also listen to Scripture really well on audio. It’s my favorite way to read the Bible, because in my line of work I get to do Bible study on a near daily basis—so my Bible reading is largely for exposure, just going through Scripture about once every two years.
- Go nuts on Bluetooth devices. I have one for every conceivable situation: commuting, showering, mowing, dishwashing, quietly listening in just one ear while my spouse sleeps—and a cheap but nice set of noise-cancelling headphones I just bought and will use for air travel and maybe coffee shops.
- Milk Hoopla and/or Libby (or Overdrive) or whatever your local library system offers for all they’re worth. I can’t keep up with Hoopla and Libby both; I usually just do Libby. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many excellent books, even theology books, are available for free for digital download in audio or Kindle formats at my local library. Just got this well-reviewed Christian book moments ago. I found out that I am basically just south of the northern border of a Seattle-affiliated library system, and I think that’s how I get so much good stuff. I’ve enjoyed getting more into history and biography, both of which are great for audio.
- Get a Kindle and an iPad and build reading one or both of them into your daily routine. My most important books, the ones I want to get the most out of, I usually reserve for Kindle or Logos. My wife gets a back rub every night. With my other hand, I hold a Kindle, sans cover. I have a little pop-socket I got at the Shepherd’s Conference. My wife knows there will be little breaks in the back rub for when I need to highlight something I read. (I then collect all my highlights and put them in a file in Ulysses for later use—and I do use them; did so extensively today for a writing project).
- Read by whim. That’s what Alan Jacobs says, and I agree. I read what I want to read. I don’t read very much out of duty (though I do ask the Lord to shape my whims to my duties). I see a book get recommended by someone who ought to know, I grab it while my interest is still running hot, and I start into it immediately (thank you, Logos/Kindle!). I just did precisely this with William Ross’ top recommendation for 2019, The Story of Hebrew. It’s great so far! I also do have favorite writers, and I find I need them as tonics for what ails me. I recently read two Stanley Fish books, because I just need the mental clarity he provides. A Fish book feels like an intellectual bath with a good scrubbing. I read C.S. Lewis when I want an incisive Christian version of the same thing. I read Marilynne Robinson when I want to be put through my mental paces. I read Tim Keller when I want my faith strengthened against secular assault (that’s actually why I read Fish, too). I read John McWhorter when I want to nerd out on the coolest creation of God, language. I read John Frame when I want my mind organized by simple but deep biblical categories. (I don’t just read books; Don Carson’s essays are fantastic. So are my good friend Andy Naselli’s and, for very different reasons, David Foster Wallace’s. Ross Douthat’s opinion pieces are always helpful.) Develop your own favorites, of course. But feel free to put books down. Read what you want to read, and again: ask God to shape your wants rightly over time.
- Read out loud to your kids every night, and as long as the books are Narnia-length or longer, count them toward your Goodreads totals. This year we really enjoyed my old Faithlife editor’s cousin’s Green Ember series. There’s a lot of good stuff out there.
- Join Goodreads and write at least a short review of every serious book you read—and as many unserious ones as you can handle. Writing something about the book is a contribution to other readers, and it helps you figure out what you got out of something—and to hold on to your gains (like a crusty colander!). Be inspired by your friends’ reading, and read some books they liked. Also, set an annual reading goal on Goodreads. Mine, for many years, has been a book a week. Fifty-two books a year.
I’m a middle-class dad with a job and a lawn. I really don’t get time on the couch. Ever. Well, unless I manage to contract man-flu. I can hardly ever read paper books. If I try, I get antsy anyway. I feel like I’m wasting precious effort, because my highlights aren’t automatically being saved. It will be hard for me to recover later the value in what I’m reading.
I have friends who have far higher goals than fifty-two books a year. I Also have friends who read more good stuff in their fifty-two than I do; I include comparatively lighter stuff like fiction in my annual total. But I still make it through a fair number of rich books each year.
And if I have a secret to doing something I still don’t feel like I’m much good at compared to others I respect, it’s love. Years ago I was given a vision of what it meant to be a reader by my pastor, who cited the experience of his own mentor. That older man wasn’t much of a natural reader, apparently, but out of love for his sheep, he determined to become a reader. My pastor (the older man’s “mentee”) was and is a natural-born reader, but I am not. I have been trying for about twenty years to be motivated by love to become one. By God’s grace I think I’ve made some progress.
Not love for being the one in the know. Not love for “having read.” But love for the truth, goodness, and beauty that, in my experience, are available only in books. “With all thy getting” (whatever that means), “get wisdom.” Seek for wisdom and understanding as you would for hidden treasure. Recognize that the people who give you the most when they write or speak are all readers. That’s the reason they have something to give you.
If you want to give to others, whether your own sheep or even just your neighbors in the civic space, you’ve got to read. If you don’t read, you answer nearly every significant matter before you hear it (Prov 18:13). If you don’t read, you are more likely to be susceptible to the winds and waves of doctrine out there. If you do read out of love for God and neighbor, you’ll be a better servant to both.
Take and read.