For many years now, I have seldom lacked an answer to Polonius’s famous question of Hamlet, “What do you read, my lord?” (Hamlet, II, 2, 191). Not just because I maintain a library of a few thousand volumes, but also because each year around this time I devise a “Reading Plan” for the coming year.
In that plan, I set a goal of the number of books I intend to read over the next twelve months (usually between seventy and a hundred). I determine that number by taking into consideration such things as the workload I anticipate (which generally limits my reading) and the amount of traveling I expect to do (which tends to increase my time for reading).
But volume is far from my only concern. I also develop a plan that will allow me to derive maximum variety and quality from my reading throughout the course of a year. I pursue a variety of authors, genre, and forms in my reading plan not only for the entertainment value, but also because such a course of intentional reading does more than broaden my horizons; it broadens me. As Clifton Fadiman writes in The New Lifetime Reading Plan, “It is rather like what is offered by loving and marrying, rearing children, carving out a career, creating a home. [Such a variety of books] can be a major experience, a source of continuous internal growth.”
I also design my reading in order to achieve a level of quality that will challenge and inform my writing and preaching . . . and living. My annual reading plan typically includes:
• a biography or two, such as 2017’s China’s First Emperor & His Terracotta Warriors (Wood), The Last Manchu (Henry Pu Yi), and one I didn’t get to last year: Steve Jobs (Isaacson).
• at least one memoir (I have four planned for 2017);
• a healthy dose of classics (including several Shakespeare plays);
• some books about Shakespeare (2017’s list includes Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Bloom), Will and Me (Dromgoole), and Shakespeare in Company (Van Es));
• a writing book or two;
• at least one history book, such as last year’s The Tudors (DeLisle), The Zimmerman Telegram (Tuchman), and The Wright Brothers (McCullough);
• at least two books by authors I’ve never read before. I must sheepishly admit that if it were not for this annual goal, I probably would not have read such authors as John Irving, Flannery O’Connor, and Anne Tyler.
• a minimum of one poetry book each year. In 1990, for example, I read Spoon River Anthology, and the next year, The Poems of Richard Wilbur, and in 1992 Robert Frost’s A Boy’s Will;
• a couple books from among my favorite authors, such as William Faulkner, Louis L’Amour, and Wendell Berry.
• some general Christian inspirational books;
• a few books on theology or the Bible;
• two or three books in a new discipline or field of interest. For instance, one year, I explored logic; another year, it was gardening;
• at least one children’s book, since I am still a child at heart and a great admirer of picture books and juvenile literature like Chris Van Allsburg’s extravagant picture books, Roald Dahl’s delightful stories, and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
• a couple “related” books. I discovered a few years ago how fun it can be to read a few books that are related in some way, such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca, two similar novels with contrasting heroines, or following Robinson Crusoe with the nonfiction In Search of Robinson Crusoe, and adding J. M. Coetzee’s Foe.
• a few books by some of my writer friends so I don’t always have to say, “no, I haven’t read it yet”;
• a book or two about books, like last year’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (Bartlett) and The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (Lewis).
• Finally, for good measure, I require that at least one of the books on my list (in any category) must be what I call a “mule-choker,” a book of great heft, the intimidating sort of book I might not otherwise read. In past years, these have been books like Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hugo).
Even with all that, my reading is not entirely void of spontaneity. My 2017 plan lists fifty-eight books; I sometimes read twice that number in a year. So there’s ample opportunity to read a book on a whim, pick up the latest blockbuster at the mall, borrow a book from a friend, or (as I just did this week) read something one of my kids urged on me. Nor do I carve my reading plan in granite; I’m free to substitute books or shift my priorities at any time (it’s my plan, after all, not the Ten Commandments). I also keep a record of the books I read each year, a practice which helps me recall the titles and authors of books I want to reread or recommend to friends.
Since adopting this practice decades ago, I’ve vastly broadened the nature and number of books I read, introduced myself to new authors, and developed expertise in–okay, familiarity with–new fields. It has delivered me from maladies such as overdosing on one writer or genre, or reading only the easiest, least challenging books. And I seldom suffer that listless feeling of staring at my bookcase like a teenager standing before an open refrigerator, wondering, What do I want, what do I want?
Perhaps best of all, my annual reading plan has improved the quality of my own writing—and thinking–repeatedly driving home to me the truth of Louis L’Amour’s observation in his autobiographical Education of a Wandering Man: “A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in first.”