On Disciplined Reading (Pt. 5): Questions, Answers, and Concluding Thoughts

When I conceived this series, I hoped that it would be an encouragement to our evangelical readership to read widely, deeply, and through the lens of a Christian worldview. There was a day when Christians in general and pastors in particular were committed to sustained reading and reflection. However, the multiple cultures that have arisen from our current American context seem not to be, on the whole, prone to serious reading and thinking. (Americans tend to treat the brain like the appendix, as if it has no immediately discernable function.) As a result, most of the books being published are claptrap. (The result is that winning a “book of the year” award these days is like being the valedictorian of high school summer school.) Even book clubs (such as Oprah’s) that claim to be serious reading communities are often more emotive than rational, tending toward heavy breathing, sobbing, and hugging gently rather than conscious and careful reflection on the important questions of life.

I hope that the previous installments have been helpful. I intended to end this series with the previous installment. However, during the past two weeks, some of you have commented or sent questions by blog, email or facebook, and I have chosen to add a final installment which includes several of those questions. After so doing, I will make some concluding comments.

Comments & Questions:

How to find books to read: In light of the fact that thousands of books are being published as I write, how does one become aware of those books and choose which ones to read? Steve McKinion commented that one way to do this is to read book reviews. Reviews can be found at the back of most academic journals, as well as on the internet. I would add that it is helpful to surf the websites of book publishers, most of whom have a page advertising their forthcoming books.

How to find time to read: Several of you asked how to find time to read. This is a great question, and not easily answered in one paragraph. Here are a few pointers: Take an hour or two and sketch out your activities during an ordinary day, week, or month. Most likely, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much time you can find. I have found, for example, that (1) I can come to work an hour early in order to enjoy peace and quiet and a good book; (2) anytime I am on an airplane, I can knock out quite a few pages; (3) Sunday afternoons usually provide some time for reading; and (4) sometimes instead of watching a TV show or a ballgame, I am better served to pull out a book.

How to choose between print and electronic media: One of you asked whether or not a physical library is important in an electronic age. I think it is. Although TV, YouTube, radio, facebook, audio books and podcasts are helpful for certain things and in particular ways, print media is irreplaceable for those who want to think deeply and meaningfully about the important things in life. Reading requires sustained concentration, while TV, internet, and other sources often are less demanding. Reading fosters sustained interaction and accumulation of knowledge, while other media often let the viewer “off the hook” as they provide a blitz of images and soundbytes, without allowing the viewer time to think and interact. One caveat: Sometimes, one does not have the money or the space for a large library and in such cases it is very helpful to be able to access journals and books online or through various other electronic media.

How to keep discipline from being drudgery: One reader commented that he wants to be a disciplined reader while at the same time avoiding “dutiful, joyless” reading. How can reading be a pleasure rather than a pain? Here are a few thoughts: Make sure that you are (1) selecting books that are worth reading, (2) disciplining yourself to read books from a variety of genres and disciplines, and (3) allowing yourself some flexibility and freedom within those parameters. When choosing your next book, select one that you feel like reading. If you want to read it, and feel like reading it, you likely will get more out of it. Save the book that you do not feel like reading, but need to read, for a later date.

How to retain and organize what is learned from a book: This is a great question. I am not completely satisfied with my method, but here is what I do. (1) If I am reading a serious book, I underline the author’s main points, with pencil and ruler, in such a way that I can follow the author’s flow of thought. I also underline significant quotes and make comments in the margins containing my reactions to an author’s points. This way, I can pick the book back up several years later and be able to “read” the entire book in 10 minutes by reading the underlined portions and annotations. (2) If the book is excellent, I will make a brief outline of the book for future reference. Note: There are very few excellent books. (3) I have a file folder system for topics and sub-topics of interest. When a book makes interesting or helpful (or outrageous) points, I take notes and file them. (4) Write about the book. Post a review of the book at Amazon.com, or on your blog, or in a journal. Writing will force you to think more clearly about the book and will help you to retain what you have learned from the book.

How to read with comprehension: Several questions and comments could be summarized by the question: “How do I learn to read with comprehension and with an appropriately critical eye?” In response, I will recommend three books. The first book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading is the classic text on how to read a book critically and with comprehension. After laying the foundation for such an activity, he writes specifically about how to read different kinds of books, such as imaginative literature, plays, poems, history, science, math, philosophy and the social sciences. The second book, James W. Sire’s How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension, is similar to Adler and Van Doren’s text, but is written by an evangelical Christian who reads and critiques books through the lens of a Christian worldview. Finally, Gene Veith’s Reading between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, is an excellent guidebook for those who want to learn how to recognize books that are spiritually and aesthetically good. He focuses on imaginative literature.

Concluding Thoughts:

Let us conclude the way we began, by reminding ourselves that reading is an inherently theological activity. The Triune God created through the Word and speaks through the Word. Indeed, the Trinity is a model of accomplished communication, as God the Father speaks, God the Son is the Word, and God the Spirit enables the reception of the Word. Further, God created us in his image and likeness, with part of that likeness being our rational and imaginative capacities, which are precisely the capacities needed to read. May we use our capacities in a manner that glorifies Him.

Note: In the near future, I will provide suggested reading in various disciplines and genres such as theology, intellectual history, missiology, international affairs, fiction, history, and current affairs.