“Grades are things not to worry about. Says who? Well, I do, in a way. No one is in a university to ‘get good grades’, even though your grades may be the main concern of the good tuition payers back home… If to get a good grade a student reads St. Augustine – well, terrific. But I am also impressed by someone who reads St. Augustine and gets a D-, but who five or twenty-five years later is still reading him. It takes all one’s life to read St. Augustine, so the first dozen times through probably deserve a D- anyhow.”
– James V. Schall, “Grades,” in Another Sort of Learning (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1988), 42.
“A Jeffersonian believes that books are at the center of any full and mature life. Thomas Jefferson approached life essentially through books…Reading was one of his favorite activities. He prepared himself for adult life with the severest possible course of reading. For a significant period of his life, from about the age of fifteen to twenty-five, Jefferson essentially read every waking minute of every day. With the possible exceptions of Theodore Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams, Jefferson was intellectually the best-prepared president in American history.
“…Jefferson’s reading habits were eclectic, but he clearly preferred non-fiction, and his immense library was essentially a reference collection. What Jefferson wanted most were information, facts, data points, and statistics. He saw books primarily as information delivery systems. He would be pleased at the size, scope, and accessibility of the public library system in the United States, and thrilled at the world wide web and the internet.”
—Clay Jenkinson, Becoming Jefferson’s People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century (Bismarck, ND: Marmarth Press, 2004), 29-30.
“The main problem behind our insufficient deep reading is a frenzied pace and boundless digital distractions, but we have also passively let the potential for reading quantity undermine the habit of repeatedly reading quality – of returning again and again to a small number of important texts…”
– Senator Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult (New York: St. Martin’s, 2017) 227.
“Both the paucity of books and his own intellectual bent led Lincoln to repeated reading of a relatively small number of books. He did not skim across the top of a thousand books but immersed himself in a dozen or two.”
– William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 49.
“Be careful, however, that there is no element of discursiveness and desultoriness about this reading you refer to, this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”
– Seneca, Letter II, Letters from a Stoic (New York: Penguin, 2004), 33.
I’ll venture to say that most people (including me, as attested by the fact that Les Misérables has been sitting in my bookcase untouched for quite a while) hesitate to read big, serious, excellent books, even when we know that reading them will benefit us, because of their intimidating size and because we know that reading them will require lots of time. But in passing on these books – many of which are rightly considered classics and have shaped the thinking of people we admire as well as history itself – we’re depriving ourselves not only of practical, intellectual, and spiritual benefits but also great enjoyment. As a way to encourage you (slow readers in particular, take heart!) to tackle more of these kinds of books, here’s some practical advice from John Piper, which he gives in my favorite book of his, When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Crossway, 2004).
“Suppose you read slowly like I do – maybe about the same speed that you speak – 200 words a minute. If you read fifteen minutes a day for one year (say just before supper, or just before bed), you will read 5,474 minutes in the year. Multiply that by 200 words a minute, and you get 1,095,000 words that you would read in a year. Now an average serious book might have about 360 words per page. So you would have read 3,041 pages in one year. That’s ten very substantial books. All in fifteen minutes a day.
“Or, to be specific, my copy of [John] Calvin’s Institutes has 1,521 pages in two volumes, with an average of 400 words per page, which is 608,400 words. That means that even if you took a day off each week, you could read this great biblical vision of God and man in less than nine months (about thirty-three weeks) at fifteen minutes a day” (129).
Are you a leader – at school, work, church, or at home – or do you want to be in a position of leadership? Have you ever considered that one of the most important activities for a leader can be reading?
I’ve always noticed that good leaders are usually big readers too, thinking this made sense because being well informed is an important part of being an effective leader, and also because truly intelligent people, as many leaders are, know that they actually know very little, and therefore are always seeking to learn more.
Below is the best case I’ve come across for why reading is essential for the effective, and more importantly, the convictional, leader.
(This is my last post from Al Mohler’s book The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters (Bethany House, 2012), which I strongly recommend to anyone who wants to grow in leadership qualities.)
“As a general rule, clichés are to be avoided. The statement that leaders are readers is an exception to that rule. When you find a leader, you have found a reader. The reason for this is simple – there is no substitute for effective reading when it comes to developing and maintaining the intelligence necessary to lead.
“… Leadership requires a constant flow of intelligence, ideas, and information. There is no way to gain the basics of leadership without reading.
“… The explosion of books and articles on leadership is one signal that leaders are avid readers and eager consumers of the written word. Leading by conviction demands an even deeper commitment to reading and the mental disciplines that effective reading establishes. Why? Because convictions require continual mental activity. The leader is constantly analyzing, considering, defining, and confirming the convictions that will rule his leadership” (99-100).
In his excellent article, “Book Hunters in the New Dark Ages,” Paul Miller (you can read his writings on foreign policy here) makes an impassioned call for a new generation of “book hunters” – referring to men in the Middle Ages who tracked down and preserved ancient manuscripts of great works (for example, those of the Roman statesman Cicero, many of which were lost). He argues that in today’s postmodern culture where truth is increasingly whittled down in a sea of relativism, this undertaking is necessary to preserve the best of culture and even our civilization itself.
I loved the entire piece, but I was downright floored by this excerpt because it articulated, in a way I wish I could, exactly what I try to accomplish through this blog, where I hold up excerpts from books for others to read, appreciate, learn from, and grow:
“The times call for a new generation of book hunters. Like the book hunters of the Middle Ages, the new book hunters take it as their mission to uncover and salvage the best of what came before: to cherish it; hold it up for praise and emulation; study it; above all, to love it and pass it on. The new book hunters sift the cultural artifacts of the world – in our era, not limited to books – to separate the wheat from the chaff, to weed out the unworthy and cultivate the fruitful and edifying, to recover the scattered, forgotten gems amidst the avalanche of trash.”
In his helpful book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Little, Brown, 2008), Roy Peter Clark offers these “tricks” for writers, though they can be used by anyone who wants to improve their writing. Do you ever do any of these?
- Read to listen to the voice of the writer.
- Read the newspaper in search of underdeveloped story ideas.
- Read online to experience a variety of new storytelling forms.
- Read entire books when they compel you; but also taste bits of books.
- In choosing what to read, be directed less by the advice of others and more by your writing compass.
- Sample – for free – a wide selection of current magazines in bookstores that serve coffee.
- Read on topics outside your discipline, such as architecture, astronomy, economics, and photography.
- Read with a pen nearby. Write in the margins. Talk back to the author. Mark interesting passages. Ask questions of the text.