Last July, Jennifer Halverson and I became reading buddies. What felt like an accident was, I am sure, Divine Providence. After repeated casual conversations about books that each of us wanted to read, someone said,
“I will read that with you if you are going to read it soon…”
In that small offering of friendship, we had a true C. S. Lewis moment.
Since that momentous choice, Jennifer and I have spent hundreds of hours talking about books we are reading together. The more we read, the more rabbit trails we go on, and the more we try to squeeze into our schedules. Routinely we are asked by Peelers how we make it all work. We are wives, moms, homeschoolers, group moderators, and a whole host of other things. How do we read so many books?
Sweet mama, I am going to tell our story but I want you to hear something very clearly first: this did not happen overnight and we don’t want you to feel inadequate if your story looks nothing like this.
Before I tell you how we read, I think I need to start at the beginning.
Several decades ago, two little girls were born within months of each other. One was born on the West Coast into a complex and secular family who valued a love of the land, an independent spirit, and a thriving family culture. The other was born in the Midwest into a traditional Catholic family who valued world travel, higher education, and politics. An outsider looking in would have laughed at the idea that the pagan vegetarian and the carnivorous, confused Catholic would grow up to someday enter into a sisterhood of shared faith, shared love of books, and a shared love of old-fashioned ideas. This is our crazy story.
When the West Coast pagan had a baby at seventeen, any ideas of further education or career were quickly traded in for diaper runs, marriage, and three more babies. Jennifer’s little family lives on a family homestead that her great grandparents cultivated. While the winepress and some of the other homesteading activities were largely replaced with the family glass business, the land has been shared by her family for over a hundred years. As her children grew and entered into the great American tradition of school, Jennifer became unsettled by the world’s standards and recommendations for her children. After a short-lived but frustrating experience, she pulled her children out of school and decided to channel her feisty and independent spirit into homeschooling. While working in the family business, caring for elderly parents, homeschooling her little family, she began what will surely be a lifelong love affair with reading.
While Jennifer was starting her family, Sara attended an Irish boarding school, graduated from Hillsdale College, and spent two terms at Oxford University’s Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. While backpacking through Europe, Sara read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men and knew she had found her vocation.
Over the next decade, Jennifer’s babies grew into young adults. Sara met and married a fellow teacher at the high school where they worked. And both women found themselves chasing something. Hungering for something. Seeking something. In both cases, there were God-shaped holes that had not been properly filled. Through a love of good books, however, both women began to discover the right questions to ask. Through reading, both women were able to grow in humility sufficient that the Holy Spirit would slowly but surely work out authentic conversion. As Jennifer read to keep pace with her maturing family of readers, Sara read to find answers to spiritual and vocational questions that rattled her self-esteem.
In the next decade, Jennifer’s family would grow again as they became foster parents and then adoptive parents. And Sara’s family would grow to include three children (and three other lost babies). As each young mother read, each longed for someone to read with. Someone who needed the same books she did. Someone with whom she could discuss what she was reading in meaningful ways. God is always merciful.
A few years ago, we met in an online homeschool group. When some of us group members broke off to build a Facebook book club, the seeds of a reading partnership were planted. For a year and a half, Sara and Jennifer found more and more common ground in the large group discussions. But it wasn’t until that, “I will read that with you if you are going to read it soon…” question that our reading partnership was formed.
In the last nine months, we have read over 40 books. Some very short, some huge tomes. The offer to read one book together led to a couple of books… and then a couple more. And somehow, in less than a year, we have developed a shared reading pace of more than a book a week. As we have talked about our reading in our online groups, Peelers keep asking how we accomplish this. Philosophically and technically.
Jennifer insisted that I focus on our contrasting stories when I explain this because our differences make it clear that anyone can fall in love with reading. And she is right. Only Divine Providence, a hunger to know things that only books can teach us, and a willingness to stretch ourselves could take two such different women and put them on the same path. But this is where I must reiterate that this is our story and yours is likely very different from ours. This is our hunger we are trying to feed. This is not an admonition to “be like us.” We are sharing this in case some detail or another is helpful to you in your reading. We welcome you to steal what sounds interesting and reject what would never work for you.
I am going to skip ahead now. The only thing you really need to know about the last nine months is that we tried a lot of different methods and rejected most of them. To find our best approach, we had to fail. A lot. And while what we are doing today is working, we will probably outgrow it shortly. So, the following is a snapshot in time. I will freeze this moment for you so that you can look in, but by the time you read this, we will probably have changed something.
What Are You Reading in June?
Daily on Weekdays
-Something from The Rabbit Room – The MoleHill every weekday morning*
-About 2-3 pages from Charlotte Mason’s Home Education series every weekday morning
-One small section from Cicero’s On Duties
Throughout the Month
-Something For Our Vocation: Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need
-A Chesterton Read: Heretics
-Growing Ourselves As Readers: Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature
-Cultural Commentary: The Benedict Option
-Classic: The Virginian
-Plutarch: Numa Pompilius
*As promised, things have changed between when I wrote this and when I returned to edit it. When I wrote this, we were reading The Molehill, v. 2. We have since finished it and will take a break from The Molehill collection in June to read the Fiddler books by A. S. Peterson so that Sara can get them reviewed.
How Do You Read All of That?
True to our contrasting personalities, the way that we read is almost opposite.
Jennifer is consistent and steady. Each month she maps out how many pages she needs to read in each book, divides the total by the number of available reading slots, and plans her reading into a regular rhythm. She maps out her reading in her bullet journal.
I am just too self-indulgent for that. I love to feast. I allow myself to read in big chunks and hope that by the end of the month I will have covered the ground I am supposed to cover. I produce a weekly checklist of reading and housekeeping that I keep on a clipboard. Needless to say, it is rare that we are in the same place at the same time when we are reading.
What Does Your Reading Look Like?
In the last couple of years, Jennifer and her husband Jesse adopted a pair of sisters. The babies are in the high need, into-everything chapter of toddlerhood and preschool. While Jennifer’s oldest children are adults (and Jennifer’s daughter has two babies of her own), she also has two teenage children at home whom Jennifer homeschools. In addition to raising babies, homeschooling teens, and being grandma, Jennifer cares for her elderly mother and helps with the family glass business. Even though Jennifer read a tremendous amount with her big kids, she feels an urgency to read widely and deeply while the babies are young so that she can give them more than she was able to give to her older children. As exhausting as it is, Jennifer gets up before dawn in order to have a concentrated block of study time in which she reads the books listed above as well as Shakespeare and some of what her teens are reading.
I get up between 6:00 and 6:30 everyday to a house full of waking children. There is no time that I can get up without the pitter patter of feet following me down the stairs. Instead of trying to read in quiet, I head out the door with my audio Magnificat and take a short prayer walk up and down my street. When I come in, I grab a mug of coffee and read at the kitchen table (or patio when the weather is lovely) while my kids do their morning routines, chores, and school work next to me. Stationing myself like this at the kitchen table for a few hours allows me to be accessible to my kids, aware of what is going on around me, and still redeem that time with my own reading. In addition, I make use of well-chosen audiobooks to get through some reading while I do my chores.
How Do You Plan?
I think there are two parts to this question: how do we decide what to plan and how do we actually make the plan happen. The answer to the first question is that we don’t have a clear process. Certain books just suggest themselves to us either because of something we read, something we noticed, a need that we have, etc. Where and how we fit it into the plan really depends on how ambitious we are feeling, how many other books are calling to us, and which other books might be finishing up.
The answer to the second question is that we make plans knowing that we are only guessing. We talk nearly every day on the free Voxer app and via Facebook Messenger. We estimate how long we think that a book will take and assign a certain number of weeks to it. Every Sunday, however, we check in with each other and have a calibration meeting. These weekly meetings are central to our success. We give ourselves permission to be behind, ahead, bored, excited about something new, or overwhelmed. The plan and the meetings are tools, not tyrants. We know that real life is real and that our reading is supposed to support that, not interfere with it. Many Sundays we will adopt a slower pace, ask for a break on a certain book, make a substitution for something more timely, etc.
Are You Actually Reading All Of These Books?
A common question we get asked is how we can possibly be reading this many unrelated things and get anything valuable out of that. Charlotte Mason talks about the “science of relations,” by which the mind draws clear lines from one idea to the next from unrelated sources. We know that this is one of the ways in which the Holy Spirit speaks to us in our reading. A friend of mine calls these “God-winks.” We marvel at the God-winks which are sprinkled throughout our reading. Reading small bite-sized chunks in a wide variety of books on a consistent schedule has opened up new worlds to us and given us new ways of thinking.
For us, right now, this is working. We have a shared love of good books, good coffee, and good family relationships. Maybe we will check back in a month or two and let you know what we have changed!
Note: This article was written in 2017. In 2022 we are not updating it except to say that Sara and Jen are still reading together and still moderating a bookish Facebook group together. All of it looks pretty different from what it looked like in 2017, but the friendship that was born out of love of shared books is still alive and well.