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Entertainment & the Arts | July 12, 2012

The summer of books


One diligent college student commits to reading 94 books between May and August - one book a day

Evan Johnson takes a break from his summer internship to crack open a book. (Photo courtesy of Evan Johnson)

Evan Johnson boarded the Washington, D.C. metro train at 5:15 a.m., surrounded by sleepy, somber commuters. One girl on his left read The Hunger Games on her Kindle, while the girl in front of him read the same novel in paperback.

Ear buds in, rocking with the speeding metro, they were oblivious to the fact that "they were both entering the same fantasy world, while only a few feet apart," Johnson said. "I often wondered what might happen if people simply looked around at other readers and discussed what they were reading."

Anyone discussing books with Johnson might feel a little inadequate. When he stepped on that commuter train last year, Johnson, 20, was speeding his way through his 40th book of the summer.

Between May 16 and August 12, 2011, Johnson read one book a day - 94 books and 19,276 pages, an average of 217 pages per day. On some days he finished two books.

As a sophomore at Patrick Henry College, Johnson's professors constantly gave him reading suggestions. His classmates often rolled their eyes and ignored similar suggestions, too busy with homework and essays to imagine recreational reading. But Johnson began to compile a reading list, jotting down dozens of titles during the semester. He vowed he would read them when he had an opportunity.

That summer, Johnson accepted an internship in Washington and moved to a new apartment in Falls Church, Va. Away from the distractions and requirements of school, he had the time he needed to start working through his list.

After counting the number of books he wanted to read, Johnson realized he would have to finish a book a day in order to make a good dent in the list. He set a goal, and committed his summer to reaching it.

Throughout the summer, the local library provided Johnson with 20 books via inter-library loan. The librarian's eyes widened with surprise when he returned an 800-page, two-volume set of The Count of Monte Cristo after only three days. Johnson's titles were rather eclectic, with authors ranging from Chinese Christian Watchman Nee to U.S. Marine David J. Danelo.

Every day, Johnson woke at 4 a.m. He ate a ham and cheese omelet, walked two miles to the metro, and caught the 5:15 a.m. train. He would set his laptop bag across his knees, pull out a book and read.

People at the bus stop often asked Johnson how he had time to read. He wondered how they could spend their commute doing nothing or playing "Angry Birds."

"Reading taught me just how much time is often wasted everyday," Johnson said. "People talk about how wasteful Americans are with stuff, water, money, et cetera. I also would add that we are incredibly wasteful with time."

Despite his diligence, Johnson did not always read an entire book a day. If he knew he would not get one volume finished by bedtime, he would set it aside and read a book of the Bible, technically meeting his commitment to read one book each day. Relying on a few technicalities helped keep him on track while reading particularly long works.

During the summer, Johnson's titles included devotionals and philosophic works, novels and biographies. The Black Swan, by Lebanese polymath Nichiolas Nassim Taleb, and Leading With Billy Graham: The Leadership Principles and Life of T.W. Wilson, by Jay Dennis, became two of his favorites. Taleb's work convinced Johnson of life's uncertainties. Because change is the only certainty, everyone should be grateful and flexible, he said.

The second book told the story of Billy Graham's personal assistant, bodyguard and friend.

"The book convinced me of the value of the background people who make great men even greater," Johnson said. "This quote by Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, stuck with me: 'If you want something done, go to T.W.'"

Although Johnson's fellow commuters never would have guessed it, the young man who carried a different volume to the train every day hated reading as a child. By the time he was just 6 years old, he thought reading was a "dirty word," Johnson said. But over time, as he discovered George Lucas' Star Wars novels and the epic adventures of Jules Verne and C.S. Lewis, Johnson developed a deep love for reading.

"My childhood and teenage tastes were for books on adventure, exploration and military history," Johnson said. "Since then, my horizons have broadened as my circle of friends and acquaintances has expanded. The books I enjoy most are often recommended to me by people I respect."

Near the end of the summer, Johnson did begin to grow word-weary. And as his friends began to return to Virginia, he felt less incentive to fill his time with reading. But overall, Johnson enjoyed his summer of books. He even hopes to create a similar yearlong goal after he graduates in 2013.

For this summer's adventure, Johnson selected something much less time intensive - learning how to cook. When he's not slaving over a hot stove, Johnson is learning about disaster response and humanitarian relief at another internship in the nation's capitol. His next big goal is to graduate college on time.

"Reading as much as I did taught me the value of using time wisely in pursuit of a goal," he said. "Books keep our minds nimble and open to new concepts. But they can also detract from the purpose of life, which is to live in community with the people that we find in our lives."

Evan Johnson's reading list

The Information by James Gleick

Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129 by Norman Polmar and Michael White

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Apache Dawn: Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned by Damien Lewis

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbably by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Wealth Swing Coach: A New Financial Strategy to Maximize Lasting Wealth with Certainty Not Luck by Andrew Rosenbaum

Can I Keep My Jersey? 11 Teams: 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond by Paul Shirley

The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman

A Tailor-Made Bride by Karen Witemeyer

Dave Barry's Money Secrets: Like: Why is There a Giant Eyeball on the Dollar? by Dave Barry

Dave Barry in Cyberspace by Dave Barry

Dave Barry's History of the Millennium (so far) by Dave Barry

Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do by Gabriel Thompson

Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution by Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson

Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent's Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice by Fred Burton and John Bruning

Pirate State: Inside Somalia's Terrorism at Sea by Peter Eichstaedt

Diving and Snorkeling: U.S. Virgin Islands by David Lauterborn

How to be Invisible: The Essential Guide to Protecting Your Personal Privacy, Your Assets, and Your Life by J. J. Luna

Star Wars: The Complete Visual Dictionary by David West Reynolds and James Luceno

Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America by Henry Petroski

The Book of Jonah by an unknown author

Minnesota in the Civil War by Kenneth Carley

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Wayne. A. Rebhorn

Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac

Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency by Richard Posner

The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing by C. J. Mahaney

Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View of the War in Iraq by David J. Danelo

3rd John by the Apostle John

On Christian Liberty by Martin Luther

2nd John by the Apostle John

Philemon by the Apostle Paul

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

The Ballad of the White Horse by G. K. Chesterton

Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror by Benjamin Wittes

If I Perish by Esther Ahn Kim

Reshaping National Intelligence For An Age Of Information by Gregory F. Treverton

Dear Graduate: Letters of Wisdom by Charles Swindoll

You Converted Me: The Confessions of St. Augustine by Augustine of Hippo

A Gospel Primer for Christians: Learning to See the Glories of God's Love by Milton Vincent

Leading With Billy Graham: The Leadership Principles and Life of T.W. Wilson by Jay Dennis

Jude by the Apostle Jude

Tower of Babel: How the United Nations has Fueled Global Chaos by Dore George

The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary by Mark Sanborn

In Praise of Public Life by Joseph L. Lieberman

Strategic Assessment in War by Scott Sigmund Gartner

I Am America, And So Can You! by Stephen Colbert

Tortured For Christ by Richard Wurmbrand

Titus by the Apostle Paul

Obadiah by the Prophet Obadiah

Disclosure by Michael Crichton

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God by John Piper

How Russia Votes by Stephen White, Richard Rose, and Ian McAllister

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christmas Sermons by Edwin Robertson

The Count of Monte-Cristo, Volume I by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte-Cristo, Volume II by Alexandre Dumas

See You At The Top by Zig Ziglar

The Life That Wins by Watchman Nee

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield

How A Man Prays For His Family by John Yates

Habakkuk by the Prophet Habakkuk

Shepherd's Notes Christian Classics, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

Fair Division: From Cake Cutting to Dispute Resolution by Steven J. Brams and Alan D. Taylor

Every Second Counts by Lance Armstrong

The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East by David Aikman

2nd Thessalonians by the Apostle Paul

Haggai by the Prophet Haggai

Nahum by the Prophet Nahum

2nd Peter by the Apostle Peter

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman

Freshman: The College Student's Guide to Developing Wisdom by Mark Matlock

Zephaniah by the Prophet Zephaniah

Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge by Thomas Fleming

2nd Timothy by the Apostle Paul

Malachi by the Prophet Malachi

Colossians by the Apostle Paul

Leftism Revisited: From de Sade and Marx to Hilter and Pol Pot by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

1 Thessalonians by the Apostle Paul

Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards J. Heuer, Jr

Reagan's War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism by Peter Schweizer

Philippians by the Apostle Paul

James by the Apostle James

Superstorms: Extreme Weather in the Heart of the Heartland by Terry Swails

God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life by Gene Edward Veith, Jr.

The Five Major Pieces to the Life Puzzle: A Guide to Personal Success by Jim Rohn

Practical Happiness: A Young Man's Guide to a Contented Life by Bob Schultz

Boundaries in Dating: Making Dating Work by Henry Cloud and John Townsend