(What) are you reading?

Nearly everyone says they love to read. However it seems obvious, as many commentators point out, that there is a decline in reading. And this is despite us having easy access to a greater range of material than any previous generation could have imagined. It’s certainly much more than I imagined when my teenage self visited our small town library after school.

I recently came across Philip Yancey’s provocatively titled The death of reading is threatening the soul. Yancey describes what he calls a ‘personal crisis’: that he used to read a lot and now he reads fewer books that demand less effort and attention:

‘The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at CNN.com reading Donald Trump’s latest tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.’

Can you see yourself in that quote? He certainly described my experience.

Yancey, like countless others, points out that reading is a habit of highly successful people. I n the book , Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order , Charles Hill describes Paul Nitze, former U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Cold War as follows : 

‘Through long nighttime transatlantic flights , on the secretary of state’s aircraft, when most passenger cabin lights were out and the sound of a deck of cards being shuffled was heard from the press corps seats far in the back, one reading light was always still one. Paul Nitze, the arms control strategist and negotiator, would be reading Shakespeare. […] Nitze read Shakespeare, he told me, for the plays which interwove principles of statecraft with the foibles of the human condition.’

Living in Australia means many long haul flights. I enjoy the quiet and solitude (a quirky habit I admit), and spend a considerable amount of time in reading and reflection. However, I seldom see other people reading on the plane, and very rarely see anyone wrestling with Shakespeare or great works of literature. Even though flying offers one of the best occasions for reading given the few distractions, most people would rather sleep or watch a movie. While this may sound a little ‘nerdy’ or even judgemental that is not my intent. I’m observing what is available in the vast amount of knowledge contained in the great books, and lamenting that so few are tapping into this.

One of the challenges is time and focus.

Reading, like all habits, is a matter of intention and effort. And since there is so much competition for our attention from a plethora of media and devices, reading requires we gain self-mastery over our schedule and the discipline to stay focused. 

What strikes me about the habits of CEOs noted in this Business Insider article is that reading is not for them a casual pastime, but rather a precise commitment and even a matter of public accountability:

• Bill Gates reads 50 books a year.

• Mark Zuckerberg reads at least one book every two weeks.

• Elon Musk grew up reading two books a day, according to his brother.

• Mark Cuban reads for more than three hours every day.

• Arthur Blank, a cofounder of Home Depot, reads two hours a day.

• Billionaire entrepreneur David Rubenstein reads six books a week.

Are you reading? If so, are you intentional about when you read and how often? How do you avoid distractions and facilitate your retention? How has reading benefited you? What tips do you have for other leaders seeking to become more deliberate in their reading?