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Why We Read
Dr. Dean Nicholas, CHCA Head of School

From the time I was a child, I loved books. In fact, as a young boy, I wanted to grow up to write books—after I played shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers, of course. I remember at about age 7 writing a small treatise on perch fishing, stapling together the handful of pages that comprised the tome, with my own artwork for illustrations. And along with all of the exciting boyhood outdoor activities and adventures that filled my summers, my siblings and I always participated in the library’s summer reading program. This was a requirement of my mother who insisted our brains needed to remain active during the summer, keeping us ready for the new school year that September would bring. Our library would have a summer reading theme, with appropriate decorations, and a “track” that went around the walls of the children’s section to measure the number of books each child read over the summer. What began as a chore turned into a fierce competition between my sister and me, with each one taking home an armful of books in order to out read the other. We would outdistance the rest of the neighborhood but keeping up with my sister was a Herculean feat. To move your paper representative down the track, you had to give a short synopsis of each book to the librarian. I will never forget being scolded by her about my book choices. As an early teen, I was reporting on a number of children’s picture books in an attempt to compete with my sister. But in the end, maybe for all the wrong reasons, I became an avid reader.

Books provided their own adventure as I explored new places, people, and time periods. If I couldn’t actually be in the North Woods, Jack London took me there in Call of the Wild and White Fang. I might have heard about the Great Depression in school, but it was John Steinbeck who made it a reality in The Grapes of Wrath. And I might have read a biography of Hank Aaron because I was a Milwaukee sports fan, but I took away from that book more than great baseball anecdotes. I was unaware of the issues Henry Aaron faced as a man of color playing in my city in the 50’s and 60’s. Reading didn’t just entertain me; it expanded my world.

Books have continued to be an important part of my life. And as a person who has always been immersed in education, as either a student or an educator, I continue to read and challenge others to do the same. The professional challenge of teachers is figuring out how to get your students to read the material. I didn’t have a Summer Reading Track in my classroom but often resorted to the dreaded pop reading quiz to keep students “on track” to limited effect. And that problem is not limited to the classroom. We live in a culture where book reading is in decline and interestingly the greatest drop is in college educated people.

Books read by adults in the past year graph

Change in Average Number of Books Read, by Subgroup, 2002-2016 versus 2021:

  2002-2016 2021 Change
U.S. adults 15.2 12.6 -2.6
Men 10.8 9.5 -1.3
Women 19.3 15.7 -3.6
18-34 years 13.8 13.0 -0.8
35-54 years 14.2 12.5 -1.7
55+ years 16.7 12.0 -4.7
College graduate      
Yes 21.1 14.6 -6.5
No 12.6 11.5 -1.1

While there is no clear data at this point to explain why we are reading less, I have some anecdotal evidence that allows me to guess.

  1. Broad Culture Shifts: As our culture moves from what philosophers and sociologists call modernity to post-modernity, one of the major changes is the shift in emphasis of word to image. Where modern culture focused on books and printed words, post modern culture has elevated image and video. Film and visual representations have a powerful place and impact in our culture.
  2. Technology: With new technology came new ways to absorb books—eReaders, various apps, and audible books. But with that technology came a whole host of other sources of visual stimulation, entertainment, and information. YouTube, social media, Netflix, etc. absorb so much of our time that was previously devoted to reading.
  3. Busyness: Our hyper-busy, over scheduled, caffeinated lives do not leave us with much time and energy at the end of the day. The mental energy it takes to absorb a book requires a different level of input than the passive reception of other forms of media. The lives we live are not all that conducive to a life of reading, nor to the life of the mind.

This trend causes me concern on numerous levels. As a Christian, I am part of a community of faith that refers to itself as “people of the Book” (along with our fellow monotheists—Jews and Muslims). If we as Christians center our lives on One that the Gospel of John calls the Word, and whose story we know primarily from the Book, what happens when we live in a culture that reads less? Should I assume that Christians make an exception when it comes to the Bible? I don’t think that’s likely the case.

As an educator, I know that a full education comes from hearing a multitude of voices—those who are experts and specialists, those who lived long ago, those who think very differently from me, and those I might never have opportunity to connect with personally because of time and space. But I can gain their insights and perspectives through their written words. Alan Jacobs’ book Breaking Bread with the Dead paints an image of reading old books as sitting down to a meal with authors from the past to engage with them and their ideas. As teachers and educators, if we want our students to be life-long learners, we need to set an example for them to read widely and with depth.

As a member of a learning community and faith community, one of my greatest concerns is the general break down of dialogue and communication in society, which ends up being reflected in a school community as well. It used to be part of common vernacular to talk metaphorically about the dialogue/debate of ideas in the public square. But we’ve lost the public square to social media echo chambers where we have our own ideas and tribal “truths” reconfirmed. If you haven’t seen the documentary The Social Dilemma, it vividly portrays the role social media is playing in our polarized and divisive society, where we are moved by short posts and 140-character tweets and vitriolic sound bites. For a healthy community that values learning and faith, we need to slow down and take time with complex ideas and thoughts. We need to listen to those we agree with as well as those with whom we disagree. We need to balance perspectives and experiences. We need space and time to think, engage, and grow. I believe reading and especially reading in a community provides that opportunity. It is a model that is ancient but just as powerful today. To read and discuss shared texts together is a way for us to learn and grow, and to develop as an engaged community. Next semester we are going to form CHCA Book Groups, where we will read some common books together and then hear the authors talk about their work with us.

I’m no longer in a Library Summer Reading Program but books are still a regular part of my life. And I must confess that I still can’t compete with my sister. But I try to keep motivated to read consistently and widely. I have certain authors that function like surrogate teachers and for a season, I will read as much of their works as I can. Currently, the late Eugene Peterson and Calvin University philosophy professor James K.A. Smith fit that role. I read in ways that help me grow professionally as a leader and an educator. I try to stay connected to my scholarly life in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near Eastern World. I try to read at least one biography from a figure in American history to deepen my understanding of our national past. And I continue to love fiction. My stack of books to read grows faster than I can keep up. But summers allow me time to try and catch up! I’m often asked what I’ve been reading. Below is a bibliography of most of my reading (and some rereading) over last school year to the present.

Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy

——, Foreskin’s Lament.

Christopher N. Beard, Remarkable: The Diversely United, Blood-Bought Church of Jesus Christ.

Brene Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

Monte Burke, Lords of the Fly: Madness, Obsession, and the Hunt for the World Record Tarpon.

Louise Boyd Cadwell, Bringing Reggio-Emilia Home: An Innovative Approach to Early Childhood Education.

Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers.

Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life.

James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.

Joshua Cohen, The Netanyahus.

Winn Collier, A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson.

John Mark Comer, Live No Lies: Recognize and Resist the Three Enemies That Sabotage Your Peace.

—–, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World.

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.

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

Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War.

Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.

Melvin J. Gravely, II, Dear White Friend: The Realities of Race, the Power of Relationships, and Our Path to Equity.

Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing.

—–, Transcendent Kingdom.

Irwyn L. Ince Jr., The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best.

James Kerr, Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life.

Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.

Patrick Lencioni, Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable.

D. Michael Lindsay,Hinge Moments: Making the Most of Life’s Transitions.

Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling, Scott Thele, Beverly Walker, The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals.

Greg McKeown, Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most.

Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer.

Tommy Orange, There, There.

Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness.

—–, Judas.

—–, Scenes from Village Life

Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ. ­­­

—–, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology.

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living.

Rainer Maria Rilke and Anita Barrows, Book of Hours: Love Poems to God.

Simon Sinek, The Infinite Game.

—–, Leaders Eat Last.

James K.A. Smith, How To Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now.

—–, You Are What You Love.

Patrick D. Smith, A Land Remembered.

Preston Sprinkle, Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle.

Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir.

Liz Wiseman, Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact.

—–, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.

Malcom X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcom X.

Philip Yancey, Where the Light Fell: A Memoir.

Mark A. Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria.


About the Author

Dean Nicholas is the Head of School at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, but is not new to CHCA. 

"I was a classroom teacher where I taught Christian Studies for 11 years. Then I moved into administration where I served as a principal (13 years) and Assistant Head of School for a year.

I didn’t plan to be in a PreK-12 independent Christian school. My training was to be a Hebrew Bible scholar. I went to Wheaton College (BA, MA) and then Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (MPhil, PhD) with the intention of being a professor. But I’ve found in life that things rarely go as planned. And I believe whole heartedly that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Nothing has affected my thoughts on education like being the father of three boys who all learn very differently. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching all three of them in class and watched each of them navigate the world of school in their own unique ways.

When I’m not doing school work, I love reading, experimenting in the kitchen, gardening, fishing, teaching Sunday School, and traveling the world."

For more of my perspectives on Christian Education, visit:  An Educational JourneyThoughts from a Head of School

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