Invest Time Carefully
I read a lot of books. My annual goal is to read seventy-five books, which may sound like a lot. And it is a lot, but not compared to some of my extraordinary friends.
So how do I read seventy-five books each year? I don’t read a lot of books because I have a ton of free time. My calendar is full, my honey-do list is long, my three kids are hyper, and my boss is active (or is it the other way around?). And my running shoes are neglected, my weight bench is dusty, and my yard is overgrown. I live in the real world, just like you.
The short answer is that I find the time to read because I invest my time carefully. Sometimes I read over my morning plate of scrambled eggs; sometimes I read over my lunchtime can of tuna salad; and sometimes I read over my cup of evening tea. I read at the DMV when I renew my driver’s license. I read in airports and in jets as I travel for work. I read when I’m waiting on my barber. I read books to my kids. Sometimes I read when the kids are climbing all over my back on the living room floor. And on my day off, I retreat for a couple hours to read at a local coffee shop. All of this “found time,” added up, equals books read.
Words Per Minute
But just how much time do we need to read books? Since I took the same college algebra class three times, I can run a few mathematical equations for you.
First, most people can find sixty minutes each day to read. It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t: fifteen minutes in the morning, fifteen minutes at lunchtime, and another thirty minutes in the evening. No problem. At this pace, you can devote seven hours to reading each week (or 420 minutes).
The average reader moves through a book at a pace of about 250 words per minute. So 420 minutes of reading per week translates into 105,000 words per week. Assuming that you can read for one hour each day, and that you read at around 250 words per minute, you can complete more than one book per week, or about seventy books per year.
Some weeks will provide more, or less, time for reading. But by carving little pockets of time throughout your week and by using your time well, it is not impossible to read a hefty stack of books each year.
So how to find those pockets of reading time in the first place? Here are some tips that have helped me.
1. Expect War
When we set out to read important books, we can expect opposition from our hearts. Reading is a discipline, and all disciplines require self-discipline, and self-discipline is the one thing our sinful flesh will resist.
Our spirit may be eager to read a book, but our flesh is weak. Our flesh would rather self-indulge on passive entertainment. Movies and television can be wonderful gifts from God if we use them wisely, but unchecked they will hijack our schedules and rob us of our reading time. Book reading is not just a matter of time management; it’s a matter of warfare. Wherever sinful self-indulgence dominates our free time, we can be certain that personal idols are at work in our flesh, seeking to divide and conquer the soul (1 Pet. 2:11).
Idols of entertainment and pleasure make the discipline of book reading a battle with our flesh. We’d rather avoid discipline and be occupied with easier tasks like e-mail, Internet browsing, and movies. We neglect books because our hearts reject the discipline required to read them. And that is a spiritual problem, a lack of personal discipline, not a lack of time. And until we apply the sin-freeing gospel to our own hearts—and the idols therein—we may never cultivate the self-discipline required to read books. Our flesh wars within us. If we don’t kill the idols of laziness and self-indulgence, these idols will kill our literacy.
So expect a fight from your flesh.
Our flesh wars within us. If we don’t kill the idols of laziness and self-indulgence, these idols will kill our literacy.
2. Make Time, Not Excuses
In 1964 Robert Lee calculated the leisure time available to Americans. In his research he compared the leisure time available to modern Americans to the leisure time available to an average American worker in the mid-1800s. What did Lee discover?
It is a striking fact to note that the working man of a century ago spent some seventy hours per week on the job and lived about forty years. Today he spends some forty hours per week at work and can expect to live about seventy years. This adds something like twenty-two more years of leisure to his life, about 1,500 free hours each year, and a total of some 33,000 additional free hours that the man born today has to enjoy!1
That is a stunning amount of free time! So why is this leisure time so elusive when it comes to finding the time we need to read books?
For many of us, reading is more a lack of of desire than of a lack of free time. C. S. Lewis wrote, “The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”2 The same is true of reading. Favorable conditions for reading books never come.
There are always interruptions and other things to do. We can all find excuses for why we cannot read: we’re too busy, we’re too tired, we’re too burned out from the day, we’re too (you fill in the blank). But we all find time to do what we “want” to do. The problem is not that we don’t have time to read, but that we don’t have the desire to read. So learn to love reading—because it’s easier to find time to do what you love to do.
3. Read Great Books
How do we cultivate that love? Start by researching and finding the very best books available. Ask your friends for recommendations. Great books can be found in every genre, from novels that grab your heart with the twists and turns of a brilliant plot, or history books that open your imagination to experience decisive moments in the world, or Christian living books that bring clarity to your soul and focus to your life. Nothing cultivates a love of reading more than a steady diet of great books.
I think the only books that should be burned—or at least banned— are mediocre ones. Find books that grab you. Read the books that make you lose sleep at night. Perhaps that’s a book that you have already read. Reread it.
Aim to become a reader who sits down late in the evening after a long day and grabs for a book to relax. This is a reader who loves to read! You may not be there yet, reading may be a chore, and television and movies and browsing the Internet might hold more sway over your leisure time. Press on. Keep searching for great books.
4. Set Reading Priorities
Our reading may not be disciplined, efficient, or fruitful until we read with purpose. Before you begin reading a book, determine why you are reading it.
We will often neglect what we don’t prioritize. And book reading is often neglected because it fails to be a priority; and it fails to be a priority because we have not defined our reading goals clearly. Once we define the purpose of our reading, it becomes much easier to see the practical value of books in our lives.
Factor everything you want to read and need to read—even factor in your fun reading. Then choose books that align with those priorities.
5. Stop Something
But for all the extra leisure time available, we each have a limited number of days in our lives (Psalm 90). The brevity of life requires that we limit our priorities. Are you still waiting for the time to read? You may need to stop doing something else. Novelist Alan Bissett understands this. He wrote,
The reader is under assault from hundreds of television channels, 3D cinema, a computer-gaming business so large it dwarfs Hollywood, iPhones, Wii, YouTube, free commuter newspapers, an engorged celebrity culture, instant access to all the music ever recorded, 24-hour sports news, and DVD box-sets of shows such as The Wire, Mad Men and Lost that replicate some of the scope and depth of literature. Unprecedented levels of consumer debt, and now a recession, have seen everyone working longer hours. A leisure time that was already precious has been chewed into by text-messaging, Facebook and emails. Almost everyone I speak to claims that they “love books but just can’t find the time to read.” Well, they probably could—they’re just choosing to spend it differently.3
What competes for your reading time? What is less important than your reading? Nothing squanders time away more than pursuing things without a purpose. And given that the average American adult (18–34) invests only 10 minutes each day reading, yet watches 116 minutes of television, I think many of us have time that we can spend differently.4
So what in your life needs to stop happening so that reading can start happening?
6. Read Three Books at a Time
Having trouble finding reading time? It may be that you need to read more books. Seriously. A curious thing happened in my own life. I discovered that when I began reading three books at a time, I found more time to read. Why? It’s pretty simple, actually. I found that different times in my day allowed me to read different types of books.
I enjoy reading historical novels, but I don’t read a historical novel right after I roll out of bed in the morning. I enjoy reading theology, but I rarely read theology at night before I go to bed. I enjoy reading long epics like Lord of the Rings, but I can’t get into an epic novel while traveling.
Different genres are suited for different times, and having three books from different genres gives me greater flexibility in capturing fragments of time throughout the day. On the other hand, reading only one book makes it harder to find time to read, because it restricts the number of contexts.
The point is that we can find the time necessary to read books. But this requires thought on a number of related topics.
- Expect resistance from your heart.
- Make time to read, not excuses for why you don’t read. We all have good excuses.
- Cultivate ahungerfor books by reading (and rereading) great books.
- Set your reading priorities, and let them drive your book selections.
- Stop doing something else in order to make time to read.
- Try reading three (or more) books at a time and take advantage of your environments.
You don’t need to be a professional book reviewer to read a lot of books. And you don’t need to be brilliant either. But you do need to be purposeful and consistent. And if you can discipline yourself, you will find the time you need to read.
- Robert Lee, Religion and Leisure in America: A Study in Four Dimensions (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1964), 37.
- C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001), 60.
- Alan Bissett, “Who Stole Our Reading Time?” Books Blog, The Guardian, February, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/feb/02 /who-stole-reading-time.
- National Endowment for the Arts, To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence, no. 47, November 2007, http://www.nea.gov/news /news07/TRNR.html.
This article is adapted from Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke.
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