When I was a graduate student, I got a phone call from the Nielsen company, of the famous Nielsen Ratings for television shows. The man on the phone wanted to make me a “Nielsen Family,” asking me to submit my own television viewing for compilation in these ratings. He was both disappointed and surprised to hear that I only used my television to watch rented movies. Then came the question that let me know I was in a different, unknown class of people: “Oh. [long pause] Do you read?” His emphasis on the final word turned the question into the sort of accusation one can imagine a scientist making to the leader of an alien species. You hear through those?
Yes, I’m a reader, and for this I offer no apologies. Nor should you.
Reading is not just an activity that I tolerate, as some necessary means to an end. I like to read. And up until recently, I thought this enjoyment was my major motivation for reading.
But you see, I have a confession. Sometimes I don’t like reading as much as I like having read. Put differently (and in a more grammatically-correct fashion): reading certain books is an activity that I enjoy much more after it is complete. Like exercise, turning the final page of some books feels a lot like stepping off the treadmill after my 30 minutes. I exhale deeply and a trace smile of satisfaction and superiority forms on my face; for, you see, there are many people who didn’t just complete 30 minutes on the treadmill, and my shirt bears the sweat to prove it.
Reading certain books is supposed to be difficult, right? (Why else would they be cataloged in the Difficult Books section at the library?) They require a lot of concentration, effort, and discipline. And some books which help us apply the truths of the Bible are hard in an even deeper way. They poke at our sins and slather us with conviction. (The truly excellent ones offer the hope of the gospel right at the moment of conviction too!) Not many people, I reckon, enjoy conviction in the moment when the rains come. Much better when the clouds part and the sweet, fresh smell of repentance rises from the ground.
But the difficulty level of the book is not the only reason I prefer to arrive at the end of certain works. The other reason? Pride. Blech, what a scoundrel!
For those of us with even a slightly intellectual bent, there is a temptation to wear one’s list of books completed as a particularly shiny badge. We lasso the respect of others if we’ve read Author A or Book-of-the-moment B. In the church, devotees of certain authors or classic books take on a noticeable, holy glow, which only fades over the course of 40 days.
Looking back, I see that I have occasionally read a book with the thought of impressing others in my mind. But much more frequently, this sin shows up in my conversations and relationships. The ways that I talk about my reading activity, books in general, or specific volumes I’ve recently completed are designed to attract attention and respect. And Philippians 2:3,4 promptly smacks me to the ground.
So, I find myself back there again. The ages-old battle of serving self or others. And God used one of my favorite activities to remind me of it this time.
Let me end with a few questions I am trying to ask myself more frequently. Maybe you will find them helpful too. And if you have any questions to add or thoughts to share, please do so in the comments!
- Does this person really need to know that I read this book? What will he/she gain from hearing me raise this point in the context of my reading?
- Why am I introducing this book into the conversation? Is this the best way to serve the other person?
- Am I listening carefully to this person, or just waiting for an excuse to focus the conversation on me again?