Books Don’t Change People–Sentences Do

Teaming with Bob Kauflin to encourage you to dedicate yourself to reading.

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Yesterday Bob Kauflin wrote about reading (What – Me Read?) in response to a question sent to him by a reader. This young man asked:

One facet of your site that is always of interest is your list of books you are currently reading. In addition to your devotional Scripture reading, how much time in a week do you set aside for reading? Do you schedule reading time into your day? As I contemplate the different ministry responsibilities that I will have, my concern is that the time to read will be slim. So, any helpful suggestions from your own experience are greatly appreciated.

Bob provides a great answer to this question and I wanted to interact with it just a little bit. As you will know if you read this blog on a regular basis, I am a voracious reader and one who rarely goes more than a day or two without spending a good bit of time in reading. And it seems I’ve passed this trait to my son. On Sunday, as we returned home from church, I watched him walk from the car to the house and then fling himself to the couch without once lifting his eyes from the book he was reading. That’s my boy!

Recently I was away down south in Dixie with my family and saw my sisters and their friends heading out in 100+ degree heat to go jogging. Jogging has so become a part of their life that they just don’t feel quite right if they don’t spend at least some time in that kind of exertion every day. I feel the same way about reading. Reading is a kind of mental exercise for me and one that helps set me right.

Here is what Bob says:

But even if I don’t read as many books as others, I read. If I’m not reading, I’m relying on my memory. Which seems to be decreasing daily. So I read. I once heard someone say that books don’t change people – sentences do. If I glean two or three sentences from a book that affect the way I think and the way I live, that’s time well invested. So I read. Books give me the opportunity to learn from and about godly, bright, insightful people I’ll never meet. So I read. What I know will always be dwarfed by what I don’t know. So I read. Books help me become more effective at what I do. So I read.

What I’m saying is that I know I’ll be learning by reading for the rest of my life. That compels me to find time to read. Even if reading seems dry at the moment, I know that at some point I’ll find something insightful, engaging, or potentially life-changing. Without the inner drive and conviction that there is always more to learn, I stop reading. And when I stop reading I usually find that I drift and/or become complacent.

I’ve said it often that if I stopped reading I would stop having things to say. Reading is what keeps my mind working; it keeps it active. Reading forces me to interact with ideas in a way that pictures do not. Television is not a replacement for the stimulation of reading. Reading is, at least for some of us, pleasurable. At a recent conference a panel of speakers was asked what they do to relax. The men mentioned a few of the things they do to unwind, focusing on physical activities. Dr. Mohler, though, a voracious reader in his own right (to the tune of 7 to 10 books a week!) replied that he likes to read. This is how he relaxes and how he spends his times of recreation. And I’m the same way. I get little pleasure from the sweat-inducing physical exhaustion of running or other forms of exertion. Though I realize I have to keep fit, I do so out of pure necessity (usually on an exercise bike with a book propped up there!). But reading is pleasure.

The pleasure of reading is not necessarily in what we retain, but in the actual act of reading. And I think this is what a lot of people may miss. They see reading only as a means to an end–a painful journey that promises something beyond itself. But I don’t see reading this way. I see reading as a pleasurable means leading to a blessed end. And even without the blessed end, the reading in itself is still a joy. And I think the same is true of the spiritual benefit of reading. I do not necessarily need to retain all that I have read of a good, biblical book in order to benefit from it any more than I need to recall every word of a sermon to be blessed, encouraged and strengthened by it. I’m reminded of what Jonathan Edwards taught about the benefit of preaching. During his ministry, he faced a conflict involving whether sermons should primarily enlighten the mind or whether they should primarily stir the affections. Charles Chauncy, his opponent in this debate, believed that “an enlightened mind, and not raised affections, ought always be the guide of those who call themselves men; and this, in the affairs of religion, as well as other things.” Chauncy, as with many men of his day, believed that the affections were closely related to the passions of one’s animal nature and needed to be restrained by the higher faculty of reason. Edwards disagreed, teaching that one could not neatly separate the affections from the will. Both the intellect and affections are fallible and unreliable, but both are given by God and ought to be exercised.

In his great biography of Edwards, George Marsden points out an application of this. “Critics of the awakenings alleged that when people heard many sermons in one week they would not be able to remember much of what they had heard. Edwards countered, ‘The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by the effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.’” Marsden concludes, “Preaching, in other words, must first of all touch the affections” (Page 282) (For more on this subject, read my post The Benefit Obtained by Preaching).

And I feel this is true with reading. It may not be true of reading a Stephen King novel (any more than listening to a sermon by Benny Hinn would be spiritually beneficial) but with a book that teaches Scripture and delights in the gospel, there is a spiritual benefit that cannot be easily measured. If we finish a book and can think only of how much we have already forgotten, we will be too easily discouraged and may decide that reading is a worthless pursuit. Instead we need to persevere, trusting that we will benefit simply by the journey and by what God in us through the journey. If we take away even just the fraction of the book that is especially profound, the few quotes or phrases or ideas that have most struck our hearts, we have gained a tangible and valuable benefit.

Bob mentions a couple of the ways he tries to make books as meaningful and memorable as possible:

I underline everything that impacts me, and have started to dog-ear pages with quotes I want to remember. When I review the book, I’ll turn to those pages. That way I have a better chance of benefiting from what I’m reading. I probably forget 99% of what I read. But if I didn’t read books, I wouldn’t get the 1%. I don’t always agree with everything I read in a book. But I almost always find sentences that are helpful.

I used to be an underliner but have recently graduated to a highlighter. I now always have a highlighter in my hand when I read and I use it to mark any important passages–that 1% of the book that I know I definitely want to remember. It is those highlighted portions that typically provide the framework for the reviews I write of almost every book I read. I also keep a pencil with me and often jot notes in the inside cover or one one of those almost-blank pages at the front of most books. I write down thoughts as they race through my mind or write down questions as they occur to me. I also look for structure in the book, marking bullet points or numbered lists within the text. All of this serves to keep my mind in the book and to help me recollect the salient points hours, days and months later. Reviewing the books is another useful discipline that helps me retain information and gives me a short summary of the book I can return to later if I need to refresh my memory.

I think it is also important to say that we can become better at reading by reading more. I often have people ask me how they can become better writers and I give this advice: “Write more!” There are few shortcuts to becoming a better writer other than dedicating oneself to the practice. The same is true, I’m convinced, of reading. We become better readers simply by dedicating ourselves to the task.

I love reading and, like Bob, anticipate that I’ll keep reading until the day I die. I suspect there will be lots more reading and learning to do in heaven and I look forward to starting into the celestial library! But for now I continue to read and continue to love reading. It’s a passion and one that has brought unmeasurable benefit to my life and my faith. I pray the same is true for you!