“I haven’t read many books,” the young literature professor confided to his chatty, title-dropping students at a writer’s workshop I once attended. “But the books I have read, I’ve read well.”
His gentle admission stayed with me. I’m a booklover, as I suspect you are if you’re reading this, and perhaps your anxiety about not having read enough is getting the better of you in this season of resolutions and booklist making.
The 30-something professor showed none of that anxiety. When asked if he’d read a particular novel, history or essay collection,” he would exclaim with a curious smile, “No, I haven’t!” and ask what the student liked about the book. He seemed completely unruffled about the possibility that he’d missed some essential reading and stayed engaged, instead, with the person who’d brought it up.
I had always felt inadequate in literary company even though my undergraduate degree is in English and I’ve continued to read through every decade since. The way this kind man with a doctorate calmed his anxious-to-impress workshop students by admitting that he hadn’t read every title they dropped focused my own purpose in choosing reading as my primary leisure activity. I want to read well, for the joy it brings my soul. I want to remain curious about all the books I haven’t read yet.
If anxiety is keeping you from attempting to read a little more this year, I understand. But put away all notions of not reading enough.
You know why you want to read more and it isn’t because you want to boast about the length of your reading list at the end of this year. Read for the reasons you’ve always read. Read to grow your empathy, read to travel to places you haven’t the time or the funds to visit. Read to understand the past and prepare for the future. Read to develop greater curiosity in the world around you. Read to linger over language. Read to deepen your faith and encourage your soul.
Just keep on reading, at your own pace, for your own purposes., and resolve that the next time anybody asks whether you’ve read a book you haven’t read to exclaim with a curious smile, “No, I haven’t!”
The tips I offer here have made a difference in my own reading life. They can boost your reading enjoyment this year and help you meet your own reading goals.
1. List a few categories important to you and a few titles you’ve been wanting to read.
Even if you never look back at the lists you make, taking some time to jot down the categories of books you’d like to include in your reading year will focus your resolve to read more and more widely. Then write down the titles that keep popping up as books you’ve been wanting to read. You’ll be energized to get started on the one calling to you now.
When I hear a book recommendation from three reliable sources, it makes my list and stays there whether I get to it in the current year or not. Sometimes only one recommendation from a highly reliable source is all it takes. But I write it down. Or throw it on a wish list. Or make a note in my phone.
A title is occuring to me as I’m writing right now. My favorite category is spiritual reading, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard someone reliable recommend He Leadeth Me, the narrative by Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit priest captured during World War II who spent 23 years in Soviet labor camps and prisons. So many faithful souls have commented on the power of this book. It’s still on my list and I hope to read it this year.
Literature and classics are my next go-to category. (More on that with a podcast recommendation below.) But I’ve been longing to re-read Anna Karenina, a book I loved in my teen years and have always wanted to revisit. Re-reads count when you want to read well. Don’t listen to anybody who tells you otherwise.
Having just discovered the rich conversations on Homer on the CiRCE Instutitue’s podcast A Perpetual Feast, I’m hoping to read The Iliad and The Odyssey this year to fill in a gap in my ever-incomplete education.
Include favorite authors whose voice you trust, whose insights delight and inspire. This year I hope to read Bishop Robert Barron’s book on Thomas Acquinas, Wendell Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community and to finally read Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. These are all authors I want to keep reading all my life and they’ve written enough to last me that long, too.
Then there’s history. My favorite read in this category last year was Joseph Laconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War. I loved Dana Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter as well. This year, I want to finish Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. Alan Jacobs’ The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis is on this year’s list too.
I also try to boost my understanding of the natural world with at least one book, and I hope this year to read one my brother recommended, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World. The author’s DVD, Bird Language Basics is on my wishlist because I know it will make the text more accessible for me.
So list your categories. What have you been hoping to read? Write it down. You don’t have to get to it, but recording it will help you remember and make you less likely to waste your time on a book you never really wanted to read in the first place.
2. Download the Goodreads app and join the Goodreads Reading Challenge.
I had never used Goodreads until last year when I added the app to my phone. I set a number of books I’d like to read in the yearly challenge and gave Goodreads permission to let me sort through my past Amazon purchases for inclusion on my Goodreads shelves.
If you’re like me, always buying more books than you have time to read, connecting your Goodreads account to Amazon gives you the opportunity to sort every book, digital or hard copy, since your very first Amazon book purchase. They’re all there. It’s like opening your own time capsule, and it helps you prioritize some of the reads of the new year by already-own-but-haven’t read.
The app tells you how you’re doing as you go through the year. Right now mine tells me I’ve read 0 of 30 books for the year, right on track. I’ve stopped worrying about the number of books read except as a discipline check-up. Some books I hope to read will take me much longer than the light fiction of my Goodreads friend’s choice. Who cares? She knows what’s right for her, and I’m in charge of my choices too.
3. Try Whispersync.
I still do my best reading with pen in hand or at least finger on the Kindle highlighter, but when I drive or walk the dog, I often keep on reading by listening. I stop and speak notes into the Audible app on my phone. I look over my notes from time to time on the Audible website on my laptop.
I like having a few Kindle books whispersynced so I can switch between reading and listening. It’s easier on the budget when you choose an Audible or Kindle Daily Deal and add the narration or the e-book at a substantially reduced price.
A heavier book I’ve been reading this way is David Bentley Hart’s The Atheist Delusions. I might not be able to complete this richly-reasoned book by sitting and reading alone, so when I’m ready to engage its content, I usually do it on a walk.
The book’s arguments are so poignant that I want to mark them too, so this is one I have whispersynced. After completing a chapter, I get out the Kindle and highlight the parts I want to return to quickly.
4. Try a Kindle Paperwhite.
The paperwhite is my favorite e-reader. I don’t have the pricey editions, just a low-end, 6 inch model. I love the paperwhite’s features: tap on a word to be taken right to its definition, tap on a name or event and be taken right to Wikipedia. Highlight or type your own note.
The paperwhite won’t strain your eyes or disturb your sleep as other lighted screens do. It’s my choice for meditative reading in the morning when my room is still dark and my husband’s taking our dog on the first walk of his day. I adjust my lighted screen to dim and read prayerfully in silence.
The paperwhite is also my choice for travel because I’m a mood reader who always carried a stuffed bookbag before one device could hold a library all organized by categories I’ve chosen.
I was thrilled last month to see that Amazon has just released the paperwhite with built-in Audible, and for now, the price is reasonable. I used a gift card to cover most of the cost and am hoping I’ve found the perfect text-to-narration device for my new year’s reading.
5. Support your understanding (and motivation) with bookish podcasts.
Listening to deep readers discuss a great book helps cement it in memory and offers insights we may not have had without compentent guides. Search your podcast app for the title you’re wanting to read and see what you discover.
That’s exactly how I found Close Reads, a podcast that reminds me of the professor who, by his example, encouraged me to read my books well rather than worry about how many books I’d read.
Hosted by David Kern (of The Daily Poem), Close Reads features a cadre of lively, competent teachers slowly reading a great book together. They discuss only a few chapters at a time, enabling listeners to read along with them, slowly and well. Two of the hosts will have read the work before and one is coming to it for the first time, preventing the other two from spoiling the book’s crucial turns of event.
Close Reads’ conversation is refreshing and insightful. You can choose a book from past episodes (I did with Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow) or start now by reading the scheduled chapters of the current read (at at this writing it’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day), listening to these charming, soulful people share their lives while going deep into conversation about the section you just read.
My goal for the 2019? Thirty books, same as last year. All selected because I want to read them, not because someone else thinks I should.
This year, let’s read well.
What’s on your list? I’d love to hear from you.
How about a great year-end conversation about film? Check out the CiRCE Institute’s latest podcast venture, Libromania: a Podcast for the Book-Obsessed. The Year in Movies episode with film critic Jeffrey Overstreet is an education and a delight.
Reads That Feed: A Booklover’s Planner was created for everyone who subscribes to Sparrowfare’s email newsletter, Reads & Other Seeds, a month-or-so compliation of favorite links to books, music, culture, contemplation and Sparrowfare’s latest posts. The planner is a 12-page e-book with pages for categories of books you might want to consider as you create this year’s reading list, short lists of Sparrowfare recommendations and a few additional resources. I’m still sending new subscribers Flight Fuel: An Eclectic Playlist of Hope as well. Flight Fuel is a linked playlist of 33 diverse songs that remind me to keep going when I’m tempted to despair. Subscribe here and Reads that Feed: A Booklover’s Planner and Flight Fuel: An Eclectic Playlist of Hope will wing their way to you!
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