“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.
So it was a significant event in my reading life when, as I turned the last pages while sitting in the plane during our recent flight, I realized I had found my favorite book: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (Harper, 1954).
This was actually the second time I read this book. I first read it two years ago, in preparation for a fellowship program that I didn’t end up doing (I got married instead!). The first time I read it, it was excellent. But it was as if I took a few bites, tasted it. The second time, I enjoyed the full meal, and it was so rewarding that before I finished it I was already anticipating the next time I would read it.
Bonhoeffer – a German theologian and pastor who was murdered by the Gestapo for plotting to assassinate Hitler – wrote the book while teaching an underground seminary in Nazi Germany. He instructs on doing life together in Christ, as a community of Christians or as a family, and deals with topics such as prayer, common devotions, daily work, solitude, and serving one another. It’s a small book, running just over a hundred pages, but it is rich in wisdom and practical instruction. If you want to grow as a member of your community or your family, I cannot think of a better book you can read than this one.
Here are three excerpts to pique your interest. More posts will follow.
“Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts” (29).
“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (30).
“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door” (38).
When’s the last time you committed a poem to memory? What about a phone number or an address? Most of us don’t need to do these things any longer. Google, our laptops, and our many smart toys have made the need to commit information to memory obsolete. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but perhaps it’s worth reflecting on this change and what it means for our brains and our society.
In The Lost Art of Reading (Sasquatch, 2010), David Ulin quotes from Eva Hoffman’s Time:
“On one level we are relegating more and more of our mental operations to various technologies, with digital devices increasingly acting as prostheses for our faculties. We entrust our sense of spatial orientation to satellite navigations systems; we give mathematical calculations over to the appropriate gadgets…we have less need to remember information ourselves when so much can be stored in our computer’s memory. The feats of memory recorded in oral cultures, or performed by Soviet poets and writers under censorship, seem hardly credible within our zeitgeist. Nadezhda Mandelstam memorized all of her husband’s poetry because it was too hazardous to write it down. Solzhenitsyn committed to memory each page he wrote when he was imprisoned in the Gulag, and the destroyed the evidence. Such powers of retention are unimaginable to most of us and they may become even more so, as we transfer memory to the many storage places available to us – there to be filed way, for instant and effortless retrieval” (89).