Want to Become a Reader? Here’s How…

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It’s one thing to be literate… to have the skill to read. It’s another thing to be identified as a reader of books. Regrettably, most Americans don’t read much, if at all. According to the Pew Research Center:

Among all American adults, the average (mean) number of books read or listened to in the past year is 12 and the median (midpoint) number is 5–in other words, half of adults read more than 5 books and half read fewer. Neither number is significantly different from previous years.

Half of American adults read 5 books or less per year? That’s stunning. With average reading skills (250 words per minute), it would take just 6 hours to read one 200 page book. The average book in America is 232 pages, so let’s round that up, being conservative, to 6 1/2 hours per book. That would mean it would take about 32.5 hours to read five books. Hang with me here… just a little more math… there are about 5,782 awake hours per year (assuming 8 hours of sleep per day). Putting it all together, this means that the average American adult spends about 0.0056% of their waking hours reading books.

Let’s compare that to watching television. According to multiple sources, the average American adult watches over 5 hours of television per day. This roughly 32% of waking hours. And this isn’t even counting watching movies at the cinema or on DVD. Yikes!

I can understand why this the lifestyle of the average American adult is more about television than reading. We all want to “chill our” after a long day at work, and the idea of working your way through a book is not exactly the best way to chill out after working all day.

Neither do I want to suggest that watching TV is morally wrong or sinful. Depending on what you are watching, TV can land anywhere on the moral spectrum. However, one has to wonder if our lives would be more greatly enriched if we were to reduce that television input at least a little and pick up a book more often, especially if it is a good book. And please note, I’m not too naive to fail to recognize that the same that is said about television offerings representing all points on the moral spectrum also applies to books. There are fantastic, enriching, life-changing books and there are raunchy, trashy, morally bankrupt books and all manner in between. I want to move forward with this discussion under the assumption that we are talking about reading quality books.

Are You a Reader?

What about you? Can you identify yourself as a reader? I’m not asking if you are literate. I’m asking if you read books. Here are some probing questions: When was the last time you completed an entire book? Do you have a book, or books, that you are currently reading? How many books did you read last year?

If your answers to those questions leaves you disappointed with yourself as a reader, and if you want to do something about it, please keep reading.

I’m not going to lay out a number of books that you must read to be considered a legitimate “reader.” You need to decide that for yourself. We are all at different stations in life and being a “reader” for one person might mean reading six books a year (one per month) while being a “reader” for another person might mean reading many more.

If you happen to be someone who is disappointed with the amount you read, I want to extend some encouragement to you, and hopefully offer you a helping hand in becoming the reader you desire to be.

If I could summarize what to do in a few words I would say this: Set some goals for yourself in the number of books you would like to read each year, begin keeping a record of the books you read, and come up with a strategic plan for meeting you reading goals.

Permit to tell you my story of how I was a readerbecame a non-reader, and then returned to being a reader.

My Story

The importance of reading was drilled into me at an early age. My mother, a devoted advocate of the value of reading, was a middle school reading teacher. Now retired, she heads up her church’s library, reading many of the titles that are acquired for the collection. So early on I did not have much choice in the matter. I was encouraged read early on.

I enjoyed reading as a child, but would not have been considered a voracious reader. I became a voracious reader in early adulthood, partially by choice, but mostly by necessity. I say partially by choice because I would read maybe a half dozen books per year simply because I wanted to read them. The rest of my reading was required because I was in school.

Almost twelve years ago I graduated from school for the fifth and, Lord willing, final time. If you are counting degrees, it goes like this: 8th grade graduation, high school, college, master’s, and doctorate. Yes, my small, rural hometown actually had a full-fledged 8th grade graduation with caps and gowns and the whole works. I know, I’ve been told, that is kind of weird, but it’s what we did.

Anyway, as I got close to the end of my doctoral studies, I remember thinking about how great it was going to be when I would have the time to read whatever I wanted to read, instead of mountains of required reading assignments.

Well, graduation came and went and I dove headfirst into hours and hours of… watching television, movies, and sports. The extent of my reading was online news, as well as following some blogs.

In all honesty, when it came to books, I became… a non-reader. In my free time, I was basically a couch potato. I used the typical excuse of needing time to “unwind.” But eventually I became embarrassed about it, and somewhat ashamed of myself. After all, “leaders read and readers lead!”

So I set out to do something about it. Since I was no longer required to read, for a school assignment, and since there were no deadlines, I figured the best way was to set an annual goal of reading a certain number of books. I settled on 52 because that would mean I would only need to average reading one book per week. Sounded easy enough.

So the new year kicked off, 2009, and I began logging every book I read. I finished that year with a whopping 11 books read. Not even one book per month. Talk about humbling.

Okay, so maybe this might be a little harder than I thought!  I entered 2010 with more enthusiasm and resolve, thinking that would do the trick. How did I do? Only 17 books.

Well, at least that was progress.

Now what you need to understand is that through my 20s and 30s I not only considered myself a reader, but I was willing to accept the label of voracious reader. I can actually recall being called that on more than one occasion, “a voracious reader,” a title that, I am now ashamed to admit, I accepted with not just a little bit of pride.

But by the end of 2010, I fully admitted that to consider myself a reader, let alone a voracious one, was nothing less than hypocritical.

Entering into 2011, having tasted a good bit of humble pie, I began to make the lifestyle changes necessary to actually become the reader I knew I needed to become: less internet time, less TV time, less movies, and more reading. And it paid off. I logged in 31 books for 2011.

In 2012 I read 29 books.

In 2013… 30 books.

2014… 25 books.

2015… 35 books.

2016 was my breakthrough year. Adding to the lifestyle changes and added resolve, I entered the year, not just with a goal of 52 books in one year, but with a strategic reading plan to accomplish the goal. I pre-selected the 52 books I hoped to read and actually broke down the number of pages per day per book I would need to read in order to accomplish the goal. While I didn’t stick steadfastly with my plan, and while my reading list changed significantly over the course of the year, it worked. I finished the year having logged 53 books.

I did it. I finally reached my goal.

And I celebrated by taking my family out to eat at one of our favorite restaurants… PDQ. (Winner, winner… chicken dinner!)

Over the delicious meal we spent some time talking about the importance of reading, and even more time talking about persistence in pursuing our goals.  It took me eight years to accomplish my goal.

My kids jokingly said that I tell people I read 118 books instead of 53 because one of the books I read was the Bible, and it was a collection of 66 books!

Now, the question is… was it worth it? Absolutely. You see, the greatest thing about having read 53 books in one year was not accomplishing my goal, as satisfying as that was and as good as the PDQ chicken tasted. No, the most important part, indeed the best part, about it was the journey.

In 2016 I didn’t just read 53 books, I improved as a leader (thanks Patrick Lencioni). I  improved as a public speaker (thanks Bert Decker and Akash Karia). I walked the streets of New York City, seeing gang members won to Christ, trading their switchblades for Bibles (thanks David Wilkerson). I rode the dusty plains on horseback, chasing bad guys (thanks Louis L’Amour and Elmer Kelton). I flew over the Atlantic in The Spirit of St. Louis (thanks Winston Groom). I witnessed firsthand the rise of the dangerous and delusional Third Reich in Berlin (thanks Erik Larsen). I felt the weight of decisions made in the Oval Office (thanks George W. Bush). I was challenged to think deeply about my faith (thanks C. S. Lewis).  I was inspired spiritually (thanks Philip Keller, Bud Fray, Robbie Symons, and Eric Metaxas). And so much more.

Books are the gateway to so much wisdom and so many worlds. Reading is a powerful tool for your personal development and, even, I believe, your personal happiness.

Tips on Becoming a Reader

Here are some tips for the aspiring reader:

  • Recognize the value of reading. Keep reminding yourself of the benefits of reading.
  • Be honest about where you currently are as a reader. Don’t fool yourself.
  • Set challenge, yet reasonable, goals for yourself. An example would be 1 book per month.
  • Vary your reading genres. It’s not a bad idea to have a few books going at once. Sometimes, when you are tempted to just “veg out”you will have a hard time picking up that book on self-improvement or career enhancement. Instead pick up an entertaining novel.
  • Be selective in your reading. Check out the reviews on Amazon. Ask your friends what they are reading. You might even want to join a book club.
  • Keep a running record of what you have completed. Maybe even write a short summary paragraph or review of the book so that you can remember what value the book brought to you.
  • Share your reading goals with a good friend or family member. It would be especially helpful if someone joins you in setting reading goals.
  • Come up with a strategic reading plan. If your goal is to read two books per month, calculate the number of pages in both books and divide that sum by the number of days you plan to read that month. Make a homemade bookmark that tells you how many pages you need to read that day to stay on pace (this has been very helpful for me).
  • Don’t give up. If you fall short of your goal, you will most likely still read much more than if you had not set the goal to begin with.

Most importantly, enjoy the journey of reading!