Building Stronger Connections: Matt Dennis’s Family Book Club and the Benefits of Reading Together
By Space Coast Daily // April 11, 2023
Matt Dennis, a father of three, shares in this article how he and his family started a book club and the benefits they have gained from it. As a response to the decline of teenagers reading for pleasure, Matt felt the responsibility of instilling a love of reading in his own children.
Reading can improve focus, empathy, and communication skills, and Matt believes it is a recommended tool for living a fuller life. The family book club aims to broaden their perspectives through reading a variety of topics, and the democratic process they use to choose what to read encourages a deeper connection among them. In this article, Matt discusses his appreciation for literature, how they make time for the book club, and how it has become a powerful way to spend quality time together and engage in meaningful conversations.
Introducing a family book club has been a wonderful addition to our routine as a family, and one that we all cherish and anticipate eagerly. Through reading regularly and gathering together to discuss our latest book, we have found a deeper connection with each other, amidst the busy family calendar that can sometimes feel all-consuming. It has been a simple yet powerful way to spend quality time together and engage in meaningful conversations. Surprisingly, we found that starting the book club was easier than we initially thought.
A Strong Case for Reading Regularly
The share of teenagers who say they read for pleasure on a regular basis has been in decline since the mid-80s according to the Pew Research Center and the National Assessment of Educational Progress1. Perhaps more striking is the same research, conducted in late 2019 and early 2020, which shows that the percentage of teenagers who say they “never or hardly ever” read for pleasure, i.e., unassigned reading, has risen dramatically over the same period from less than 10% to nearly 30%.
As parents and guardians of the education and well-being of our children, such trends argue that we can and must do more to ensure we impart an appreciation for reading and the benefits that accrue from it to our kids. The benefits are many, including an ability to focus better, as well as develop increased empathy and enhanced communication skills.
The improved focus for extended periods is a skill that is increasingly threatened by the constant multitasking, email and app notifications, and social media consumption that invades our daily lives. Increased empathy and the ability to better understand others can enhance our state of well-being, improve social awareness, and serve to anchor our morals. And, research shows that regular readers develop stronger verbal and written skills along with increases in vocabulary, critical building blocks to improving communication skills.2
A Love of Reading
The power of reading is arguably not something that the adolescent mind automatically comes to appreciate. Yet, it is among the most often referenced recommendations for how to live a full life. I am reminded of the quote from George Martin, author of the fantasy series that became Game of Thrones, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one,” or Louis Lamour’s, “For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived…”. Finding a way to accelerate my girls’ appreciation for such wisdom became a focus.
While my wife’s love of reading was cultivated from a young age, my own appreciation for literature grew later in life. As a professional money manager, it became essential for me to acquire broad and in-depth knowledge of various industries and subjects, which contributed to my love for reading. My wife, on the other hand, has always been drawn to historical fiction and is particularly enamored with Tudor-era history. She has read extensively on the subject, and I often jest that she should be bestowed with an honorary degree in it. As for me, my literary preferences lean towards self-help and personal growth, spanning from the early works of Dale Carnegie, Og Mandino, and Earl Nightingale, to the wisdom of contemporary thinkers like Charlie Munger and the philosophical musings of ancient Greek intellectuals such as Marcus Aurelius.
The Idea for Family Book Club
The idea for a family book club originated following one of the many conversations imposed upon my daughters over the years regarding the importance of financial literacy. One of which focused on the power of compounding and the need to understand and incorporate this concept into their individual financial strategies. Around the same time as this “power of compounding” conversation, a series of separate family dinner conversations left me with doubts. Specifically, doubts about whether their formal education curricula were providing an adequate breadth of historical perspective and context to help them navigate this complex and challenging world. I felt strongly that developing their own appreciation for and love of reading would go a long way to providing them with the foundations they would each call upon in their own journeys3. The idea of the book club seemed to kill two birds with one stone: broaden their minds through reading and demonstrate the long-term power of compounding knowledge and perspective by reading a broad variety of topics over time.
Making Time for the Book Club
I was confident that I could garner interest for a book club, but I knew that I had to approach it tactfully, as my family’s schedule was already quite full. With my daughters juggling school, extracurricular activities, and social events, in addition to my wife’s and my own busy schedules, we decided on a goal of reading 20-30 pages per week. This seemed like a reasonable and achievable target, considering the average reading speed of a page per minute. However, in practice, we often read more, ranging from 25 to 65 pages per week, depending on our other commitments.
We decided to meet on Sunday evenings, either before or after dinner, as it was the most convenient time for everyone, with no other conflicting commitments. To respect everyone’s time, we limit our discussions to one hour. However, we are flexible and not too rigid with our scheduling, as our main goal is to sustain progress at a reasonable pace while managing the other aspects of our busy lives.
The moderator role was initially mine. This seemed appropriate as I was the one with the idea and responsibility for its success or failure in the startup phase. Over time, the moderator’s responsibilities have expanded whereby every participant is responsible for shepherding the discussion on a rolling basis.
Choosing What To Read
The choice of material to read initially began with a short list that I had compiled but has evolved into a more democratic process whereby each of us puts forth suggestions. We rank the top ideas on the list, choosing those where the greatest interest lies. For example, after a recent church service, my youngest suggested we read a book titled, The Listening Road, authored by the guest speaker that day, a pastor and avid road cyclist. It was agreed by all that it should move to the top of what had become a very full list.
Variety is important and we agree that as enjoyable as a carnivorous existence might be, an omnivorous approach to book club is warranted. With that in mind, we have so far consumed books on philosophy, faith, critical thinking skills, mental models, human stories, financial literacy, biographies, habits, the implications of social media, the importance of finding one’s purpose in life, etc.
Technology today means book club is very much a portable activity. It can take place in a cozy, fireplace-lit study during winter, by the pool in the summer, at a picnic table in front of our favorite Austin taco stand, on the beach or during a slope-side lunch while on family vacation. Our eldest, now in college halfway across the country, Facetimes into our Sunday evening ritual while the rest of us squeeze into the frame together on the sofa. We all look forward to her dialing us at the agreed-upon time each week and I know she values the opportunity to extend her stay “in the nest,” as my wife would say, by regularly transporting into our family routine as if she never left! Wherever we all may roam, the family book club will always be there to keep us connected and close.
The Value in a Deeper Connection
The personal growth that the family book club has facilitated can be seen on multiple fronts. As a parent, for example, it has been rewarding to watch as my daughters seem to make connections effortlessly and regularly between the content we are reading and situations in their personal lives as well as in movies, sermons, or current events. Some of the books have evoked strong emotion or delved into difficult social issues, and yet they have grown visibly in their ability to express their feelings about a topic or passage without becoming overly emotive, letting their emotions overwhelm their ability to reason.
They have become more articulate in how they form arguments or express their viewpoints, poised and comfortable even when sharing views that they know may not be shared by others. They have developed a better appreciation for facts vs assertions, and an appreciation for the art of questioning.
My youngest claims “it definitely has given me a better vocabulary,” while another has professed both satisfaction and disappointment that “were it not for family book club, [she] would not know who Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford or JP Morgan were” or their roles in history. The cumulative gains, whether they be in vocabulary, general knowledge, or the annotation and active reading skills required to truly participate in a book club discussion, are steadily compounding, from week to week.
My wife and I have developed a better understanding and appreciation for the unique lenses through which our children interpret the world. There are recurrent patterns that have emerged as we have worked our way through the reading list, often providing useful opportunities for us to reinforce certain values or perspectives that we feel will serve our daughters. In short, the family book club discussions never fail to yield a new insight or stimulate a conversation that might never have happened otherwise and for this we are grateful.
Moreover, the power of connection that comes from the consistent, intentional conversations that the family book club provides is visible and arguably reinforces our bonds with one another. It requires simple acts from us: read more, be present, talk, and listen to one another regularly, all of which have yielded immeasurable value for our family, now and in the future. But, perhaps the most compelling evidence supporting the value and satisfaction we derive from our family book club is to hear the pride in my daughters’ voices when they share with their friends this ritual and what they are currently reading. We truly cherish this time together and are happily well on our way to living a thousand lives!
3 “If you are going to get anywhere in life, you have to read a lot of books.” – Roald Dahl.