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Reflections on Reading
June 08, 2006
As you might imagine, I receive a good deal of email from people who read this site. More often than not I am glad to receive these emails and to respond to them. Communication with readers has proven to be a tremendous challenge and encouragement to me, for which I am exceedingly grateful. Probably the most common questions I receive deal with the subjects of books and reading. It seems that I have established a reputation as a bookworm (which may be justified: I did a Google search on my site this morning for the term “reading.” Google turned up 10,700 results) and people often ask just how I find time to read so many books. I thought that today I might share a little bit about how I read as well as why I read and hope it proves interesting and perhaps helpful.
I love to read and have always loved to read. There have been times in life where I have preferred other hobbies, but on the whole reading has been my favorite past-time since I was just a child. 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 modelled a love for reading as both of them constantly read good books. While I chewed on 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 four or five 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 and it was soon followed by Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur. That began a trend that has only intensified a the years have gone by.
It just just about three years ago that I decided, mostly on a whim, that I would try to read a book each week for what I hope will 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 books that are worth their while, while helping them avoid the mountains of trash on the bookstore shelves. My primary inspiration in both reading and reviewing was Gary Gilley of Southern View Chapel and I will always be grateful to him. 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 between 100 and 120 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 that you may find helpful.
The more I read, the easier it is to read. A couple of 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 what 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.
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.
I read all the time, or most of it anyways. I do not watch all that much TV, but even when I do, I usually have my nose in a book. I also 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. I realized two Sundays ago that the perfect Sunday afternoon involves being sprawled out on the couch reading systematic theology, sipping on a Coke (with Lime, and in a glass with ice) and having a baseball game (the Toronto Bluejays, of course) on in the background. Life does not get much better.
I do not advocate reading while driving or while operating heavy machinery.
For those who insist that they have no time to read, consider this. 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. 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 going to 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? Here is a good book to keep in the bathroom.
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. A perfect example is the biography of William Tyndale I was reading last night. It is a difficult, dense book and I found myself growing very tired as I was reading, even though it was only nine o’clock. When I put it down and began reading a second book, I immediately felt refreshed. My mind was tired and this was making my body feel tired.
I have never been taught how to best read a book. It is entirely conceivable that I do things all wrong. I know there are some excellent books on the topic, but it seems somehow strange to me to read a 500-page book that will teach me how to read a book. Over the past years I have tried a few different methods, some of which have worked and some of which have not. 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 endnotes and bibliography. Having done that, I tend to linger a little bit over the introductory chapter(s), for 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 underline liberally (usually using a Monergism.com bookmark as a ruler). 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 *. 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. For example, when I was reading Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission Rev. I found myself writing down the page numbers that contained his best points in one column and the page numbers containing his irreverent, crude points in another. 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.
This method does not always work. Lately I find myself doing a lot of reading while holding a baby. I can hold a baby and a book, or a pen and a book, but not a baby, pen and book all at the same time. I also tend to spend a lot of time reading while walking the baby in endless circles from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen to the hallway and back to the living room. In such cases I continue reading and try to return later to mark down important points. Looking over the books I have read recently, I can tell which chapters I read while walking the baby as they tend to have far less markings.
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 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, 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 looking for a good book to read, find a person whose judgment you trust and read what that person is reading. I am collecting lists of recommended books from a wide variety of discerning Christian authors and leaders and will soon post these lists at Discerning Reader. I believe these lists will prove valuable and I am excited to work my way through the books on some of these lists.
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.