The Stubborn Reader
Reading is not just for school.

Imagine you are the child of a farmer. You live in the woods. You have endless chores: feeding the animals, chopping wood, fixing fences, hoeing the gardens, building cabins. You were raised to view frugality and industry as the most valuable virtues. Your home was simply furnished, your clothes modest and worn. You possessed a Bible and maybe a silver spoon or two. Would you have the energy and willpower to value reading? John Adams and Abraham Lincoln did.

John Adams

John Adams was taught to read at home. His parents encouraged him at a young age to dig into books, something he would appreciate for the rest of his life. He went to Harvard at age 15. His experience there strengthened his deep love for books. Adams recalled that he “read forever” during those years. As David McCullough writes in his book John Adams, “[H]e became one of the most voracious readers of any. Having discovered books at Harvard, he was seldom ever to be without one for the rest of his days.”

John Adams had a passion to educate himself. He maximized his time at Harvard, enthralled with the wide variety of available literature. When he decided to become a lawyer, his first step was to read through many books on the topic.

Once Adams completed the necessary reading for his courses, he took ownership of his education. This was when he truly thrived. McCullough writes, “For the first time, he was on his own with his studies, and he bent to them with the spirit of independence and intense determination that were to characterize much of his whole approach to life. In his diary he wrote of chopping wood and translating Justinian, with equal resolution.”

Adams was uncompromising with himself and worked hard to develop the understanding necessary to become a successful lawyer. Regarding Sir Geoffrey Gilbert’s Treatise of Feudal Tenures, Adams made several remarks in his journal about his determination to master its contents. “I must and will make that book familiar to me. … Read in Gilbert. I read him slowly, but I gain ideas and knowledge as I go along. … This small volume will take me a fortnight, but I will be master of it.” He knew to slow down and take in the valuable understanding.

John Adams prodded himself to read diligently. He wanted to become a great lawyer, and so he did—and much more. He understood how critical reading was to developing the mind. He believed that men should be able to “avow their opinions and defend them with boldness.” Adams’s stubborn self-education built within him a confidence that contributed substantially to America’s founding.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln drove his father crazy with his constant reading—a stark contrast to Adams’s parents. Lincoln figured that the total time of his schooling added up to less than a year. But he did not allow the poverty of his youth to limit his potential. He had a profound understanding of this void and strove to educate himself—to the point of reading while completing his chores.

William Lee Miller wrote in Lincoln’s Virtues that Lincoln could be found “reading while the horse rests at the end of a row, reading while walking on the street, reading under a tree, reading while others went to dances, reading with his legs up as high as his head, reading between customers at the post office, reading stretched at length on the counter of the store.” One person said of Lincoln, “He was a constant and I may say stubborn reader.”

As a youth, Lincoln repeatedly read from a small selection of books: the Bible; Aesop’s Fables; Pilgrim’s Progress; The Arabian Nights; Robinson Crusoe; History of the United States by William Grimshaw; Revised Statutes of Indiana by David Turnham; and Life of George Washington by Parson Weems, to name a few. He didn’t worry about how many books he read, but strove to fully understand the ones that were accessible to him.

He may have been considered slow, but Lincoln said “I am slow to learn, and slow to forget that which I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel—very hard to scratch anything on it, and almost impossible thereafter to rub it out.” He didn’t allow for surface-level skimming. He took his time, which allowed him to dig deeply into what he read.

Lincoln first learned to read from the Bible, and he reread it several times throughout his life. His writing, lectures and speeches all show his depth of understanding in the Scriptures. His greatest speeches were full of quotes from biblical passages.

When the public saw the young Lincoln, they would have never considered him to be highly intelligent. But as Miller wrote, those who worked with President Lincoln quickly learned, “intellectually considered, this new president was not a common man.” Miller continued, “For all his folksiness and joking, he was a bookworm.” Lincoln only continued to study harder as he entered politics.

Lincoln’s stubborn reading habit would lead him to the presidency. He had to make many decisions for the nation that required serious contemplation. Not only did his reading over many decades provide him with immeasurable understanding, it also instilled within him the capacity for deep focus—an invaluable skill for a war-time president.

Be Stubborn!

Understand the value in self-education. God’s educational institutions stress the importance of educating yourself outside the classroom. Adams and Lincoln are impressive examples of building a stubbornness for reading.

Strive to push yourself to grow from your current level. Read high quality books. Read slowly and strive to understand what you read. Find subjects that interest you and that will drive you toward your goals in life. Take the time now to become a stubborn reader.