On reading

I love to read. That’s probably not a big surprise, it’s an unusual writer who doesn’t.

I read more than most—honestly the stats on how much the average person reads make me sad. This YouGov survey has around three quarters of respondents saying they read a book last year, but the median number of books read a year is 4 (the mean is 10, but obviously stretched at the top end by outliers like me). Those stats get worse when you just look at men.

I don’t think I’m a big reader because I know people who read more than me. This is a pretty typical sort of self-deception; we assume we’re average as long as we’re aware of people on either side of us. I read 70-90 books a year. I’m currently reading eight different books, some I’ve been in for months, others will only take a few days. I don’t think I’m a quick reader—because my wife can read something faster than me—this is another example of the same sort of self-deception. I read a lot.

I have what I think is a small personal library, but then I have enough books to call them a library (around 1000). I compare myself to these ridiculous images you sometimes see of American pastors and their vast libraries and assume mine is small. Again, it’s perspective.

Which is all to say, I have some thoughts on reading and do know what I’m talking about. People often ask me for tips on reading more, and I thought I’d share some of the things I frequently say.

Stop finishing bad books

Free yourself from the false tyranny of having to finish books. If a book is bad, stop reading it. If a book has good information but is badly written, skim it. If you feel like the book is worthy but it isn’t clicking with you, consider putting it down to pick up another day.

If you are finding a book a real slog it’s ok to change your reading strategy—especially if you’re reading for information. I would recommend reading the first and last paragraph of a chapter to see if you want to read that chapter, and reading the introduction and conclusion to see if you want to read a book.

People sometimes ask if reading that way ‘counts.’ You’re the only one keeping score, do what you want. I’d include a book in my list of books I’ve read if I engaged with a good portion of it. I finish most books I start, but you don’t have to. There isn’t enough time in your life to read bad books.

Keep a list of what you read

If you’re trying to read more then keeping a list of the number can be an encouraging motivator. The number can turn into something to chase taking away your enjoyment of actually reading the book, but keeping a list is helpful.

It’s a pleasurable activity to look back over what you’ve read that year, or in the last few months. I’m often surprised how often I forgot what I read, and it helps me recommend good books to other people.

Read more than one book at once

So, this is a matter of personal preference. Plenty of people say they can’t do this. I’m unconvinced, but appreciate that some of my reading habits wouldn’t work for everyone. If the books are distinctly different you can manage to have them on the go at the same time—even if that’s a fiction book and a non-fiction book.

It’s a frequent event that I don’t feel like reading a book I have been reading or am struggling with it but pick up another book instead. If I didn’t have multiple on the go I simply wouldn’t read as much. The number of books I read a year makes it look like I finish 1.5 books a week, but I don’t, I’m just reading lots of things at the same time.

Carve out time

Some of them I carve out time for. I’ve been reading G. K. Beale’s superb A New Testament Biblical Theology, which is a massive 1000-page tome, for many months. If that was the only book I was reading right now I would have given up, but I’m within two chapters of finishing. By the time I post this I suspect I will have read it.

I read it on weekend mornings after I’ve read the Bible, as I give myself an extra hour or so. I wouldn’t read theological books like that cover-to-cover otherwise, I would only dip into them for reference.

I read in my lunchbreaks, so that’s around an hour a day. When I’m commuting to the office I read on the train. I try to read a hard book and then some fiction for an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon. That’s my week, but that adds up to a lot of hours.

As things in my life fluctuate I suspect this will change—we’re contemplating some changes to our Sundays as I post this that will alter when I can read. Adjust what you can to fit around the life you’re living and make spaces for books.

John Stott recommended pastors read an hour a day to get through around 50 books a year, and that is a good use of a pastor’s time that their churches should give them. But most of us don’t get to read for our jobs (what a privilege!), and most of you would not find the timing I’ve just laid out achievable at all.

Carve out what works.

Comparisons are deadly

There are lots of things about my life which make it easier for me to read as much as I do. Some of those are circumstances, some of them are choices. Don’t begrudge your different circumstances or choices. You don’t need to read as much as I do unless you want to do the sort of things I’m called to do with my life. If you’re just trying to read more ignore my numbers and do what works for you.

Read what you want to read when you want to read it. If that’s books about flying blokes with oversized swords, great, I love Brandon Sanderson too. If that’s weighty theological tomes, great, pull over a chair and pour a whisky, let’s chat. If that’s something that I think sounds dull (world war two history, for example), great, enjoy it.

Talk about books

I love hearing people talk about books, because I love books. “What have you been reading?” is a question I like being asked, and like hearing from other people. There are more good books than I will be able to read in my life. My series of reading lists, many thousands of books long, grows faster than I read and is regularly culled. I’m sure that most of them would be helpful, or interesting, or provocative. I won’t read even half of them. That someone else likes a book matters to me. If they’re a flesh and blood person that I know rather than someone hidden in a screen it matters infinitely more because I will get to talk to them about it. Those books I prioritise.

If those tips are helpful, great! Come and tell me about it on one of my social media feeds. While you’re at it, tell me some of your favourite books. I’d love to hear about them.

Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

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