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Random Thoughts on Reading

As you might imagine, I receive a good deal of email from people who read this site. Probably the most common questions I receive (other than those mentioning The Shack) deal with books and reading. I guess I’ve established a reputation as a bookworm and people often ask just how I find time to read all these books, what books I recommend, and whether I’ve developed a system to help me retain information. Every now and then I try to jot down my thoughts and I thought I’d share those today. These are, then, some rather random thoughts on reading. And after I’ve jotted down all of my thoughts, I’d love to hear your tips on reading.

I love to read and have nearly always loved to read and ever since I learned how to do it, it has been a passion of mine; it has been my favorite hobby. When I was younger my parents gave me books by Christian authors like R.C. Sproul and encouraged me to read biographies of great men and women. They modeled a love for reading as both of them constantly read good books. While I merely toyed with the books they gave me dealing with spiritual topics, I positively devoured books on history, and in particular, military history. My love for this subject took me through university and into adulthood. About eight or ten years ago, though, I began to be drawn towards Christian books. As far as I can recall, the first of these I bought was Classic Christianity by Bob George (withhold your comments, please) and it was soon followed by Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur and Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? by James Boice. That began a trend that has only intensified as the years have gone by.

It just a few years ago that I decided, mostly on a whim, that I would try to read a book each week for what I hoped would be the rest of my life. Subsequently, I also decided that I would attempt to provide reviews of the majority of these books. My reasoning was simply that through these reviews I could help other people who are interested in reading only a few books per year focus on titles that are worth their while, while at the same time helping them avoid the mountains of trash on the bookstore shelves. I realized that if I were to live for another fifty years, this commitment would mean that I would be able to read over 2500 books before I die. The thought of being able to learn from what God has taught 2500 other people was inspiring. Since I set that goal I have found that I can actually read closer to two books every week, so now tend to read and review around 100 books a year. I suppose this raises the potential to reading over 5,000 books in the next fifty years. I’m going to need some more bookshelves.

What follows is some seemingly-random points about reading. I hope you may find something here a little bit helpful.

First, an encouragement for those who have difficulty with reading. The more I read, the easier it is to read; the more I read, the better I get at it. A few years ago I read four books that discussed godly principles for decision making. Three of them were based primarily on the fourth (and anyone who has read about this subject will know the book I am referring to). Needless to say, it became progressively easier to read and understand each subsequent book. I have found that this is true of any topic. It is also true of reading in general. The more I have dedicated myself to reading, the better I have become at it. I have often spoken to people who have given up on reading because they have found it difficult. To these people I offer this encouragement: press on. Like any discipline, reading will become easier as you dedicate yourself to it. Don’t give up!

A lot of the books I read are short. The majority of the books I read are under 250 pages, and quite a few have fewer than 200 pages. I generally do not discriminate against a book based on its page count, so this is either a product of coincidence or of percentages. It seems to me that the average “Christian Living” book weighs in between 160 and 200 pages. Biographies and books dealing with theology or church history tend to be longer and require greater effort. So obviously the quantity of books I read has something to do with the average number of pages.

I read all the time, or most of it anyways. I watch only very little television (especially after having cut cable), but even when I do, I usually have my nose in a book. I also try to get out of bed a couple of hours before everyone else so I can have some quiet time to read. When I go to the doctor or the barber, I tend to stick a book in my pocket so I can use that fifteen minutes doing something other than reading old copies of People magazine. It is amazing how many ten and fifteen minute periods there are in life that can be used for reading.

Speaking of which, for those who insist that they have no time to read, consider this (and excuse the vulgarity). If you were to read one page of a book per day, you would be able to read at least two of the average Christian Living books in a year, right? And, of course, a bathroom break is the perfect time to read a page or two of a book. So consider: if you were to keep a book in the bathroom and read only when you were, you know, using the bathroom, you could read two books per year. If you were to read only when you were brushing your teeth, you could read another book or two a year. So if you feel that you do not have time to read, why not keep a book in the bathroom and commit to reading it there? Two books a year is better than none!

One of my peculiarities, but one I have found helpful, is reading two or even three books at a time. I used to find that I would sometimes mistake physical fatigue for what was actually a fatigue brought about by dwelling too long on a particular subject. Sometimes when I put down that first book and begin reading a second book, I immediately feel refreshed. It turns out that my mind was tired and this was making my body feel tired. So consider keeping a couple of books on the go, and books that deal with completely different topics.

Here is a basic outline of how I read a book. I begin by giving the book a quick scan, hoping to understand what it is about, what the author is going to attempt to prove and how he is going to set about this task. I read the back cover and the endorsements. I skim over the table of contents and look through the end notes and bibliography. Having done that, I tend to linger a little bit over the introductory chapter(s), since I find this to be the most important section in the book. It generally lays out the basic framework of the author’s argument and lets me know what he is arguing against. I read with a pencil in hand (I buy those clickable Bic pencils by the box) and highlight liberally. I also tend to jot short notes and questions in the margins or at the end of chapters. Points that are important to the author’s argument tend to receive a *, and points that are exceedingly important receive a bigger, bolder *. I often also make a list of important page numbers and questions on the inside front cover of the book. In some cases I’ll make two or three columns of page numbers. By doing all of this, I am making the book my own and not just reading it, but actually interacting with it as I go. This is tremendously helpful for both understanding and retention.

I don’t know if there is an objectively good way of marking books, but I doubt it. So work on a system that works for you and stick with it. But don’t be afraid to mark your books. Again, books are meant to be interacted with.

I’ll be honest and admit that I forget a great deal of what I read. Anyone who tells you otherwise may not be telling the truth (unless he has a Spurgeon-like photographic memory). I used to be discouraged if, a year (or a month or a week) after reading a book, I could barely remember the content. I have since realized that this is inevitable. I focus on remembering what I can and trust that simply because I do not remember the complete outline of a book, this does not prove that a book has not been edifying to me. After all, if this was our standard, just about every sermon would be a complete failure. I trust that the Spirit works in me as I read good books and that He works despite my imperfect memory.

Reviewing books is an excellent way of driving home the main points of a book. It is as good a memory device as I can imagine. In fact, I would encourage every reader to review the books they read, even if those reviews will never be made public. It is a good discipline to think through the main points of the book and is as valuable a discipline to formulate thoughts on whether or not the reader agrees with a book. When you finish a book, why not jot down a short review, even if it is only a few lines, and stick it inside the book? You’ll be grateful later on.

Let me wrap it up this way. I see reading as a discipline, but a pleasurable one. I love it and have found it to be tremendously beneficial to my spiritual life. Reading and writing have together brought me untold benefit. I can honestly say that most evenings there is nothing I’d rather do.

I’ve said my bit. Do you have any tips or tricks or practices that might be beneficial to those who are trying to read, to read more and to read better? If so, leave a comment…