The Spiritual Discipline of Reading Widely and Regularly
When I was 27, I started teaching a Sunday School class with my friend. We both had been married for two years, so naturally we decided to teach on marriage and family. We both had studied marriage and family as men who were both young in marriages. We knew the Scripture very well, and we both studied deeply for our lessons. Yet, something did not land as we taught. Things got worse when we hired a new pastor. He and his wife attended our class. I recall feeling a bit awkward teaching this couple who had been married nearly a decade at that point.
After a few weeks of this, the pastor took my friend and I to breakfast. He let us know that we would no longer be teaching Sunday School. He said that we handled Scripture well, but we struggled to teach in a pastorally helpful way. We were discouraged but understood why he wanted us to stop teaching. My friend asked him, Pastor, how can we learn to pastor well if we don’t have opportunity to keep teaching?” His answer was two-fold: 1) You can learn to pastor by serving people — sweep floors, do the dishes, take the trash out, clean the church van; 2) You can learn to pastor by reading widely and regularly. When you read widely and regularly, you learn to know people and you learn the nature of the human heart.
I was already a reader. But, I thought I would endeavor to make it a personal discipline to better myself and help me love and serve people better. I decided to read the Count of Monte Cristo. If there is ever a book to teach you about the deceitfulness of pride and revenge and the power of sacrificial love, it is Edmond Dantès character in The Count of Monte Cristo. The Lord decided to give me a little help just a few months later. I was hired at Sayers Classical Academy to teach Writing & Literature. There are few things that will make you study harder and read better than having to teach what you are reading. Since then, I have found myself greatly helped by reading widely and regularly.
There are many blogs out in the blogosphere right now on reading. In fact, there are a number that are far better than this one. Many of these will encourage you to read the Bible, theology, works on Christian living, great Christian biographies, etc. While I wholeheartedly endorse these recommendations, I want to encourage you to read more widely as well. I want you to read great literature and I want you to read great literature. Here are ten reasons you should.
10 Reasons to Read Biographies and Literature
1. Read to learn about the human heart—and your own heart.
When the Roman politician Brutus murdered Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, he says, “Caesar, now be still: / I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.” Brutus spends the good portion of several scenes struggling with whether he should assassinate Caesar. In the end, he turns it into a religious ritual to try and justify his actions to himself. You are disgusted with him. Brutus later realizes that his actions, intended to prevent the ruin of Rome, actually brought civil war and ruin both to Rome and to his own life. As a result, he commits suicide. Marc Antony, another politician, says that Brutus was “the noblest Roman of them all.” There are few things to teach you about the vicissitudes of the human heart like asking the question, “Was Brutus noble?” I won’t give you my answer here. Go read the play!
2. Read to learn character.
Closely related to learning about the human heart is reading to learn character. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand. As you consider someone else’s character, you automatically consider your own character. I had the joy of teaching through The Scarlet Letter at a private high school. This is one of the most powerful, colorful, and convicting books I have ever read.
The way that Hester Prynne bears up under years of shame and scorn, faithfully raising her daughter and willingly wearing the Scarlet Letter day after day will teach you the truth of Proverbs 19:11: “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”
Arthur Dimmesdale was the reverend who committed adultery with Hester and was the father of her subsequent child, Pearl. He tormented himself physically and psychologically because of his unconfessed sin and neglected his daughter. Arthur Dimmesdale taught me to understand how unconfessed sin can weigh physically on you (Psalm 32:3-4) while confessed sin can bring healing. James 5:16a says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
3. Read to find purpose and perseverance.
As I’ve grown in my habit of reading, I’ve committed to reading a biography on every president in U.S. History. I commend to you Ron Chernow’s, Washington: A Life if you want to start out with a bang. Of all men to persevere through unbelievable odds, Washington stands tall above the crowd. You may recall that Washington’s leadership enabled the Continental Army to survive the bitter winter at Valley Forge. Untrained farmers beat British regulars and mercenaries! When you walk through the struggle day by day with Washington, quotes like “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in the ages” sticks with you.
Another character who taught me perseverance was Atticus Finch. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is called to defend a falsely accused African-American man. The whole town persecuted him, yet he stayed faithful to the cause. As he held forth against a rising tide of criticism, his neighbor Miss Maudie said to Atticus’ daughter, Scout: “Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is in the public streets.” I can’t tell you how many times I have asked the Lord to make me have integrity like Atticus Finch—and have been motivated to exemplify integrity and perseverance to my daughter as Atticus Finch did to his.
4. Read to spark the imagination.
It is hard to appreciate how a master author can spark the imagination until you read it first hand. One of my favorite sections in all literature is in Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings when the Fellowship reaches Lothlórien in the first book. Lothlórien is the golden wood of the Elves. Tolkien’s descriptions of the golden wood have shaped the way that I imagine heaven. I’m thankful for Tolkien because he has given color and strength and vitality to my Christian hope. Here is a brief teaser from Legolas:
“That is the fairest of all the dwellings of my people. There are no trees like the trees of that land. For in the autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. Not till the spring and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.”
Here is Frodo’s impression of Lothlórien when he first takes it in:
“The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.”
5. Read for entertainment.
You must read in order to be a wise and circumspect human being. Yet, you should also read for pure enjoyment. Don’t neglect the gift, treasure, and privilege that literacy brings. There remains billions of illiterate people in our world. Don’t waste it. If I’m looking for pure enjoyment, I read spy thrillers or in-depth historical analyses. If you have not gone to a beautiful park and read for hours on a blanket, you must. You may fall asleep doing it, but you may also find yourself enraptured in a book. Some of you may think, “That’s not for me.” Yet, folks have been doing it for centuries. Don’t be content with television and movies—they have their place, but they cannot replace words and their power to denote an image, evoke a feeling, shape a thought, move the soul, and inculcate deep emotion.
6. Read to understand the culture.
There are many ways to understand the culture around you. Surprisingly, it is difficult to truly become a master of culture without reading regularly and widely. Winston Churchill barely graduated from grade school, and ended up needing months of private tutoring to pass tests required for him to enter the military. Once he did enter, he ended up stationed in India where he spent most of his time playing polo and reading. By the time he finished his one-year tour in India during the year of 1896, Churchill had read six volumes of Roman History, Macauley’s History of England, Plato’s Republic, and multiple works on economics. This spell of reading sparked a lifetime habit for Churchill of reading widely and regularly. Further, Churchill formed most of his opinions on politics and culture by reading these histories.
7. Read to fight anxiety.
Anxiety is a real struggle for me. I struggle to trust the Lord as I should and regularly find my mind busy with thinking through the same stressor over and over again. My anxiety has caused me to suffer through some seasons of insomnia. Medicine did not help. Counting sheep did not help. Going for late night walks did not help. Reading God’s Word and reading books did help. I remember reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. This novel is a series of letters that an older pastor writes to his young son. These letters tell stories, narrate the history of Kansas, talk about the nature of love, take you into this pastor’s care for another young man who has gone astray. Yet, perhaps most powerfully of all, is this man’s desire to invest in his son. Here is a quote:
“I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”
I recall reading to these words in the middle of the night and finding myself calmed. I was reminded that I cared too much about the wrong things. This wrongly-oriented care was causing my anxiety. I was reminded to keep my life simple, love God, love my wife, and invest in my daughter. These are the things that matter.
8. Read to have a conversation.
One of the greatest joys of reading is the ability to have a two-way conversation with some of the greatest men and women throughout the ages. This is a reason why to read, but it is also a recommendation to you on how you should read. A great writer will take you into the thought processes of a character. They invite you in and allow you to participate, encourage you to ask questions, exhort you to give consideration. One of the greatest books to have a conversation with is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Mr. Worldly Wiseman distracted Christian from reaching the heavenly gate. In the end, here is the assessment of Mr. Worldly-Wiseman:
“Mr. Worldly-Wiseman is not an ancient relic of the past. He is everywhere today, disguising his heresy and error by proclaiming the gospel of contentment and peace achieved by self-satisfaction and works. If he mentions Christ, it is not as the Savior who took our place, but as a good example of an exemplary life. Do we need a good example to rescue us, or do we need a Savior?”
9. Read to become a master communicator.
When you read a great book, you will find yourself using words and phrases from that book. Reading widely is key to being able to speak and write well. This is especially true when you read out loud. Reading out loud teaches you more than just new words, or how to use a word in a fresh way or a fresh context. Reading out loud also teaches you the power of rhythm. C.S. Lewis has a beautiful statement on the significance of heaven and how we often take it for granted. In his essay called The Weight of Glory, he says,
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
I think about this quote at least once a month. If that continues over a lifetime, these few words will have a significant effect on my life. I cannot tell you how many times I have found covetousness tempered or discontentment waned or joy inflamed by Lewis sage and rhythmic words.
10. Read for your children.
I strive to read to my daughter regularly. I read to her most nights. We read the Bible, the children’s Bible, children’s novels, funny stories, etc. Reading together gives us something to talk about. We finished The Secret Garden before the holidays. One of the key premises of The Secret Garden is that two of the main characters have lost a parent. Mary lost both of her parents while Colin lost her mother. Each was affected deeply by their parents’ death in their own way. Mary finds a secret garden, and with Colin, cultivate the garden back to its former glory. As the garden grows, their friendship grows and their strength returns. They are able to overcome their trauma together and find hope for life. Through this book, my daughter and I have had several fruitful conversations about death, about how God would care for her if mommy and daddy died, and about how Jesus will resurrect believers from the dead to eternal life in a greater secret garden.
A Few Practical Pointers
- Read everyday
- Read Widely — biography, poetry, classics, spy stories, short stories, long stories, news, the Bible. The list goes on.
- Read what you enjoy — listen to other’s recommendations, but keep trying genres until you find one that fits you. My wife and I are both avid readers and both read widely; yet, we rarely read the same thing.
- Read with other people — one of the best ways to learn as you read is to read the same thing and talk about it with a friend.
- Read it out loud — this will train your ear, and then subsequently your ear, to speak well and creatively.
- The Format does not matter — Electronic, hardbound, audio. They all have their benefits. Personally, I do all three! Many books can be read all three ways — Amazon has a thing called Whisper Sync which will let you pick up electronically where you stopped in the audio version. Whatever you do, read!