Think about all the things we want most out of life:
A fit body
Skills or knowledge people praise
A meaningful worship experience
A healthy marriage
These are usually very costly and require extreme patience.
The greatest threat to what you want most—which is expensive and slow—are other things you want that are cheap and fast.
Making vain impressions
Overeating and being lazy
Lack of discipline to stick to an area of study or practice
Constant noise and no solitude
A marriage that ignores problems and refuses to admit wrong
Disengagement from the stresses of parenting
The most powerful method of self-denial I’ve known is to remember, in those moments when I’m exercising discipline, that I’m not depriving myself of something good. It’s exactly the opposite. I’m giving myself something much better.
I’m not missing out when I skip on the second piece of cake; I’m giving myself the gift of fitness a year from now. I’m not missing out when I save and invest my extra money; I’m giving myself a better future.
I’m not denying pleasure, I’m living for the deeper pleasure.
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 Readers
Wants to Read
Doesn’t Want to Read
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.
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 TheOdyssey 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.
Or, take the best of all the above. A writer on Medium, Joel Patrick, hired a virtual assistant to compare them and find all the recurring titles. He compiled them into one 100-book list, and you can check out his ultimate, refined list here. I’m currently trying to follow this list, but I keep getting distracted with books that are more interesting in the moment.
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.
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.
Imagine that every day you wake up with $10,000 in your hand, and from the moment you awake, the dollars disappear at an unchanging pace. You know that at the end of the day they will be gone—all of them. You can’t spend any more, but you also can’t save a single penny. Everywhere you go, no matter what you’re doing, the bills fall from your hand. They are magic bills, they vanish when they drop.
Every day of your life, you have awoken with another $10,000 in your hand and not a single dollar left from yesterday. Yet, as miraculous as this is, because it has happened so frequently, and because every other person in the world has the same experience, you start taking it for granted. Some days, you watch the entire stack of bills disappear into your phone screen, or into your bed, or into your pantry, and it honestly feels pretty good. Other days you spend a little on friends that don’t really care about you and more still on amusement that could have been free.
One day, without warning, someone you love spends their last dollar, and though you knew this happens to everyone at some point, you didn’t feel it until you saw it happen nearby. Then a thought arrests your attention: what is my remaining balance?
You scramble for an answer.
Google: “how many dollars does the average person have”
A half-relief assuages your anxiety just enough for you to sleep at night, and with sleeping and waking and the continual replenishing of the $10,000, you slip back into a fog and dream once again that your money is infinite.
Years go by. Suddenly there’s an area of work or study that begins to demand a portion of your cash, but you’re happy to give it. A little later, you meet someone, and they demand their share too. Then comes a child, and you watch as the biggest portion of daily bills yet begin to fall on that kid’s head.
By this point you’ve come to see something upsetting. Not everyone has the $200 billion Google mentioned. Your soul rattles under the realization that no one can actually know their balance, and that there have been many days when you spent every dollar recklessly, and though you couldn’t have known it then, you now have things you want to buy, things you wish you had bought already—expensive things that will require every remaining free dollar. A quiet frenzy takes over your mind.
You know you need a budget, so you make one and plan to watch it relentlessly but before the day is over you’ve deviated. You’ve heard there are ways to potentially increase your balance, like eating healthy foods and exercising consistently, so you set out to build the habits but they only last a month. Discouraged, and wanting a little daily therapy, you pour huge portions of your dollars into social media, Netflix, house projects, and friendships that make you worse.
Before you know it the kids are out of the house, the career is over, and you’re unable to do the things you once dreamed of doing. So you sit and watch the last bills drain from your hand, and you wonder when the glorious day will come that your balance finally runs out.
We wouldn’t treat money this way, so why do we do it with something infinitely more valuable? There is no “free” time. There is only time spent with purpose and time wasted.
It’s not a waste to do nothing if you’re doing nothing on purpose. On the other hand, some “productive” things are dressed up distractions.
Spend on purpose. You’ll never know your true balance.
Exercise – Full body exercise 3x per week. I used a Total Gym, yes, the iconic Chuck Norris bench machine. I did the same routine every time: 18 exercises, performed back to back with no rest, 15 reps each exercise. It was intense, meaning a discomfort level of 8/10. Each workout took about 20 minutes.
Diet – No sweets. No snacks. No sodas. None was easier than some. No up-sizing my orders. No second plates. I didn’t count calories. I didn’t even know what macronutrients were. (A cup of tea with a little honey before bed was the exception to the no-snack rule.)
Eat Slowly – I only ate until the hunger was gone. Sometimes I was still hungry when I finished. It’s one thing to feel full, it’s another thing to feel satisfied. It takes a while for a meal to set in. If you’re full the moment you swallow your last bite, you’ve eaten too much. If you’re still a little hungry when you swallowed your last bite, you’ll probably be satisfied in a few minutes.
I stuck with it. – It only took 8 months (two 4-month periods) of unwavering consistency.
I was motivated. – This is the most important factor. Our problem with weight loss isn’t a lack of information. I was happy to not feeling full. I was happy going to bed mildly hungry. I didn’t consult myself on whether I wanted to workout, I just started it. How does one get there? It’s different for each person. My first period of weight loss happened the months leading up to my wedding. My second period happened because our new health insurance had to charge us an additional $80/mo. due to my waist measurement. In both of these situations, there was no possibility of failure in my mind. I was all in.
Everything I did was successful for weight loss. My new goal has been to build muscle and lose fat, which has proven to be much more difficult than weight loss in general.
There’s much more to say about this and I hope to talk about it more in the future.
Walking into a bookstore isn’t simple for me. It’s therapy, and it’s my favorite kind of store, but it also raises existential questions, like:
How many books am I going to read before I die?
I once asked an associate at Barnes & Noble how many unique titles were in our location. He said about 9,000. If I wanted to read every book in my local Barnes & Noble, and if I live 70 more years, that would equate to 128 books per year. More than ten per month.
What if I only live to be 85? That would require a pace of 163 books per year. It’s already clear. I’ll never read the amount of books in a single store.
My realistic pace is much slower. I’ve read more books this year than ever before, averaging 3 per month. This would put me at a humble 1,980 books when I’m 85.
Standing in the Barnes and realizing that I will only be able to read a quarter of this amount of books in my life if I’m supremely diligent illustrates what I‘ll be able to do with my time, or more painfully, what I won’t.
Not all of those 9,000 unique titles interesting or even good, but some of them are time-tested art which millions of people have found insightful on the human experience.
If all but the good stuff was thrown out, leaving a purified book store of only the best works, this still doesn’t solve all my problems. This is just one bookstore! How many other books are in this world that would illuminate my understanding and leave me speechless? There are words on a page in a book right now that would shift the course of my life, and I will never read them.
I mourn this. I’m greedy for knowledge. I want it all.
Then I calm down and start to wonder something else.
Which books will I end up reading?
How can I possibly determine which ones to put on my tiny list? Fortunately, people have been thinking about this for a long time and making lists. But which list?
The Art of Manliness has a good one. They also have a series of posts on the Libraries of Famous Men, like Theodore Roosevelt. A writer on Medium, Joel Patrick, pulled reading lists from the Harvard Book Store, Amazon, the Art of Manliess list above, and 5 other great sources, and hired a virtual assistant to comb through them and find the overlapping books. You can check out his ultimate, refined list here. I’m currently trying to follow this list, but I keep getting distracted with books that are more interesting in the moment.
When I’m standing in the bookstore there’s the thought that towers above them all:
How much work is represented in this room?
A bookshelf is a skyline. The stacks of books are just as quiet as the view of Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn. For all we know, some of the chapters in those books took as long to write as a floor of a skyscraper took to build. Behind every book is the sweat and blood of an author who showed up to work every day for a long time, which is to say nothing of the life experiences that shaped them from their birth until they picked up their pen.
There the books sit, humbly holding all that knowledge, never shoving it in your face, only beckoning you to search it out. I love the silence of the bookstore, but in that silence I hear the diligent labor of the creators yelling at me and calling me to account.
What am I doing with my life? I grow impatient if a video edit (I create videos for a living) takes 30-40 hours. Do I have it in me to spend months or even years creating something that will for most people only be seen at a distance? Am I capable of the long push it takes to make something significant? Will I ever flip the switch from a habitual consumer to a habitual creator? Not if I waste my time.
Time is the most precious thing we have and we always say we’re trying to kill whatever excess parts of it we find. Giving an hour to a scrolling feed out of mere compulsion is tragic.
As I ponder how significant it is to create a book, how much toil and vision is poured into each one, a counterbalancing thought appears:
Most of these books will be forgotten.
Some in a few months, some in a few years, some in a few decades. How many will last into the next millennium? Apart from a few best-sellers and classics, most of the books currently in the bookstore are new and by this time next year will have been replaced with more new releases.
Of course, the length of existence isn’t the only measure of meaning. If a book is beautiful, it’s significant. But time is a sieve of importance. Every year that goes by leaves a little less in the memory of the living.
There comes a point when you realize all those mental exercises about what you would do if you only had a year left to live aren’t sentimental. They’re painfully real. Someday we’ll be startled to see that the time we’ve wasted isn’t coming back.