In late 2009, I became convicted of my habit of starting far more books than I ever finished. This had gone on for years, but around that time I decided to do something about it. My first resolution was to finish reading all of the books that I had started since Spring 2009 — when we had moved internationally, which made a clean starting point. This took me about ten months, as I recall, and involved plowing through some books that I had started too casually (memorably, Homilies on the Gospel of John by Chrysostom). I then made the resolution that I would allow myself one personal book and one professional book at a time, except in compelling circumstances. I permitted myself the Bible, of course, and whatever books were necessary for language-learning. I also read books to my sons, of course, and those don’t count.

It has now been four years, and I have kept to this discipline. I have deviated once or twice, for instance when a library book I placed on reserve suddenly came due, or if I had to read a book for a course. There have been three or four such exceptions over the four years.

A quadrennial assessment. Advantages:

  • I am far more disciplined in my reading habits now, which is wonderful. The discipline eliminated my old habit of starting books and not finishing them, or only finishing them after a delay. (I remember several false starts on The Count of Monte Cristo in 2009.)
  • Since reading a book is now a commitment, I am much more selective in what I read. I have a spreadsheet in which I record books I have read, and books that I want to read (I currently have 151 on the list). When I am coming to the end of a book, I begin to think of what I am in the mood to read. I can intentionally choose a work from a particular author, a work of light fiction, etc. The discipline helps me to make an intentional choice, though.
  • There are many books that I would not have finished but for this discipline. Joseph Frank’s 1000-page Dostoyevsky: A writer in his time comes to mind. It was an excellent book, but if my fancies had determined my reading schedule, I do not believe I would have finished it. Many of George MacDonald’s works require similar commitment. The same goes for Homer and Virgil.
  • I am much more particular about what I read, since reading is more of a commitment. I become almost angry at a poorly written book, since it is such a waste of my time. I remember being angry through most of Dracula. This only makes me more selective about what I read, however, which is a net benefit.


  • Some books simply do not inspire, and that creates a stoppage. I believe it was nearly a year ago that I began reading a book on Greek discourse. The consequence of not finishing that book is that I haven’t read any other professional book in the last year.
  • If I only have “heavy” books to read, then I find that when I am tired, instead of reading my book, I read lesser things anyway. For instance, I might read only light articles. Or I might fritter away the evening on the internet. It’s not a small irony that I have filled evenings with Failblog instead of yielding to the temptation of light fiction.
  • There are books I might read if I didn’t have to read them all the way through. I have read far less from the Church Fathers over the last four years than I would have expected. City of God is an unimaginable commitment at this point.

For me, both the advantages and disadvantages are compelling. On the whole I don’t doubt that it’s been a positive change. I need to think about some safety valve for the times I don’t want to read something substantive. I also did fiddle with the discipline at one point by deciding to read only one volume of the Thousand and One Nights, which ended up being a rather tedious work, and that might be applied more generally, e.g., to City of God.