by John Ellis
This past September, during the first week of school, my ten-year old daughter (now eleven) brought me her math assessment worksheet and asked for help on a specific problem. I read over the story problem, realized a headache would ensue if I weren’t careful, and then selfishly and lazily thought to myself, “This is just an assessment; I ain’t gotta do this!”
Before mercilessly shoving her back into the mathematical deep-end, I did put some logical air into a very flimsy arm-floaty for her. Scanning the story problem, I pointed her in what I believed was the correct direction to finding the solution. She listened and then happily returned to working on her math assessment worksheet; she loves math.
She excels at math, which may be why she loves it so much. Or, it may be a chicken and egg kind of thing. Regardless of which came first, my math-loving, fifth grade daughter has found herself placed in advanced math, as in, she’s in an eighth-grade level advanced algebra class. And she frets if she gets less than 100% on anything, which is a rarity.
I love and am thankful that she loves and excels at math. At this point, she wants to be a mathematician when she grows up. What I find even more amazing about my incredible daughter is that she also loves to create; she is constantly drawing, writing books, and concocting imaginative games to play. With the optimism that comes with youth, besides her future career as a mathematician, my daughter also wants to be a writer when she grows up – specifically, she wants to write historical novels and fantasy novels. Once she’s conquered those as her interim careers, she has her ultimate sights trained on the Oval Office.
All of those talents, pursuits, and goals are overshadowed by one thing, though. She loves to read.
By “loves to read,” I mean that the one thing that consistently lands her in lukewarm water at school is her penchant for secretly reading while the teacher is lecturing. At almost every single parent-teacher conference, the one negative, if you will, is when the teacher inevitably chuckles, “Infinity loves to read, and that’s great! But she needs to learn that there are appropriate times to read as well as inappropriate times to read. While I’m lecturing, she hides her book under her desk so that she can read.”
I used to hide candy and toys under my desk.
She also loves to compete, and so, earlier this week, when she found out that I’m planning on reading at least 200 books this year, she wanted in on that action. Boasting that she reads more than me, she challenged me to a contest. I now find myself in a year-long battle with my daughter to see who can read the most books.
My desire to read at least 200 books during 2017 was prompted when I came across this article explaining how people can read 200 books a year. I’ve never kept track of how many books I read, but the article has caused me to think that it would be fun and possibly profitable. Like my daughter, I, too, love to read.
Whenever the conversation about books comes up, I frequently hear, “I love to read!” However, I must confess that I am often not sure what definition of “love” the person is working with. Based on statistics, I doubt that it’s the same definition that I use. The average American watches over four and a half hours of TV a day. That means that it’s probably more honest for most people to say, “I love watching TV and I like reading occasionally.”
I’ve gone back and forth about deleting the above paragraph. It’s intentionally harsh and accusatory, and I worry that it may not be edifying. I’m leaving it in, though, because I believe reading is important and many people delude themselves about the priority reading has in their life. Hopefully, being confronted by the reality that they may not love reading as much as they think will cause a reshuffling of priorities. And I believe that reading should be a priority for all humans, most especially for Christians.
Making anything a priority takes effort. People who read a lot don’t do so by accident It’s going to take some planning for me (or most anyone) to read at least 200 books over the span of twelve months. For example, during January, I finished twelve books. I don’t even need my daughter to help me with the math – I’m on pace to only read 144 books in 2017.
As I’ve sat down, looked over my daily schedule and my reading goals, I’ve decided to make some specific changes. To read 200 books in twelve months requires averaging just under seventeen books a month. During the month of January, I averaged about two hours of non-Bible reading a day (see footnote 5). For starters, to get to almost seventeen books, I’ll need to add at least four extra hours of reading a month. That, of course, means about one extra hour a week. Adding on the five books that I’m behind in my pace means that I need at least five to six more hours of reading spread out over the year. To accomplish my goal, and based on the math, I’ve decided to add at least an extra hour of reading to my day.
Now, two things may be in order – an explanation of my math, and an acknowledgement that almost no one’s weekly schedule allows for enough consistency to provide a total of almost five hours a day of reading (adding in my Bible reading).
According to the article linked to above, the average American reads between 200-400 words per minute. That seems really low to me. At my fastest, I can read well over 1,000 words per minute, but that requires a set of controlled variables that my daily reading does not afford (nor do I want it to). Guessing, I probably average between 600-800 words per minute, depending on the book and how tired I am. The article also states that the typical non-fiction book has 50,000 words. The author chose the top-end of the average reading words per minute count and came up with a requirement of 417 hours over the year in order to read 200 books. Something seems off to me about that.
I don’t doubt the math; I doubt some of the numbers. Specifically, I wonder about the claim that the typical non-fiction book has 50,000 words. Again, the author’s number is probably fine; more likely, he and I have a different definition of “typical.” According to Yahoo Answers 50,000 words equals 200 pages. At the moment, one of the books that I’m reading has over 400 pages, three more have over 300 pages, and I just finished a book with almost 400 pages. As evidenced by the opening of this article, math ain’t my forte and so while working out all of this, I quickly reached a point where guessing became my go-to method. All that to say, that’s how I got to the one extra hour a day to equal the needed extra hour a week based on my math, because …
Due to my work schedule and other responsibilities, there are two days a week when I’m fortunate to get one hour of reading above my Bible reading. Knocking those two days out brings me to five days to get the extra hour of reading a week. Looking at things like the difference in word count/page numbers, differences in density of writing that requires deeper comprehension and, hence, slower reading from time to time, and the general fact that unexpected things crop up that change my schedule, I can’t assume that only one extra hour a week will be enough, and I also can’t assume that it will be easy or even possible to add an extra hour of reading every day.
To reach my goal, at which I’m already behind, and to beat my daughter, to whom I’m already losing, I can’t take my schedule for granted. To be fair, finding extra reading hours throughout the week on average days is really not that hard. TV is the culprit. Once again, guessing, I average about eight hours of TV a week – probably a little more during football season, the NBA Playoffs, and Shark Week. While being about a quarter of the time that the average American spends watching TV, eight hours a week is still probably five hours a week too many. Aaannnddd … now you’ve caught up with my probably nonsensical math.
In order to have a shot at reaching my goal of reading 200 books in 2017 and crushing my eleven-year old daughter in our head-to-head competition, I have resolved to only watch between three and four hours of TV a week. Plus, I think that I’ll need to begin waking up every morning at 5:30 instead of 6:00. Even if I don’t reach 200 books this year, my efforts will be worth it.
In his letter to the Church at Ephesus, the Apostle Paul issues the command from God that Christians should, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:15-16)”
TV isn’t sinful. Social media isn’t sinful. In fact, Christians should have times when they enjoy Re-Creation. Truth be told, however, and for most of us, our lack of balance between recreation and actually creating (whether through the labors of our hands or our minds) reveals that we’ve prioritized recreation to a possibly sinful extent. I’ll humbly submit this, if you’re a Christian who isn’t confined to bed rest and you watch the American average of over four hours of TV a day, you are most decidedly not making best use of the time. When I’m called to finally look on the face of King Jesus, I want to be able to proudly account for the use of the time he’s given me.
On a related note, it always saddens me to have someone confess to me that they wish that they had more time to read the Bible on the heels of hearing them talk about a movie they recently watched.
Regarding the contest with my daughter, I’m excited to have the opportunity to continue to help her develop her love of learning. I’m also excited for the opportunity that this contest presents me to help her shape her reading habits. Looking ahead, I’m already thinking about how to layer in rules to the contest that requires each of us to read so many books from certain genres. I also think that I’m going to present her challenging books that are technically above her level, and tell her that those books are worth two books (maybe more – if she reads War and Peace, she automatically wins). I love to read, and am thankful for a daughter who loves to read, too. But neither of those things happened by accident. Continuing to develop a love of reading will require that both my daughter and I are intentional about reading and don’t take for granted our love of reading.
(Moving ahead with my Monthly Reading List articles, I’m going to include a tally of my daughter’s books so that those who are interested can keep up with the contest.)
 In conclusion to my opening anecdote, I pointed her in the wrong direction. I know this because after she returned to working on the problem, she quickly realized that I was wrong, went the exact opposite direction, and figured the problem out. And then she told me. For the record, and importantly and possibly helpfully, I’m not bad at math. In fact, while I highly doubt that my math ability approaches that of my daughter’s, I could’ve done well at math. Growing up, my parents and teachers tended to take the attitude towards me and math that I just needed to get a “B” in math and focus on the subjects that I excelled at. Several years ago, I read Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers. Without going into the details (you should read the book), Gladwell explains that this country’s approach to math is inadequate and only allows the cream of the crop to rise to the top. But, he believes, there are many other students who could excel at math. However, since the concepts don’t immediately come to them, parents and teachers tell them, “It’s ok. Math’s not your subject. You’re smart in other areas. Do your best; get a “B;” and focus on the subjects that you excel at.” By way of contrast, Outliers claims that many of those students could excel if enough time is invested; they have the ability, but our country’s approach to teaching math doesn’t allow time for the concepts to take root. Both my daughter and I are good illustrations of the two types of students that Gladwell wrote about.
 A couple of years ago, she wanted to be a college professor of history who was also a rock star.
 She wants to be the first female president. This last election season, she was a little worried that that dream would die.
 At first, I thought that I would need to pull my punches, so to speak. I’m a firm believer that under normal circumstances, parents shouldn’t allow their kids to win; for a variety of reasons, none of them important to this article. But I also believe that parents shouldn’t *crush* their kids, either. Two days ago, when we began, I was afraid that I would get so far ahead of her that she would become discouraged and quit. That created a conundrum; I can’t stop reading, and I can’t lie about how many books that I’ve read. While searching for a solution, my hubris came crashing down on my head. Last night, while telling her goodnight, I glanced at the chart on her wall that she’s made to document her defeat of me. She’s winning. She’s read three books in two days, and I noticed this morning at breakfast that she’s almost finished her fourth book. Not short books, either. At this point, concern for crushing her spirit has been replaced by concern for her crushing my spirit.
 To be fair, my January number doesn’t accurately reflect my pace. Outside of my “reading time,” I read the Bible and study books of the Bible, usually for around two hours a day. My goal is to read the Bible cover-to-cover three times this year (I managed to do it twice last year). Now, I don’t know yet if I’m going to include my Bible reading in my final tally. I’ll say this, though, if December 31 rolls around and I’m sitting on 197, I’m including the Bible three times (assuming I read it three times, that is). However, with my study of specific books of the Bible, I’m also reading commentaries. My goal is to study six books of the Bible during 2017. I generally read two commentaries, sometimes more, as I study. On the low end, that will give me another twelve books that are outside of my current pace. Which brings my pace to 156, still well below the goal of 200.
 I won’t lie, the friendly (I hope) competition with my daughter provides motivation, too.
 For the record, I’ve been tested, both as a child and as an adult.
 I know, I know … I should be ashamed of my research methodology. I am, but I need to reserve more time for reading, remember.
 Although, I’m less convinced of that about social media than I am about TV. Another topic for another day, though.
 Reading can become an idol. As an idol, reading can keep us from obeying King Jesus in other areas of our life. Not sharing the gospel with others because we’ve sequestered ourselves away in order to read more is sinful, too. Not serving our church family because we’re too busy reading is sinful, too. But, let’s be honest, very few of us come even close to being guilty of reading too much.