On Disciplined Reading (3): How Should I Read? Tips on Getting the Most from Your Reading

If you would like to become a disciplined reader, you probably need to make a plan. That’s right. Make a list of books that you would like to read in each of your various categories of interest. If you have difficulty finding the right books to read in each category, spend some time researching. Ask an expert to give you a short list of favorites. Visit your library. Cruise the local Barnes & Noble. Surf the net. In addition, try to answer a few other questions: How many books would you like to read per month? How much time can you devote per day or per week? What time of the day is best for you? I know, I know, you are probably thinking: “Ashford is the biggest dork I have ever met. I cannot imagine how many times he got beat up in kindergarten.” But I’d like to give you advance notice: we haven’t even arrived at the nerdiest parts of this post.

Speaking of which, I encourage you to figure out your “reading style.” Take my former Old Testament professor, for example. He underlines with a pencil and a ruler! Wow. Now that’s nerdy. Or Danny Akin. He will have nothing to do with a pencil or a ruler, instead wielding a pterodactyl-sized fluorescent hi-lighter. As for me, it depends on the book. If I am reading a serious book in theology, philosophy, or international affairs, I like to read while sitting at a table, so that I can underline and annotate the book. I use a pencil and ruler. If I am reading fiction or a journal, however, I kick back in an easy chair with a pen or hi-lighter which I use only sparingly. (If I am reading the first edition of a classic book, I don’t touch it with pen or pencil.)

Third, always carry a book. My wife will tell you: I always carry a book or a journal. You would be amazed at how many minutes you can catch during the day. I laughed out loud when I read Al Mohler’s blogpost of 9/12/07: “My wife and family would be first to tell you, I can read almost anytime, anywhere, under almost any kind of conditions. I have a book with me virtually all the time, and have been known to snatch a few moments for reading at stop lights….I took books to high school athletic events when I played in the band. [Heap coals of scorn and nerdliness here.] I remember the books – do you remember the games?” Although you might find an exception from time to time (I tend to leave my books in my bag when my wife is, for example, delivering a baby), a good rule of thumb is to always carry a book.

Other tips? If possible, drink and read at the same time. There are few things in life better than settling down to a good book or journal with a steaming cup of tea (an Earl Grey with a spot of milk) or coffee at hand. Try it. It will change your life. Another tip: turn off the television while you read. It is not that I don’t think The Office is funny (only a man with a petrified diaphragm could fail to laugh at Dwight Schrute), or that it isn’t mildly amusing to watch the overly dramatic Horatio Cane over-act all of his lines in CSI: Miami. It is just that when I am reading, I want to be able to concentrate. A related tip: Start or join a reading group. Find a handful of friends, select a book to read each month, and find a time to get together over coffee and debate and discuss what you have read. A final tip: Read with a pen in hand. By that, I mean that you should read as an active participant. Make notes in the margin, write a critique of the book and post it on your blog, send a letter to the author, or publish a review in a journal.

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  1. Bryan Rabon   •  

    Let it never be said that you can’t learn anything of value from a theological liberal. When I was in college my liberal religion professor impressed upon me the importance of reading with a pen in hand. I’ve done it ever since. I even read the Bible with pen handy for note taking which is easier to do in a Bible with wide margins.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Don’t forget the ruler, though… Grin.

  3. Samuel Rogers   •  

    Dr. Ashford,
    I am in my second year of the MDiv in ABS at Southeastern and we are praying about the possibility of a Ph.D. afterward. What books would you say are the most important for someone like me to start reading? I’m drawn to so many different things, that I’m afraid I also fall into the “serial reader” category.
    Also, I have a relatively heavy load of reading this semester, so my extra reading time is precious.
    Thanks for your time and advice!

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Thanks for your question. During my MDiv, I had the same question. How do I make the most of my time by reading the most important types of books to prep me for a PhD.

    First, I would say that you want to read (slowly and carefully) certain books that help you lay a broad foundation in theological studies. In biblical theology, maybe Goldsworthy’s “According to Plan” and Goheen/Bartholomew’s “The Drama of Scripture.” In historical theology, maybe McGrath’s “Historical Theology” and Placher’s “A History of Christian Theology.” In systematic theology, choose 2-3 text from among theologians such as Akin, Grudem, Bavinck, Frame, Lewis/Demarest, Errickson, etc.

    Second, at the same time that you are reading widely in theological studies (above), continue to read deeply and more narrowly in your chosen area of concentration. For example, if you want to write a dissertation on John, make sure you’ve read everything by the towering evangelical authors (Kosternberger, Carson) as well as the major texts by those who are not evangelical. Or, for example, if you are wanting to write on theological method, read not only the evangelicals (Clark, Vanhoozer, Frame) but also those who are not (Schleiermacher, Barth, Lindbeck, Milbank).

    That’s a start!

  5. Samuel Rogers   •  

    Thanks very much for your guidance Dr. Ashford!

  6. Luis Luna   •  

    Bruce, I’m 19 and Im a youth pastor from Honduras, Central America. I am pentecostal and arminian (still making my mind) and just want you to know that I have been very blessed by your blogs! Keep on!

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