Thirteen Ways to Read More in 2013

I did not make 52 books this year, but I'm OK with that.

For the past three years, Mark and I have read and blogged about a book a week here. It's been one of the best goals that I've set out and accomplished. I loved reading so much and talking about those books with others. This year was slightly different. We adopted our second son Josiah in May. When he came, I knew that there was no way for me to continue reading at that pace, but I still wanted to read and blog what I could. I made it to 38 having two young sons, a busy time traveling in the States, and teaching five advanced English courses with lots and lots of essays to grade. With all that, I'm happy with 38.

With all this going on, I still wanted to carve out time to read not just to meet a self-imposed goal, but because reading is valuable. Books are important, and reading them adds to our quality of living. Many people say, “I’d love to read more, but I can’t because________.” This blank is filled with reasons that are legion. If this is you, let me address a few obstacles to my reading; perhaps this will encourage you to see that they may not be obstacles at all.

1. Stop saying, “I’m a slow reader.” If you think this about yourself, join the club. Just because I’m an English teacher doesn’t mean that I’ve graduated summa cum laude at Evelyn Wood’s Speed Reading class. What I lack in speed I compensate for in tenacity. Commit yourself to finish a book, and spend time doing that. Whether it takes a day or a month, stick with it until the last page. With reading, our speed improves with more books. So, the more you read, the more you’ll be able to read.

2. Limit competing activities. This does not mean eschew meeting with friends or spending time with your wife in order to read (“Sorry, honey, but I can go with you. I already have a date with John Grisham” will not go over well in my house, and I doubt it will in yours either). This means trade watching every episode of House in one evening for some reading time. I found that to read more, I watch far fewer movies than I’ve ever watched. With only three leisure hours a day, I must spend them wisely. We still watch movies and an occasional episode of a show, but I don’t want to lose all my reading time to gorge myself of television.

Perhaps television isn’t your intruder, but video games are. Two words suffice here: Stop it. Nothing is a bigger waste of time than hours spent shooting, jumping, fighting, driving, or Guitar-Heroing. If you tell me that you wish you could read more but waiting in line for the midnight sale of the new Call of Duty game, I have no sympathy for you. Actually, I do because that is a textbook definition of pathetic.

3. Check your Internet usage. For me, the greatest time-sucking black hole in my life is Internet browsing. I’ve written on this before in my past reviews of technology, but it is a constant battle to spend my time more productively than blinding sauntering from link to link,  reading meaningless droll articles on politics, celebrity, or culture. I find that even topics at the top of my interest (theology, technology, and literature) can fritter away meaningful time that I could be reading something of permanence. If you are looking to read more books, set parameters for leisure surfing. Set a timer if you must. We all like breaks from serious work to read the headlines or movie reviews, but let them be breaks, and not where we live exclusively.

4. Set a pattern. What time of day do you best read? Early morning? Late night? Lunch break? Pick a time to spend even 20 minutes with your book. I like the quietness of our house in the morning before work. I have 30 minutes with my coffee to read without distractions. This costs me more time sleeping, but I think the payout is worth it. For you, it may be sacrificing spending your lunch break surfing ESPN or talking with colleagues about the latest workplace gossip. Your sacrifice of either is worth it.

5. Change your Bathroom Reading. This will be a quick one: stop playing Angry Birds or reading Facebook on the toilet. Put a short book in your bathroom instead. You’ll add a few more titles to your yearly totals.

6. Find accountability in your reading. One of the best motivators for me to keep reading is my friendly competition with Mark. He and I push each other to make it to 52, constantly ask about the current books, and read and comment and, at times, insult the other’s picks. Find someone in your life to sharpen you in your reading. Join a book club. Commit to read a set amount of books this upcoming year, and search for a friend to join you. Our church has a monthly theological book group that encourages me to read at least one book per month. Look for one at your church, or start one.

7. Write about your reading. When we started www.my52books.com, we wanted to add the review component to help us to think deeper about the books that we were reading. Knowing that a short review awaits me, I interact with the book differently. Spending the 15-30 minutes writing the review solidifies my thinking about the book, and helps me to remember aspects better. You need not start a blog, but they are free and easy. You can add a Facebook post or merely write it in Word for your own keeping.

8. Bring a book everywhere. Waiting in line at the post office allows me two pages, arriving for an appointment 15 minutes early grants ten pages, and sitting while my car is washed opens time for another five pages. I won’t finish a book in errands, but it gets me closer. As I mentioned before, this beats skipping around an app that balances virtual marbles on my iPhone.

9. Consider a Kindle. Most people who have a Kindle enthusiastically declare that they read more because of it. If the convenience of the device helps you to read more, more power to ya. Get one and read away. I resolved that while I enjoy the ability to get a book quickly, the Kindle is not my preferred method to read. I’m too tempted to play with its features or to search the store for another digital book to download. Also, I like to write in my book margins, and the note-taking on e-readers just isn’t where I want it to be. It may be just what you need.

10. Have variety in your reading list. Don’t feel that you need to read only American classics or Pulitzer Prize winners this year. Mix it up with serious and silly; long and short; important and frivolous. For each The Scarlet Letter, there was a John Grisham. For each Steve Jobs weighing in at 598 pages, there was Note to Self with a slight 134 pages. Having variety adds to the excitement to finish one book and begin the next. I’m not out to impress anyone with my picks (OK, maybe Mark). Look at both the New York Times bestseller list and search for a list of books for college-bound students. Choose from both, and also from those on the Recent Arrivals section of the library. Don’t read anything that you don’t want to.

11. Alter your nighttime reading. Stop reading your news apps or Facebook before bedtime. Put a quick read on your bedside table to read, even a few pages for sawing logs. Reading your phone in bed is an odd way to begin your sleep, so try knocking out a book over the course of a month.

12. Add some audiobooks into your life. Pick a fiction book on audio at the library, Amazon, or Christianaudio.com. There are many classics on loud lit.org or on iTunes for free. Have one playing instead of sports radio or all music. I certainly love music, but once in awhile, an audiobook is better, especially on those longer drives.

13. Commit to a realistic reading goal right now. This could be a number: 52, 25, or 12. Find something realistic, and tell someone. Or, commit to a few books you’ve always wanted to read but never have, or authors you wished you read in high school. In 2013, I will read through The Brothers Karamazov and Moby Dick as part of my 52. Making this public will help keep me accountable. Commit to something right now, and make it known.

May 2013 be the year that you read more books than you ever have before. Minor changes could yield major accomplishments this year. Good luck, and happy reading in the new year.

Ron’s #30: I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza is my winner for the most surprisingly good book that I’ve read this year. I had no intention of reading this when I found it on the rack in the on-base thrift store. I remember hearing something about Tony Danza from Taxi and Who’s the Boss? making a reality show about teaching. It sounded pandering and hokey, so I didn’t think more about it until I saw this book. I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had is the account of the year he spent in Northeast High School in Philadelphia. I read a few pages, and then a chapter, and then I couldn’t seem to stop.

There are two main points that I learned from reading this book. The first is that Danza is a sincere and humble man who tried so hard to do a good job teaching this class of 10th grade English. There was no sense of doing it only for the cameras, or to show off his acting chops (the kids hardly knew who he really was). This is a man who took the job of teaching seriously, and worked tirelessly to provide an education for his class of teenagers. Some of his co-workers were so unfriendly and, at times, cruel to him, but he is the eternal optimist. That speaks highly of him.

The second point I learned from this book is the more important one. While Tony has a lot to learn about delivering English instruction, he has a deep concern for the instruction of the whole child. He really cares about these students. Whether it is checking in with a student about a difficult time, going to sporting games, or even teaching a kid to box, Danza wants to be a positive influence in the lives of these kids. It’s not that I don’t do this, but sometimes I need those reminders that I don’t teach English, I teach kids. I know this is a tired old saying in the education world, but reading this book helped to remind me of this. Often times, I’m overwrought with essays to grade, lessons to prepare, administration work to complete, meetings to attend, parents to email, and cross-country to coach that I forget that that boy or girl may need a bit of grace today. This book reminded me that it’s good to think about these things to be a more effective teacher.

The book is a quick read and quite engaging even for the non-teaching types. It’s amusing to see how little street cred Tony receives as a teacher. If you aren’t a good teacher, kids don’t care who you are. I especially enjoyed reading how Danza taught Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. He was creative and engaging.

After the book, I bought the Teach television series, and we are watching through the episodes. The co-workers are meaner on-screen, and Tony’s humility and sincerity show even clearer. Tony Danza is a good man, and his work on the book and the series reminded me why I love teaching English to teenagers.

(I wanted to say that the book I bought has Danza’s signature on the front page. I don’t have many signed books, and I never thought Tony Danza’s would ever be one in my collection!)

Here’s a brief interview Tony recorded addressed to teachers.


Ron’s #22: Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher

Reading a book or two about teaching is something that is important to me as I keep trying to develop my skills as a teacher. I read another book by Kelly Gallagher a few years ago, so I wanted to read this one. I’m glad I did because it offered many excellent tips in how to help students write better.

His main philosophy stems from these two premises: 1. Teach kids to write in the modes that they will need to write in college and in the real world. 2. Write along with your students.

Gallagher is a seasoned teacher who clearly loves writing and teaching writing. He is a good mentor to have as I try to better equip my students to improve in writing.

Here’s a brief video of Gallagher discussing the book.


Ron's #2: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

When I was in Mrs. Neidz’s 9th grade English class, I tried to bluff my way through discussions using only the Cliffsnotes version of reading Huck Finn. I hoped it was good enough to help me pass the quizzes. During the class, I found myself interested in the story and actually wished I had read the book. Never enough to actually read it, though. It took me over ten years to actually read it for myself. I earned a D in 9th grade English, by the way.

Huck Finn is a classic for a reason: it is really, really good. Part adventure down the Mississippi, part friendship between Huck and Jim, part social commentary on the treatment of blacks in the South. It is an important book, and no high school student should graduate without reading it. Sadly, many teachers today shy away from it because of the overabundance of the use of the N-word, a hyper-reaction to political correctness. Most educated readers will quickly see that this is as racist as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is cannibalistic.

I’ve taught Huck Finn many times, and I still find new aspects to appreciate and enjoy about the book. And for those familiar to the story, the scene when Huck tears up the letter and decided to “go to Hell” is perhaps one of my favorite moments in literature.

Huckleberry Finn the boy is the prototype of all teenage angst characters. There’d be no Holden Caulfield with Huck. No young adult fiction without him, although I think that might be a good thing.

Do yourself a favorite and listen to what your high school English teachers probably told you: Read Huck Finn. You will enjoy it.

Cool kids who have already read the book understand what this means:

In case you are wondering what my teaching handouts for students look like, here they are:

Unit 6: To Read or Not To Read Huckleberry Finn part 1 Unit 6: Huck Finn part 2

Huck Finn App for iPod and iPad  Huck Finn audiobook for iPod

Ron’s #1: How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish

Beginning this new year of reading a book a week, I thought a book on reading seemed appropriate. The full title of this book is How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. I think the simplicity of it is genius, and it sounded compelling enough to read.

The book recounts a story where a writer was asked by a student if he could be a writer. The writer asked, “Well, do you like sentences?” This is akin to a painter liking the smell of paint. We often overlook the simplicity of a sentence for the grandeur goal of a novel or screenplay, but forget the beauty of sentences.

This book is part academic, part of the joy of writing, and part teaching writing, although I’m not sure of the exact divisions. Fish collects and analyzes dozens of famous and not-so-famous sentences to show how and why they work so well. As an English teacher, I loved most of what this book had to offer. I wrote many of his exercises for me to replicate in the classroom.

My two favorite chapters are the ones of first sentences and on last sentences. Fish shows how those excellent opening lines have an “angle of lean,” and they point to something about the story that is to come. I enjoyed hearing his thoughts on some famous opening lines. As for closing lines, there is a good deal on the last line of The Great Gatsby, one of my favorites to teach.

If you are an English teacher, you will enjoy this book. Or if you are a writer. If you like to read, you’d probably find something interesting. If you own more than two video game consoles, well, try something else.

Hear an interview with Stanley Fish on NPR