Updated: Dec 30, 2020
“One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.” – Carl Sagan
When I was eight years old my reading ability fell below grade level, so my parents asked one of my teachers to tutor me during the summer before fourth grade. Mrs. Fergeson had a large collection of children’s books in her living room, and each week she let me pick any book I wanted to read aloud to her.
At the beginning of the summer I picked a book that had Donald Duck in it, and when I read Donald’s lines, I spoke like a duck. She loved it and that started a tradition of reading one story that included Donald Duck each time we met. Mrs. Fergeson helped me realize that reading is fun if you find the right book.
“Make it a rule never to give a child a book you would not read yourself.” – George Bernard Shaw
Decide What To Read
We learned that summer that I didn’t have any problem reading books I enjoyed. I still remember reading the biography of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball, and thinking to myself how it was possible I didn’t know about biographies before then. One book about sports, history, and personal values like determination changed the way I thought about reading.
“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” – Henry David Thoreau
Rather than turning to the latest best selling books, I prefer to read older books that have stood some test of time. Moreover, I used to think I had to finish every book I started, but I’ve since learned that life is too short to read a bad book. Therefore, when I begin to lose interest in a book, I don’t hesitate to look at the table of contents and skip to sections that might be more interesting. And if later chapters still don’t speak to me, I move on.
I usually read two to three books at any given time. This way, depending on the day, I can choose the one that fits my mood. For example, I always try to have one book on my nightstand that challenges my thinking and another that I can turn to when I want to escape the realities of the world. In addition, most of the books I read are not directly related to my field. Instead, I enjoy reading books from a variety of disciplines and connecting those ideas to what I already know.
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” – Frederick Douglas
Set Aside A Little Time Each Day
My reading habit has evolved over the years. During high school and college, I only found time to read for pleasure during the summer or school breaks. When I lived alone in my twenties I found plenty of time to read, and for a while after my children were born I was often too tired to get through more than a few pages before falling asleep. I wish I had more time to read for pleasure, but at this point in my life, I can only find 20 to 30 minutes on most days. At that rate, I read about 20 to 30 books a year.
The two most helpful things I’ve done to develop a consistent reading habit have been to make reading obvious and make bad habits that distract me from reading difficult. To make reading obvious, I keep my books on my nightstand where I can see them and have written down the specific time and location I have committed to read each night. To make bad habits difficult, I put my electronics beyond arm's reach and commit not to look at them after the kids go to bed.
“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” – Mortimer J. Adler
Focus on Quality Over Quantity
Don’t worry about how fast you read or how many books you’ve read. The purpose of reading shouldn’t be to finish reading. I read because I am curious and love to learn. I keep a list of the books I’ve read not because I’m counting, but to remember when I read something and think about how it shaped my view of the world. When I read I realize my lived experiences are not so unique, and I learn from the lived experiences of others. The best books are like conversations with good friends that I don’t want to end.
“Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences or agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.” — Edgar Allen Poe
Retain What You Read
Most of the reading I do is still with a physical book. Only on occasion will I read on an e-reader. Here’s what I do when come across an idea in a book that I’d like to remember:
I place a small mark in the margin next to passages of interest.
Then I write the page number on a blank page at the back of the book. In addition to the page number I often will include a few words that connect the point from the book to other ideas, something the passage made me think about, or a question I have. If it’s a book I don’t own, I take notes on a sheet of paper folded in the back.
When I’m finished reading the book, I put it in a special stack in my office. At a later date, usually within the month, I review my notes, reread the selected passages, and type ideas that are still relevant into a Google Doc.
For really good ideas, I might create a new teaching tool, update course content, or even outline a new blog post. According to Richard Feynman, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, teaching ideas to others is the best way to learn.
The great thing about typing my notes into a Google Doc weeks after finishing a book is that the time between helps me recall the material and ultimately increases retention of the information. And the document is searchable, so I can easily find related ideas months and years after without sifting through old books.
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I am grateful to have grown up in a home with many books and for Mrs. Fergeson who provided me a formative experience that enriches my life to this day.