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How I Read a Book
April 06, 2010
Last week I encouraged you to Read More and Read Better. Then I got both busy and distracted and didn’t give you the second part. So let me do that today. Let me tell you how I read a book.
Before I do anything else, I want to get an overview of the book. Very rarely will I read a book without really knowing what it is about. Here I learn about the reason it exists, whether it is attempting to make its mark in the world of ideas or the world of entertainment. Here I learn about its significance. And, most importantly, here I learn about its purpose. From the back cover, from the Foreword and Preface, I can learn what the book is trying to do, to teach. I may also turn to a review or two, though generally I prefer not to since I prefer to form my own opinion of it. (The less familiar I am with the topic, the more likely I am to read some reviews.) I also tend to read the Acknowledgements since this tends to help me understand the author a bit more.
The overview stage is typically where I decide whether or not I will try to read the book. Like everyone else, I’m probably unduly influenced by the cover copy and even by the cover itself.
What & Why
At this point I have decided to read a book—or at least to start reading a book. I probably finish about two thirds of the books I start. The rest fall along the wayside for one reason or another. I am not afraid to walk away from a book that is not living up to its promise. I’ve got better things to do than read inferior books.
Next I determine what kind of a book it is and why I’m reading it. Is it a heavy and dense book or a light and easy one? Is it the kind of book I am going to have to study to understand it, or will it need only a quick read? And having asked those questions, I want to know why I’m reading it. Am I reading it for fun or study? Am I reading it because I really want to absorb every word or am I reading it just for the experience of reading it? Or maybe I am reading it quickly just to understand why there is so much buzz about it. There are nearly as many reasons to read a book as there are books. So I always want to answer the what and why questions before I dive in. These in turn tell me how I am going to read it.
If the book is one that I am reading primarily for fun rather than some kind of profound spiritual or intellectual profit, I will typically read it quickly. I will often take no notes and will usually read at the fastest pace I can manage while still managing a decent level of comprehension. With this kind of book I am very willing to trade retention for speed. These are the books I tend to read on my Kindle or, in a pinch, on my iPhone. I still prefer to do serious reading with paper and ink, but light reading suits the Kindle with its lower prices and and limited interactivity.
If the book is one that I am hoping to both comprehend and retain, I make it a much slower and more interactive process.
I’ve already read the cover and the Preface or Introduction, so I know what the book is going to be about. I’ve often also read a handful of reviews, so I know what others are saying about the book’s importance. I will keep that in mind as I begin.
The first pages are generally absolutely crucial for comprehension. Here I almost always find the author’s purpose for writing the book along with his assessment of who the audience is. I need to know this if I am going to understand the book. When I find this information, I mark it and make sure I keep it in mind. It really does matter. If he is writing for a young and relatively uninformed audience, I will have to assess the book far differently than if he is writing for a knowledgeable audience. This may effect what he says and it may effect the way he says it. Think, for example, of the way Tim Keller writes—how he always keeps in mind his audience of young, unchurched New Yorkers. This makes his presentation radically different than, say, a book by John Piper. They may write a book on a similar theme, but how they say what they say will be very different.
If I want to understand and remember, I always benefit from taking notes and making highlights. There was a time when I considered it near-sacrilege to deface my books with anything other than light pencil marks. But I soon realized there is great benefit in marking up a book. This is part of the process of making the book my own, of really owning it. In fact, I don’t know at this point how I’d retain much at all without doing this. I arrived at my own system for marking and its a very simple one. Some people just write, some write and highlight, some use a series of symbols. I write and highlight. When reading I almost always keep a highlighter and one of those mini Sharpie’s in my hand. I highlight anything I deem to be important in understanding the book. I tend to write questions; questions I would ask the author if he was there, questions I expect the book to answer for me. I also write notes about what I’ll want to remember as I write a review. And I write notes about anything else that bears mention, either good or bad. I also try to keep a notebook in hand where I can jot down ideas for something I may want to blog about. It is a good idea, at the end of a chapter, to write a brief review of just that chapter; this will help you make sure you are staying in the flow of the book.
The purpose in all of this is to make reading an interactive experience. I do not want to be a passive receptor; rather, I want to be active in absorbing what the author is teaching and in interacting with it. I want to talk back to the author, to have a conversation through reading. I talk back through my pen.
Part of my system for remembering a book and for making sure I understand it involves writing a review. Book reviews have always been a part of this blog for that very reason. For more advice on writing reviews, check out my article How To Review a Book. If writing a review does not interest you, at least consider talking about the book with someone else (and, if possible, someone who has also read it). A good discussion about the book will further both comprehension and retention.
For an especially good book, file it away and come back to it a year later. There are some books that merit reading every year for a few years consecutively. I pretty much guarantee that each time you read it, you will learn something new and will pick up on new emphases within it.
I don’t think I have said anything too radical here. I really do only what others have done for ages. I view reading as one of, if not the, primary way I learn. I am a reader more than a listener and certainly more than a watcher. I love to learn and thus I love to read. It’s my hope that by reading and perhaps implementing these tips, maybe, just maybe, you can learn to read a bit better and, as you grow in your ability, grow in your love.