The critical importance of reading reminds me of something I read long ago; so long ago that the author now escapes me. But I recall it was a lament for a book never read. The loss of pages never turned, covers never opened, words never seen. A single book can deepen your understanding, expand your vision, sensitize your spirit, fill your soul, ignite your imagination, stir your passions and widen your wisdom. There truly can be mourning for a book that is never read; mourning for the loss of what our lives could have held and what we could have accomplished.
Yet how can we become active readers in the midst of the frantic pace of our lives? It is tempting to view the act of sitting down with a book – much less many books – as a luxury afforded those with unique schedules or privileged positions in life. In truth, it’s available to us all. It’s simply a matter of choice or, perhaps more accurately, a series of choices.
To read, you must first position yourself to read. I have learned to keep books around me. When I travel, when I take my car to have the oil changed, when I go to the doctor’s office… I always have a book or journal, magazine or article. At the very least I have a phone or tablet that holds my reading material. If you were to look around my home, you would see stacks of books everywhere—on the tables by the side of beds, on the floor by chairs.
But this reflects a deeper decision in relation to reading. Having a book at hand is only of use if I choose to spend available time reading it. Key to that choice is the word “available.” I once heard Jim Collins, known best as the author of business titles, comment that we do not need to make more “to do lists,” but rather a few “stop doing lists.”
And there is little doubt what needs to be at the top of that list.
According to the most recent “Time Use Survey” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, after you take out the time we spend sleeping, grooming, eating and drinking, working our vocational jobs, housework, laundry, lawn and garden care, caring for pets, shopping, caring for our spouse, caring for our kids and classes we might be taking,
… the average American still has around five hours of leisure per day.
And guess what we spend most of it on. Yes, TV. Right at around three hours a day. Whether it’s live TV, streaming videos, or DVDs – whether on computers, tablets, phones or an actual television – three hours a day.
I know that in my life, the greatest opposition to reading is what I allow to fill my time instead of reading. To say we have no time to read is not really true. We have simply chosen to use our time for other things, or have allowed our time to be filled to the exclusion of reading.
It reminds me how Neil Postman once noted that the great fear of George Orwell, as conveyed in his novel 1984, was of a day when there might be those who would ban books. Aldous Huxley’s portrait of the future in Brave New World was more prescient. Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
I remember a time when my family and I traveled to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. There for a week, our pattern was to go to the parks early in the morning, come back to the hotel for a mid-afternoon break, and then go back out for the evening. One day, during one of the afternoons back at the hotel, we were sitting in the atrium around a table doing what came naturally to us as a family.
We were reading.
My oldest daughter was tearing through the latest installment of Harry Potter in order to pass it on to her siblings; my other daughter was soldiering her way through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; my oldest son was reading Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings; and my youngest son was laughing uproariously over some unfortunate event conceived by Lemony Snicket.
I had my own stack of books beside me, as if they were a mound of pastries that I couldn’t yet decide which to eat first. A history by David McCullough, I believe, finally won. My wife, bless her soul, was actually reading one of her husband’s books.
Martyrs still exist.
A woman walked over to our table, openly marveling at seeing six people – and particularly four children—reading. She said it was a wonderful sight and wondered how we did it. I remember thinking that we didn’t do anything—we genuinely enjoyed reading. But there was something that caused my children to love a book. It started by doing what my mother did, which was talking about books like they were truly a pleasure. Then, throughout her life, modeling a life that read.
But then another thought entered my mind. What led us to read that day? The same thing that had led us to read a thousand days before. On that day, upon returning to the hotel room, the TV went on just like it would in your family. But then Susan and I instinctively said to our kids: “Why don’t you get a book and read instead? Come on, let’s go out together and sit by a table and read.”
So we did. But first, the choice had to be made. Oh, and once the choice was made, an astonishing thing happened.
Books were read.
James Emery White
James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).
Joe Pinsker, “What American Men Do with Their Extra Half Hour of Daily Leisure Time,” The Atlantic, January 7, 2019, read online.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. vii.