Eating vegetables gets dull. Exercising is painful. Drinking enough water is a chore—especially if coffee doesn’t count! Even when I know it’s worth it, good patterns are difficult to form and even more difficult to stick to over time, so I often look to others who are doing it well to know where to start or how to keep going. Likewise, reading seems like a solitary activity, but it’s much easier to do well and a more worthwhile activity when done in community.
Recently I discussed reading goals and habits with my brother-in-law, Drew, who has been an avid reader for as long as I’ve known him. It’s a good thing I’m not competitive, because we participated in a reading challenge last year and he smoked most of the group, with a whopping 96 books. This impressed me because—with a wife, extended family, church involvement, a demanding full-time job and a long commute—Drew doesn’t have any more ‘free time’ than the average young adult. In fact, statistically, he has significantly less. But Drew dismisses his accomplishment by saying, “It’s reasonably achievable for anyone who has enough time to use a smartphone”. I was curious to know how and why he made reading a priority, and why he continued to make sure it stayed a part of his routine.
Drew describes reading as a ‘reinforcing habit’. The why influences the how, and the how reinforces the why. He makes time for reading because he sees how it impacts his life, and so he orders his life in a way that continues to make time for reading. He admits he has very little sympathy for the complaint of not having enough time to read—especially when you understand how influential it can be. He says “You get done what you prioritize… To me, not reading is like not eating.”
While he’s always been a reader, Drew says that lately he has been recognizing the importance of including Christian classics alongside more ‘dangerous’ books. He says it’s part of an overall transition to books that impact rather than simply inform. Before he made this transition, he says, “I was reading personal finance books and I found them about as depressing as they come. They all have the same message. Work all day, save as much as you can, watch it grow, then die. It got me down, thinking how meaningless that was, and made me think more about how I square the gospel with my day to day life. I started to read more theology (such as Norman Geisler's Systematic Theology, The End for Which God Created the World by Jonathan Edwards, and The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther). These contain a sobering reminder of how little control I have over events and circumstances in my life, but instead offer the unwavering hope we have in Christ.”
If we recognize the importance of reading well, what are some practical ways we can get started and stay diligent? Drew says it’s important to acknowledge when we’re spending too much time reading news, social media, sports results and things with little to no return value. Reducing time on these things by asking “What good is this doing?” will help us realign our priorities. Note that it’s still worth asking the same question about our reading: “What good is this doing?” We’re responsible for ensuring that a reading habit is not only growing ourselves in knowledge and maturity in Christ, but enabling us to disciple those around us.
Drew recommends adding complementary habits to increase our opportunities to read and ability to enjoy it. Meeting a good friend on a weekly basis to discuss what you’re reading and how it applies to life is a way to set goals, have accountability and disciple others through reading. Listen to books or podcasts while driving or exercising. Drew says he is intentional about being influenced by listening to sermons, lectures and podcasts by readers and authors. This helps fuel desire and interest in reading well.
To new or reluctant readers, his advice is simple: don’t let yourself be overwhelmed, just start where you are. We are fortunate to be surrounded by easily accessible, quality reading material, so choose something that is of interest to you, that will help you grow in an area of truth.
I asked Drew whether books and reading have any unique advantages over other communication media, such as television, podcasts, lectures and sermons. He pointed out that books are more likely to make us ask questions while also forcing us to answer them. It’s an exercise in thinking, more than most forms of information we are exposed to.
Of course, this is where we come back to the idea of reading along with others: helping each other to ask and answer questions. Along those same lines, another advantage to reading that Drew mentioned is how “connecting over a shared read bridges many demographic divides”. The mutual experience of reading a good book can provide a sufficient foundation for great conversation.
While I thought I was familiar with every quotation from Charles Spurgeon on reading, Drew introduced me to my new favourite. In emphasizing the importance of reading for preachers and teachers, Spurgeon highlights how our reading ought to be good for others: “Reading makes the full man and it is the full man who alone can overflow for the profit of others”.1
1. CH Spurgeon, ‘Mrs Spurgeon’s book fund report for 1884’, The Sword and the Trowel, March 1885.↩