Christopher Ellis Osterbrock
Why is it so difficult to pick up a new book? Perhaps it’s not picking up a new book, but actually finishing a single book. Are you the kind of person who starts a dozen books and rarely ever completes one?
For years I made New Year’s resolutions to read more or to read difficult things. I would spend a few days mulling and grousing through a book before I would give up and go back to my Star Trek paperbacks. It was as though once out of a classroom setting or academic environment I had no reason, or no stress, pushing me to read as I ought. So, what is the answer? How do I read more this year?
Developing a system
The key to reading more, or you might say “purposed reading,” is to construct a personal reading calendar. Like any personal habit, it takes time to develop and adapt to your particular speed and style. But allow me to reveal a bit of my inner workings and maybe you’ll be able to adapt them to your own.
My reading plan began as I struggled to read through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I intended to read the two-volume set in a couple of months (which is an arrogant and preposterous feat for any but maybe John Calvin). Before the first month ended, I had no hope of picking up another book. But, after a rest, I got back on the horse.
As someone in pastoral ministry, it is necessary not only to read the Bible regularly (I’ll leave Bible reading plans to another article) but that I keep my brain and heart pumping with theology, teaching, and other fantastical subject matter. How could I do this and find my own time to read Doyle or Christie? The first step for me was to realize that Augustine of Hippo didn’t write all of his volumes in a month, so I need not doubt myself when I have lacked the ability to read City of God in a month.
Over the last five years, I began using a calendar for reading that has benefited me greatly. A reading calendar is a scheduled list of books you intend to make a priority each month of the year. Perhaps you’re not the kind of person who makes lists or who gets nerdy about how they read. But if you want to read more productively this year, you may consider starting quarterly, even just scheduling four books a year. A well-organized life is well-tuned for conscious gain. Developing a reading calendar is essential—not only to our personal sanity, but to our development as healthy readers.
Systematic reading means flourishing reading
Our best option for curing our poor reading habits is to cease with page counting. It is certainly possible to read like robots, turning pages and counting down the stack, but we do not absorb input like robots. The best reader is the one who can synthesize what they read. A healthy reader is the one who takes time to read and absorb the material. Though we do not just absorb one subject of material; we must open ourselves to multiple subjects and cross examine those things we read, which are bound to have practical applications.
For instance, there is something wonderful about finding the synthesis in theology and biography, but you will not see that sort of thing without reading both. There is something peculiar that happens when reading Christian classics and modern or popular-level Christian books—you begin to see the present dialoguing or refusing to dialogue with the past. You see where the roads merge together and where the roads diverge. You learn what authors neglect the fruits born out of history’s progressive journey. In my pursuit of systematizing my reading schedule, I discovered that variety was a key component in my reading growth.
I have found that when I set a specific schedule with multiple categories, I am not hindering my growth as a reader, but widening myself as a conscientious thinker. Rather than blow through the pile of books on my desk, I schedule myself one book a month.
What does the calendar look like?
My categories, those that fit within my personal reading needs and interests, are as follows; Christian classics, biographies, modern or popular-level ministry books, and theological or educational works. I have four groups wherein I assign myself a total of twelve alternating books for the year, no more and no less. Those twelve have to be read in their particular order.
After I have assigned these categories I plug in other works below my assigned reading, as is reasonable for the rest of the month. I do not start a new book on January 29 unless it is the designated book for February. But if I finish my January book on January 14, then I can happily read whatever else I want! Because I am scheduling ahead and know where I’m going through the year I can pick some weird books I wouldn’t ordinarily read, as well as some books I know I should have already read according to “the Western Canon.”
For instance, this year’s list includes the following:
- Classic, the Venerable Bede’s Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles
- Biographical, Howard Stewart’s A Dazzling Enigma: The Story of Morgan Edwards
- Modern, Geoff Thomas’ In the Shadow of the Rock: An Autobiography
- Theological (I include education related material), Greg Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetics
As I name each month I mark one with a (C), the next with a (B), then (M), and then (T). I fill in a book next to each category—repeating the process three times. There it is! Now, obviously, these categories are not exhaustive, but they pertain to who I am and what I like to think about. Each month I also like to include literary classics to widen my scope as a human. Sometimes I even throw an heretical book in the mix just to be sure I know how to talk to people with whom I disagree. So for you, perhaps it would be prudent to read books on entomology? Whatever the case, you will have twelve books that you must read—that’s really not a lot.
One of the things that often happens is that we make our expectations far too high when it comes to the areas we desire to study. I know it was difficult for me to read all of the theology texts I wanted because I would always buy more and increase the reading pile. At the same time I wound up reading blindly or I would get stuck and confused in the subject matter. I did not have a healthy plan; therefore, my reading was not healthy. The purpose is to grow yourself with a task, not burden yourself with tasks!
Reading is not meant to be threatening; if this is your experience, then reassess the purpose for opening the book on your nightstand. Reading is meant to bring us into a deeper conversation. I’ve heard it said that reading into a subject is like entering a dinner party where voices of the past and present are in the midst of discussion. As we open the cover, we stroll through a room and enter the conversation mid-sentence. But we are given the opportunity to join the dialogue with our own experiences and understanding. The written word is a periscope that brings us out of the ocean of self, unto an island with others exploring the same subject.
I recognized that I was failing in my reading not only because I had the wrong intentions, but I was secluding myself in my own little submarine. When I added biographies to my reading plan, a subject I hadn’t too much interest, I began to make sense of both theology and biography. That led me down the road of historical theology and eventually Puritan treatises, which are now on my list of preferred reading.
Four categories certainly set-up more variety month to month and it gives us, the reader, enough room between readings to amass a nice collection of subjects. Three times a year you are exploring four different realms. A well-read person has a more enjoyable time reading, simply because they have created a means to explore more terrain, synthesizing more connections as they absorb new ideas.
As you develop your reading calendar this year, give consideration to these four items:
- Variety: Incline yourself to keep variety— reading the same kind of materials will likely stunt your reading capabilities, but worse, stunt your conversations in other subject matters!
- Time: Give yourself time for the journey; time to absorb the material and time to spend doing other things beyond reading. Reading is a journey in conversations, not a feast for self-gratification.
- Accountability: The purpose of reading is exploration, conversation, and synthesizing seemingly divergent subjects. This purpose is meant to be enjoyed with others. Find people to go along with you on the journey! Help bring others to the island, and spend time there.
- Biblical priority: Always make time for reading the Word. As Charles Spurgeon famously quipped, “Read many books, but live in the Bible!” What’s the point of synthesizing information if it’s not to glorify God and make intellectual use of the imagination He has given to us?
One of the benefits of making a reading calendar is that you know what you have or have not read within the year. You are able to go back and find authors or subject matter that you want to revisit or recommend. You are also able to see the amount of books you’re capable of reading within a year and the following year you wont make the mistake of setting too high of expectations upon yourself.
Remember the proper mindset, reading more out of a single book will always help you grow in reading more books. As soon as I read my monthly pre-selected option, I gravitate toward something divergent. I started the year by reading the collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories and now I’m ending 2021 with Cornelius Van Til’s Defense of the Faith. I suppose I’ll be contemplating how those could possibly correspond to one another!
By next month, I know there will be several books lined up under each of these assigned readings, but the priority is already expressed. By November there will be dozens of extra books I still haven’t read (along with a dozen books that stole priority). But I won’t feel guilty because I will have completed my 12 selected books and at least a couple dozen extra.
As you create your reading calendar there are several things to contemplate. What areas are you looking to grow in your spiritual life? Who might benefit from what you read? Who might join you in some of your readings? In what subjects do you know you are deficient, and what books could serve as a remedy? All of that comes later. The first step is to set your heart aside and meditate on why you want to grow in your reading. It’s not about reading more books, it’s about reading more into the world God has given us—joining the conversation that we might eloquently proclaim His glory all the more.
It’s time for you to make your list and start reading!