Reading Books: Why, How, and What

I can’t write a post on why a person should read books without feeling like I’m assuming the role of a teacher and looking down my nose at students. If you’ve been through high school English, I can tell you nothing you don’t know already.

But, with the state of our culture, I can’t help but feel it’s important. Most of us are constantly plugged into the stream of social media, filling our brains with content that is ever shorter and sensationalized. Unless it delivers a punch and delivers it quickly, we scroll right past.

I think people should actively read and complete books as a habit.

Before we go further, I’ll just say there are 4 types of readers:

Type 1 – Those who want to read and do.

Type 2 – Those who want to read and don’t get around to it.

Type 3 – Those who don’t want to read but read anyway because they have to (bored students).

Type 4 – Those who don’t want to read and so don’t do it.

Types of ReadersReadsDoesn’t Read
Wants to ReadType 1Type 2
Doesn’t Want to ReadType 3Type 4

This post is for Type 2.

Why Read Books (13 Reasons)

1. To get more information. — This is blatantly obvious, but I need to cover my grounds. 

We read to get information, whether it be technical manuals, scientific journals, non-fiction business books, or novels of human experiences other than our own. Information can lead to power and wealth and empathy and liberty, and the best information tends to be found in books. It takes considerably more effort to write a book in the first place, and a book being published means it has passed through many checkpoints before it was released into the world. It’s not to say all books are good, because many are terrible, and many posts on social media that were written in 30 seconds are more valuable. But in general, books will contain the better knowledge. 

I always feel the need to increase my basic understanding of the whole world. To not be ignorant of something obvious. To be able to participate in meaningful conversations. To just glimpse a fraction of what has happened on this planet.

There is at this moment knowledge sitting in a book that would change your life, but you have to read it. You can never know exactly which books contain this knowledge, but you can be sure you won’t find it without reading.

But there are several reasons to read that aren’t simply putting more information into your head.

2. To grow in empathy. — I read not just to grow my mind, but my soul. I want to stretch into other perspectives, not just comfort myself in the reinforcement of my own. Reading accesses growth you can’t get through your experiences, and this is not only true of non-fiction. A study showed “people who read more fiction were better at empathy and understanding others.

3. To see beauty. — I used to have a bias against fiction because it wasn’t “real,” or didn’t teach me how to be more productive. What a shame. Beholding beauty is enough, and we know this instinctively in other areas of our lives. We couldn’t imagine putting on the news or podcasts while having a cookout. We play music. There are times to learn, and there are times to feel. (Never mind the fact that feeling is a teacher too, and its lessons are sometimes more profound.)

4. To remember what I already know. — My biggest problem isn’t always what I don’t know, it’s what I don’t apply. There are foundational truths about life, relationships, work, and the human condition that we need to revisit again and again, so sometimes I’ll read a book even if I already have a hunch of its main message. This is why I’m happily reading now for the first time How to Win Friends and Influence People. So far, I can’t say it has taught me something new, but it has reminded me powerfully of simple principles I haven’t considered lately. Its ideas have already worked their way into my life. New is overrated.

5. To fill my mind with substance. — When we don’t give our minds direction, much of what passes through them on a daily basis is useless, even harmful. As gratifying as it is to fret or have imaginary confrontations with people, it’s better to be fascinated with something outside of you. I’m always in search of the next thing to challenge my mind or move my heart, and books are usually the fastest way to find it.

6. For my own thoughts the books inspire. — Sometimes it’s my thoughts, rather than the author’s, that make reading so exciting. Seeing clear thinking on paper inspires me to think more deeply, and I have a sort of dialogue with the author. Even if I disagree, I value the clarity of the disagreement that wouldn’t have come had I not been reading.

7. To develop a love for discipline. — Sometimes, when I’m not in the mood to do it, I read only because I know it will take me where I want to be. Doing a good thing when you don’t want to is the beginning of discipline, and I want to love discipline, not shirk from it. Reading exercises this muscle and conditions the mind to be strong and persistent. How different would our society be if we cared about the shape of our intellects as much as the shape of our bodies?

8. To maintain two important abilities: (1) mental focus and (2) paying attention. — I want to be able to think hard and long without losing my train of thought. Books help this tremendously because I always have to ask myself, “What’s going on here? Why is the author saying this? What’s the point?” I have to recall my main path constantly or I gloss over and waste time. 

As for paying attention, maintaining a long attention span is a constant fight in our culture. Our attention is summoned from the moment we wake until we sleep again. For most of us, our phone (and the information it pipes into our brains) is the first and last thing we touch in our day. This depletes our attention and weakens its span, which is a problem, because the most important things in life demand attention that is full and prolonged.

Every day as we blaze through social media, we condition ourselves to expect a faster payoff for our time. What is this doing to us? How is this affecting our patience to have hard conversations in our relationships, or to work at something for years, or to maintain the silence that is the precondition for spiritual health? What happened to sitting with a book for 2 hours and doing nothing else? (If you’re a parent, I know what happened. Your kids took it.) I want to sit in silence without feeling restless. Books help that.

9. To practice finishing. — Nearly every book I’ve read requires a push to finish. It’s so easy for me to start things, to come out swinging, but to ultimately leave them undone. Reading books helps work against that habit.

10. To find that single chapter, paragraph, or sentence that makes it all worth it. — I have yet to find the book where every single word is inspiring, but there are usually several golden moments.

Two quick examples:

“[Tom] discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to get.”

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying get other people interested in you.”

How to Win Friends and Influence People

11. To spend time not looking at a screen. — Spending a few hours staring at black ink on paper is more refreshing than ever. Books help me remember that life has more to offer than what comes through pixels.

12. To remember that not everything is fast. — No one, not even the best speed reader in the world, can pick up The Odyssey for the first time, read it all in one hour, and walk away with observations that last a lifetime. Insights are usually slow-cooked. We’re like birds looking for worms to eat right now, but we should be more like farmers planning a harvest months from now. Some days all you can do is till the ground.

13. To see the world without even leaving my couch.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R. R. Martin

Reading gives us the ability to step into another world. You can sit in silence yet hear a freight train, or be in the brightness of the afternoon sun but feel the horror of a black cavern. Reading is magic. Somehow through it we can taste, touch, smell, and hear. 

I’ll never forget my heart beating in my throat while reading The Grapes of Wrath as the Joad family travels westward through the night and the stars rotate above them. I can hear their struggling model T. I can smell their pioneer coffee. Most importantly, I can feel their desperate poverty. This experience enthralls me. Few things do it like a good story.

How to Read More Books

One hard truth needs to be faced before we get clever with methods: you will always make time for the things you want. Not everyone has the same amount of free time, and sometimes we’re in seasons where we feel we can hardly breathe. But there’s a level of ownership about your usage of time you have to embrace.

1. What if you struggle to finish books? – Start a book club. It doesn’t have to be refined and high-class, you just need 1-3 other people who share your interests, want to have a good conversation, and are motivated to read. Meet once a month, alternate who picks the book, read it over the following month, and come to the next meeting ready to share.

2. What if you can’t afford to buy books all the time? – Who said you have to buy anything? Get a library card and start using it. I’m surprised at how few people frequent their local public library. Even my smaller city has several locations and most of the great classics are accessible at all times for free.

3. What if I truly don’t have time to read? – There’s an amazing hack you should being using immediately: Audible. It’s all the rage right now, and for good reason. Listening to books on Audible is the one thing I’ve done that has increased my overall intake more than anything else. I can listen as I drive, cook, clean, mow, or workout. You can amass an impressive list of completed titles without even thinking about it.

4. Drop the books you hate. – This is hard for me, because I usually want to push through and finish, but if a book comes along that you just can’t stand, drop it and move on to another one.

5. Follow your interests. – This will lead into the next section, but it’s relevant here. I have found that books go by at double speed when I’m enthralled in the subject matter. It makes a huge difference when you actually enjoy what you’re reading and you look forward to the next chance to get back to it. So follow what you love, and get after it.

What to Read

I can’t tell you how many times I’m motivated to read but get stuck trying to figure out what to read. How can you choose when there are so many options?

Fortunately, people have been thinking about this for a long time and compiling lists. No one will read every good book, but it’s a comfort to know many of the greats have risen to the surface.

List Recommendations:

The most important rule is to read what interests you.

Try to keep 2 or 3 books on your nightstand at all times that you are desperate to start reading, and when you reach a lull or want to read more broadly, return to a list.

Final Thought

Take the time to make notes of everything you read. Write down quotes that stick out to you. When you get a thought of your own that really hums in your mind, write about it. Don’t make it feel like some formal book report, but make something that will help you quickly remember the book’s content. I’m bad at this, but trying to be better.

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