How to Read More Books in 2020

I was asked by a friend to write this. Thirty minutes later, here it was:

  1. Watch less TV. Don’t let it be your default evening activity. Love higher and better things.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

13 Comments

  1. Tyler Robbins on January 2, 2020 at 3:14 pm

    I average about 35 – 40 non-fiction works a year, almost all theology, history or biography. I consume half of them via audiobook; usually through my library’s Overdrive account. I recently bought a Kindle Fire for $29.99 for exclusive use as an audiobook player,and can now listen to any Kindle book via the “text-to-speech” feature. The voice is robotic, but you get quite used to it. I can now listen to any Kindle book I want (many of which aren’t available on audiobook or are quite expensive). I have a cumulative 75 minute daily commute roundtrip; I redeem that time by listening to books! Right now, I am juggling a book about Israel’s targeted assassination programs and a tome by Os Guinness.

    • Mark Ward on January 2, 2020 at 3:21 pm

      Excellent! I’m trying to figure out how to get Alexa’s audiobook capacities into my life, too.

  2. […] I like writers who write in lists and provide some light humor with practical advice. A great example is the post “How to Read More Books in 2020.” […]

  3. Dennis Cone on January 3, 2020 at 2:09 pm

    Great suggestions, Mark! And I liked the analogy in #3 so much that I highlighted and copied it for later use!

  4. David Scott on January 3, 2020 at 4:44 pm

    Very helpful article. Do you have a top 10 of books you would recommend?

    • Mark Ward on January 3, 2020 at 6:09 pm

      Boy… It does just so happen that my pastor and I recently put together a list for our own church, one that hasn’t even been announced to them. But here you go:

      Beginner

      1. God’s Big Picture, Vaughn Roberts
      2. Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges
      3. Trusting God, Jerry Bridges
      4. Overcoming the World, Joel Beeke
      5. God Is More than Enough, Jim Berg

      Intermediate

      1. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, J.I. Packer
      2.
      Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
      3. A(Typical) Woman: Free, Whole, and Called in Christ, Abigail Dodds
      4. The Pleasures of God, John Piper
      5. What is a Reformed Church? By Malcolm Watts
      6. Complete in Him, Michael Barrett
      7. What is Reformed Theology? by R.C. Sproul

      Advanced

      1. Salvation Belongs to the Lord, John Frame
      2. The Mortification of Sin, John Owen
      3. The Whole Christ, Sinclair Ferguson
      4. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, J.I. Packer

  5. Bess on January 3, 2020 at 11:18 pm

    I appreciate this article. l plan to share it as l am often seeking to encourage those l care about to take reading more seriously. I read largely nonfiction, theology books. Thank you!

  6. Betz on January 4, 2020 at 7:39 am

    The obvious question is how do you set your FB to an automatic turn off time?☺Thanks for the insights!

    • Mark Ward on January 4, 2020 at 7:42 am

      Screen Time in iOS and iPadOS both allow you to set limits on apps. I feel like I shouldn’t need the help, but I do!

  7. Larry on January 7, 2020 at 6:30 am

    Excellent.

    However, I hate reading Logos/Kindle/etc. I know it is better for highlighting but worse for just about everything else for me. I like holding a book and turning pages and seeing progress.

    Have you experimented with any electronic highlighting pens that scan something from a physical book so you can download it and have the highlights on the computer?

  8. Brian Collins on January 9, 2020 at 7:03 am

    Great Post. I read a mixture of books in codex, Logos, Kindle, and PDF formats. For codices, instead of highlights I use the camera on my phone to drop pictures of selected text into OneNote. I find that works very well (especially since I don’t really highlight my electronic books either–I copy quotations into OneNote).

  9. dcsj on April 16, 2020 at 12:07 am

    I am catching up on some of my Mark Ward reading… Just noticed Larry’s comment about electronic highlighting pens. I’ve used them in the past, I think before Kindle was a thing. The ones I’ve had (two or three…) worked well enough, but their text recognition wasn’t perfect. italics are a problem at times, and then the upload to your computer is sometimes funky. Maybe they’ve improved over the years, but I would say for note-taking, the Kindle app on the desktop is probably the best. I also have a Kindle Paperwhite, it works fine as well, but the app is better.

    My problem is disciplining the little bit of free time I have. I listen to a lot of books as I drive about, but my schedule is so packed that when I have down time I goof off. Which often leads to more goofing off…

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Mark Ward on April 16, 2020 at 5:35 pm

      Yeah, I’m struggling a bit with that same busyness, despite the crisis.

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