Reading for No Reason At All

There is never enough time to read. This truism shapes the world we live in. Every moment has to be wrestled away from the time commitments and pressures that threaten to monopolize our time. Our families, friends, church community, and careers are great gifts, but they all need our time.

Reading is no different. It seems selfish to read for pleasure. Every clause, paragraph, and page must be justified for the benefit and the utility it offers. For myself, reading has slowly become a means to an end. For a student, reading is useful because it is the ground of research. A teacher tends to read to evaluate their students. An accountant has the joy of reading endless piles of crumpled receipts in old Walmart bags. For many, reading is just another boring but useful tool.
Even those precious few who carve out time to read a book on the couch at the end of the day can fall prey to reading out of a sense of duty, or social achievement. We dutifully trudge our way through the latest “must-read” book about politics or some other prestigious topic, finding brief relief in any moment when we can set our terrible book down.

Can I recall the last time I read for pleasure? Do I remember the last time I read a page-turner that I simply could not put down?

This past year reminded me of who I once was – a child who hid flashlights under his mattress and mysteries in the bathroom closet. There was a time when a new book would not leave my hand until I had read the very last period, no matter how early in the morning it was. Irresponsible, yes. Exhausting, of course. But it was the best way to read.
This past year has been a year of imposed change. No habit or routine was safe. Old patterns could no longer continue as they had. For my children school came to an abrupt end. An extended spring break became a road trip across Canada for a vacation at Grandma’s, which soon turned into months of virtual exile from their classmates and teachers.

One of the routines we couldn’t leave behind was our six-year-old’s reading schedule. She was obligated to read fifteen minutes a day. She hated it. She was dragged to the book, and we watched her like a hawk to ensure she kept her eyes on the page. This nightly ritual became increasingly unworkable in the midst of unfolding chaos. It became a time of conflict, and we needed to try something else. Our plan was simple. My daughter and I would read together for a half-hour every day. She would read her novel and I would read mine. Afterward, we would share the highlights.

In retrospect, this small change in routine proved to be more significant than I had imagined. Up until this point, I had been reading like an adult-focused on getting ahead. Not only in my profession as a student but also in my personal life. I read as a duty, to learn and to better myself as a human being. When the pandemic struck, I read to improve my understanding of pandemics. I read opinion pieces on pandemics and vaccines, historical accounts of the Spanish Flu, and even Camus’ The Plague. However, these were not stories that I could share with my daughter. So to find something to share with her, I dug up a book from my childhood, a murder mystery written by the famous jockey Dick Francis.

The daily ritual soon became a highlight for both of us. She giggled and shared stories about dragons and elves. I laughed and tried to share the parts of murder mysteries and thrillers that were appropriate and interesting for a seven-year-old. Mostly, however, we sat and read silently, occasionally interrupted by an errant younger sibling or a quick sip from her hot chocolate or my Rooibos tea. On warm evenings we sat on the deck and read as the sun slipped away, and on cold days we cuddled within arm’s length of the fireplace. This time quickly became my favourite part of the day. And it went on, our daily schedule with leisure reading. I chose books to read on a whim, with the only other condition being their relative suitability for discussion. I forayed into Marianne Robinson’s Gilead, followed by Shakespeare, and on the days that I felt lighter reading was in order, I read murder mysteries and spy thrillers.

Not once in all those months did I read anything I had to read. I read for pure pleasure. As time passed, I watched my daughter’s passion for reading grow. Perhaps the most significant sign of kindled interest was the hot chocolate paradox. At the beginning of our times together her hot chocolate was quickly devoured, marshmallows and all, as soon as it was cool enough to drink. Weeks later I regularly found myself dumping cold hot chocolate down the sink, half a cup one night, a third of a cup the next. What had begun as a passion for hot chocolate had slowly but surely transformed into a passion for the adventures found in the clauses and sentences before her, and it was worth every second.

This past year has been a hard one, and it is so easy to forget to carve out space and time for joy in our days. One of my favourite parts of participating in the daily office has been reading the Psalms, particularly those that evoke the joy and delight of the Creator. Of course, the classic is Psalm 29.6, “He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, which evokes a delightful picture of a joyful yet utterly pointless frolic. The joyful frivolity of the image reminds me to seek the deep joy that our Creator calls each of us towards.

The crowning moment came when my famously strong-willed daughter admitted to this ever so crucial fact, “Dad, I like reading now.” In that moment I too came to a realization, that I too, along with my daughter, had rediscovered my love of reading.

This too points me back to the Psalms. For my daughter school had become a darkness, and reading had become a blight on her life. For myself, I struggled to find joy in my existential literature about a plague while I lived in a plague! Perhaps you too find yourself in darkness throughout this time, with little end in sight. And yet Psalm 18 says, “My God turns my darkness into light.”

Perhaps this summer reading for joy at a whim might be a place where our darkness turns to light. Perhaps we will be able to find a cozy place in a park or a patio, with a favorite drink or snack and just read for no reason at all.

Ryan Smith is a former youth worker who loves exploring the hard questions about God and faith at Wycliffe College. In his spare time, he loves to read old books and play board games with his family.

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