137 Books in One Year; no, that is not how many books I read in 2012 nor is it how many I aim to complete in 2013. It is the title of a book, which was free on Kindle for Independence Day. I am an avid reader so books about literature interest me (and free books are always worth grabbing). Now – to risk causing the collapse of our universe – I am going review a book that is about books. But this will be more than a book review, for I hope to offer a critique of the book and expand on the Christian’s motivation behind reading.
The book is extremely short so I will not spend too much space summarising its content. Hendricks is a book lover and desires to see others regain or discover their love of and appreciation for literature. It is a noble, worthwhile undertaking. Hendricks is clear that these tips for cultivating a love of books, gaining momentum with practice, have nothing to do with an impressive annual tally. He wants people to actually love reading. But I have two major criticisms of the book. Firstly, while Hendricks is adamant that the number of pages per day and books per year is not in focus, I could not help but feel volume is crucial to being a lover of books. Secondly, I felt the terse piece was as a whole unevenly weighted in favour of reading as recreational.
Firstly, while Hendricks obviously returns to things he has noted during his own reading, attested to by his free use of a multitude of other writings in this short book, as well as on his blog, reading 137 Books made me feel that progress ultimately came down to moving hastily from your present title into the next upon completion. Exhortations that reading is not about quantity are obscured by the numerous tips aimed at streamlining your reading and maximising your time. Even when it came to reflection Hendricks seems to suggest writing hurried summaries rather than thoughtful assessments and critiques. I would sooner side with Julian Morrow, in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, arguing for the merits of having single teacher as Plato did: “it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.” What is the rush? I believe Hendricks’ emphasis on volume coupled with scant time for reflection entails his reason for reading, and my second criticism, below.
Hendricks’ purpose for reading is principally recreational. Now please do not hear me as some literary-purist-type who believes all reading must be informative, and that we must engage critically with every work we pick up. Just last month I read David Gemmell’s entire Troy trilogy (almost 2000 pages of historical, heroic fiction). Yet I wish that Hendricks had emphasised something he provides only glimpses of. He writes in the introduction, “[we read] to discover incredible new worlds and stimulate creative thinking. To get out of my skin and experience something I otherwise couldn’t.” Later, in chapters 7 and 8, Hendricks encourages intentional reading that processes content, notes valuable quotes, and records brief summaries of ideas contained in the writing and reading experience. But as I have noted above, these tips are couched in the larger context of reading lots. It is hard to see this valuable approach to and aim for reading amidst the voracious consumption of books. I am convinced that we need to be responsible and critically engaged readers, to varying degrees. And obviously that will be depend on the type of literature you read. We should be weary of viewing books in the way TV has taught us to see entertainment: frivolous and disengaged consumerism.
With those two criticisms in mind I will close with what I believe to be a better and healthier approach to reading, which is obviously in much need of development and discussion. For starters I would suggest reading Tony Reinke’s book Lit!, which I have reviewed briefly here. Reinke aims for 6 or 7 books a month, between 70 and 80 a year, which is modest and realistic if you plan on really reading and not merely shredding books. More important than the number is the content of his suggested reading. He provides 5 categories, outside of Scripture: knowing Christ, spiritual reflection, personal growth, professional excellence, and good stories (p95). Forget reading for reading’s sake. Read to enrich and strengthen your faith. Stop reading for the love of reading. Read in order to love God more. I am not advocating the abandonment of recreational reading, enjoying a cleverly written narrative. But when we reduce the reading of books to consumption we lose out. For, as James Sire puts it, “[great literature will] help us understand who we are as a human family in all our diverse and glorious yet fallen splendor” (p163 of Discipleship of the Mind). Literature embodies worldviews and philosophies. Engaged and unhurried reading helps us imbibe reality, as others understand it.
In his famous article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr quotes Maryanne Wolf: ‘Deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking’. I do not know if the modern resistance to thinking means we no longer read deeply or if our lack of discerned reading has stunted our thinking, with regards to literature. Perhaps it is both. What I do know is we need to start at both ends. This means endeavouring to engage with worthwhile good books, even if they are hard, and engaging deeply with more of what we read.