Reading as mining for gold and precious jewels.

I was laying on my bed this afternoon trying to read Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai. I’m pretty tired after a 6am wakeup (amazing how much difference one less hour of sleep can make), so I had a hard time focussing. I started thinking about the reading I do. I love reading… when it’s a good book. I’m starting to realize that reading is a bit like mining for gold or precious jewels: a lot of work is done in hopes of finding a gem among the rubble. The gems are worth the wait, but when I’m slogging through the rubble it gets tough sometimes. Sometimes rocks will change into gems later; sometimes what looks to be gold at the beginning turns out to be pyrite. Generally, however, gold is gold. It just takes time to come across it.

I got up out of the bed and pulled out all the books I have “on the go”, by which I mean I still have a bookmark in them with the intention of picking them up again at some point to keep reading. Some of them I am actively reading (meaning they’ve been read from in the last couple of weeks), others haven’t been read from literally in years (but I still intend to read them!). There are eight of these books laying on my bed at the moment. I know there are at least a couple of others which were reluctantly returned to the bookshelf on the assumption that they will at the right time in the future be gold.

I’m mostly to blame for this situation: over the years I’ve purchased and been given books at a rate faster than I can read them. Sometimes by the time I get to them I’m no longer interested. Other times I get hooked by more than one book at a time. Sometimes I read a book because it feels like I should. Sometimes I read a book because I want to, but then get distracted by another book (I’m always browsing). Sometimes a book catches my eye and I read it straight through without reading anything else until it was done. That’s generally a sign of gold.

But, I need to be a bit more intentional and less haphazard about my reading. That, or I just need to chill out and walk away from a book when I’m no longer interested. Here are some rules I may want to adopt:

1. I shouldn’t read books simply because I “ought” to. Yes, there are classics. Yes, they are valuable to read. Yes, there can be rewards for pushing through the tough bits. But–dare I say it?–in the end it’s just a book. No use losing sleep over it.

2. If it doesn’t catch me (or prove useful, if it’s a work-related book) in the first 50-100 pages, abandon it.

3. It’s okay to not finish a book.

4. It’s okay to return to a book later. It’s okay to start a book over some day. It’s probably not helpful to pretend that I’m still reading a book when I haven’t read it in months or years.

5. Don’t start another book until this one is finished. Or, at the very least, don’t start another book in the same genre. Reading a work of fiction, along with a work of theology, along with a work of history, for instance, may actually be a good thing and might keep me reading. Reading two novels or two theological works at the same time will usually mean one or the other gets abandoned.

6. I don’t have to read every book out there.

7. I don’t have to rush through books. Savour them. This one is difficult to practice when I’ve got shelves of waiting-to-be-read books. If I’m ever to catch up, I feel like I need to rush.

8. …but it wouldn’t hurt to skim from time to time.

9. I don’t have to catch up on reading all the books on my shelf.

10. A friend told me that he reads what he wants to think about. This is probably a generally good policy. What do I want to think about? Read a book about that and then combine it with thinking, journaling, conversations, etc.

11. Know my genres. I tend to eat up what one might call “pop sociology” books (or perhaps “pop non-fiction”): The World Without Us or The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon or Fast Food Nation or A Walk in the Woods or A Short History of Nearly Everything? I eat those books up. Mentally stimulating, absorbing, fascinating, etc. For pure enjoyment reading, that’s the way to go for me.

12. I need to learn to read and retain. Too often I read a book and forget what I read. I like to think I internalize some of the valuable information or that it’s at least formative. But who really knows. Is there a point in reading if nothing is retained? Doesn’t that just make it escapism?

13. But then maybe it’s okay to read even theology simply for pleasure. I do that already, but I’m always concerned about remembering. But maybe escapism is okay, too.

14. Sometimes a book can be judged by its cover.

15. …but an old, worn-out cover with illegible lettering and little bits of string coming off of it is not de facto unreadable.

16. I’ve found that there is a time and place and place for every book. A book that was formative or mind-blowing ten years ago might be meaningless now. A book I tried hard to read might be just what I need a few years down the road. I guess this is a kind of mystical view of the reading process. It seems to work for me. Which means that if a book doesn’t catch me fairly quickly, I should just move on and leave it for another day.

17. Perhaps I should’ve given up reading for Lent… Maybe next year.