I read all the time. The back of cereal packets, emails, blogs, status updates on Facebook, tweets on Twitter and news on the BBC. I read dozens of blog posts and articles every day. I regularly read Wired and The Economist magazines, local newspapers and stories to my children. Read, read, read.
However when it comes to measuring my reading over the course of a year all that reading basically counts for nothing. The only real form of reading, for most of us, is the reading of books.
Within this category it gets narrower still. An awful lot of book reading doesn’t count either. Books looked at or referenced, books started not finished must all be discounted. No, when it comes to that end of year reckoning the only books that matter are finished books.
Finished books alone, it seems, demonstrate the breadth of my interests or the staying power of my attention.
Since 2007 I’ve been tracking the books I’ve finished and I’m averaging around 22 a year, although that average seems to be dropping. I had a couple of bumper years when I finished 35 and a few lean years where I barely made it past ten.
Sustained reading, like most worthwhile habits requires some effort & discipline. Distractions abound and it is much easier to find oneself matching rows of brightly coloured sweets than it is to follow the train of thought of a 19th century Danish philosopher.
Yet reading, like exercise, is profoundly rewarding in ways that easier lighter less taxing pursuits can never be. It’s the difference between a gobstopper and candy floss.
Reading fiction can both entertain, move and teach in a way that few other mediums can. Films have the advantage of being able to add the power of sound and music making it multi-sensory. I see and hear.
Yet a well written novel can trump the greatest film because it alone fires the imagination. In a film, the imagination is that of the director, in a book the author must stir the reader, must create through words the bare foundations on which the reader’s imagination plays, builds its own images and soundtrack.
Non-fiction educates, provokes, stimulates and informs – it teaches me new things, challenges old ideas and disturbs me with new ones. This past year I’ve learned better habits for organizing my workflow, been convinced of the need for re-wilding much of Britain’s countryside, challenged to renew my focus on disciple-making and stirred by stories of the growth of Christianity in the Islamic world.
As I reflect on this I’m hungry for more not less of that yet of course it won’t just happen. After an evening tussle with the children getting them to bed, playing a game seems much more enticing than reading.
Few things shape my daily life or my existence the way reading does, few things have the power to exert life-changing force on me. Sometimes it happens with a shocking suddenness and other times it is a slow steady progression like a river running through the flatlands but nevertheless it alters the landscape.
Because reading then is so worthwhile and so powerful it really should get more careful and sustained attention, both in the choosing of books and long-form essays but also in the sustaining of the discipline.
This coming year I have resolved to significantly increase the quality and quantity of my reading and to combine it with a sustained increase in the quantity, and I hope, the quality of my writing. Not least in providing better reviews than I’ve sometimes managed here.
I’m somewhat disappointed in the nature of my reading over 2015, it felt like for long periods that reading was hard work and I lost the love for it but it only takes one good book to remind me how great it is to get lost in a good book. I’m hoping for more of that in 2016.