Summer Reading: Fewer Books, Better

Blogger George Evans recently wrote a blog post called “In Defense of Slow” where he states that “many things in education are simply too fast…in this rush to cover content, to get through standards…we lose the heart and soul of what we should be there for.”

I connected with this instantly, as I’ve often thought and written about how cramming too much feedback into a single paper or too much content into a single lesson often leads to less learning. Sure, the amount covered by the teacher is more, but the amount ultimately retained by the students tends to be far less.

It is worth remembering that the same is true in our own education as well. For most summers of my teaching life, I tried to blast through twenty, thirty, or forty books in a vain effort to chop my always massive to-read list down to a more manageable size, but at the end of each summer, this left me feeling less recharged and a bit fuzzier on the details of many of the books than I’d like.

So last summer I decided to focus on reading six books (one for each week I had off) and read them well and deep. The result was a far more enjoyable and fulfilling experience, so this summer I am doing the same. Here are my six books for the summer of 2019:

We Got This. by Cornelius Minor

I saw Cornelius Minor speak at a conference last year, and to say I was blown away is a major understatement. His affable, easy smile, charismatic anecdotes, and rhetorical flourishes entranced the crowd, but Minor is more than flash on the surface. In We Got This. he does a deep-dive into the importance of true listening to students and what that looks like in practice. Similar to Tom Newkirk’s Embarrassment (another pedagogical book I love deeply), Minor has given an essential, yet far too rarely talked about topic the attention it deserves, and I for one cannot wait to read it!

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life remains one of the most unique and mind-bendingly imaginative collections of stories I’ve ever seen. Part smart science fiction, part soul-questioning theology, and part fanciful magical realism—it makes for one of the most unique reads anywhere. Exhalation—which is filled with plenty of time traveling, a story of artificial intelligence going through adolescence, and an investigation of how relationships with others and ourselves would change if we could digitally revisit any moment from our past—looks to have more of the same.

Fewer Things, Better by Angela Watson

Angela Watson is a teacher who realized that many of the teachers around her (and herself as well) were burning the midnight oil and also burning out because they were trying to do too much. This led her on a journey in search of both efficiencies and answers concerning what we should and shouldn’t be investing our time in. The culmination of this journey was Watson’s wildly successful 40 Hour Workweek Club, a web-delivered series of lessons designed to refocus us on what matters. I’ve been curious about it for quite a while now, but somewhat ironically, I’ve never had the bandwidth to jump into a whole online course. This is why I’m really excited that she now has a book with the same ideas called Fewer Things, Better. As someone who is always in the pursuit of focusing my energy on what truly matters, I am really curious to finally hear what she has to say.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Rilke

I don’t often focus my reading energies on 19th century German poets, but in the case of Rainer Rilke, I’ve made an exception. Until this year I’d never heard of Rilke or his wonderful work, but this spring I stumbled across a Medium article discussing this slim volume where Rilke responds to letters from young poets. After reading the article, I read the first letter in the volume and knew I needed to read the rest. Rilke said so many things that I’d felt and thought but never been able to articulate about writing, creating, and being. Better yet, he also said it in a way that speaks to young people, which became readily clear when I loaned my recently purchased copy to a student, who gave it to another student, who then gave it to another student, and so on. I finally have it back, and judging by my students’ reactions, I think reading it is going to be a delight. 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Written in 2012, this book appeared quietly in my classroom library this year, and since that point it has become a not-so-quiet favorite of my students. Written by poet and author, Benjamin Alire Saenz, it is a lyrical journey through childhoods that, like far too many childhoods, contain far too many adult questions and themes. Like The Alchemist and The Secret Life of Bees, what makes this book special is that while it hits upon heavy themes, it balances them with the wonder, joy, and anticipation that are also present at times in even tough childhoods, making it a good and engrossing read for the classroom or the beach.

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin

The last of my six books is likely the most important book I will read this summer. Emdin is a professor at the Teacher’s College at Columbia, and I’ve heard from a number of sources that this book is indeed essential for everyone, whether or not they teach in an urban school. What makes this book so important is that it is a case study exploring how idealistic, thoughtful, caring people can go into urban schools and by lunch time on the first day they have stopped being change agents and instead become active agents in perpetuating many of the systems they’d previously committed to fixing. I heard Emdin speak once, and that experience has me really excited to see what I can learn from him about the realities of education, both urban and otherwise!


Matthew Johnson is a teacher and writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He writes for Edutopia, publishes his thoughts on writing instruction in his weekly Re-Write Blog (this is his July 1st post), and is the author of a forthcoming book from Corwin Literacy, Flash Feedback: Guiding Student Writers to Success — Without Burning Out.

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