A few nights ago, I had a great conversation. You know the kind. The time passed quickly and left me excited for the next time we’d connect. I listened to my mentor with lots of questions swirling in my head. He was sharing a life’s worth of wisdom, and I was eating it up. Without knowing it, he brought up several changes I needed to make. It was a moment of growth, real iron sharpening iron. My friend had so much to offer; I felt blessed just to be there. Oh, and I might mention my mentor has been dead for over a hundred years. The conversation we enjoyed also has another name. Most would call our conversation mere reading.
I haven’t always enjoyed reading. When I was young, I thought of reading as a chore (and a bore). Maybe I was reading the wrong books, but I didn’t really enjoy reading until high school. I remember a friend lent me a copy of The Oath by Frank Peretti. Like no book before, I was swept into the story. I remember carrying that book with me everywhere. For the next few days, I sat in the back of classes and kept reading. Something had snapped. I had become a reader.
Years later, I still love to read. I don’t read as much fiction these days. I read mostly in preparation to teach. At times, I’ve even read books on the art of reading itself, and most of what I’ve learned, they don’t teach in school. I’ve learned to be purposeful and efficient in my reading. I’ve learned to stop wasting time and make books work for me — not the other way around.
I’ve learned the primary goal of reading is always to gain increased understanding. Fiction aside, we read to learn something. Mortimer Adler once wrote, “Our continuing education depends mainly on books, read without a teacher’s help. Therefore if we are disposed to go on learning and discovering, we must know how to make books teach us well.”Adler, Mortimer J. How to Read a Book. (New York: Touchstone, 1940), 15. (This is a classic work on reading and is packed with practical wisdom and advice. It’s a great resource for those who want to grow as readers.) These are a few rules I’ve developed to make books teach me well.
Rule 1: Cultivate Time and Space for Reading
If you intend to grow as a reader, the first thing you must do is cultivate regular time for reading. It doesn’t matter when it is, but if you don’t establish a rhythm, you’ll find other things will quickly take up time that could be spent reading. Start with a goal of reading for a half hour or so every day. Many prefer to read in the evening. Personally, I find mornings are my best time. I’m a morning person and do my best thinking then. Know yourself and build a habit that is consistent.
In addition to time, many find it beneficial to have a set place where they often read. It should be quiet, well lit and free of distractions. If your phone or computer distracts you, clear it out of your reading area. Learn to focus solely on your reading for set times every day.
Rule 2: Make a Plan
Before you head to the library or bookstore, it’s good to consider your reading goals. Do you want to develop a particular skill? Develop a particular aspect of your faith? Renew your mind in an area of struggle? I once spent a whole year reading everything I could on prayer.
Spend some time thinking about your life. Think about classes you’d love to take and things you’d like to master. You don’t have to go to school to become an expert. As my high school basketball coach used to preach, “Plan your work and work your plan.”
Rule 3: Be Picky
Let this sink in: You do not have to read anything that isn’t helping you reach your goals. And you don’t have to read the whole book, only what is building your understanding.
There are many books I learn a lot from without reading them cover to cover. I might read a few chapters or skim through the whole book. My goal is to gain understanding. Admittedly, there are books I plow through very slowly and in their entirety. But you may need to be set free to manage your own reading. If you are reading a book and it isn’t helping you the way you hoped it would, chuck it across the room and move on to something else.
Francis Bacon said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”Bacon, Francis. “Of studies.” 1601. Your goal in reading is always to learn from those who have something to teach you. Think of your reading as hiring your own personal team of teachers. You get to choose the topics you want to study, and you get to choose your teachers.
As you choose books to read, be picky and select works that will teach you something you want to learn. If you feel like a book is wasting your time, there’s a good chance it is. Move on. Life is too short to read stuff that isn’t serving you well.
Rule 4: Ask Good Questions
Jesus often used questions to teach His followers, telling parables which usually needed additional explanation. Jesus was intentionally creating curiosity, inviting people to come to Him and bring their questions. Even the disciples needed Jesus to explain many of the parables. Jesus knew what all good teachers do: Students remember things better if you answer their questions. Good teachers stir up inquisitiveness in their students; before giving them the answers, they let them first chew on the questions.
In a similar way, it’s important to ask good questions of the books we read. I ask every author I read, “What are you helping me understand? What are your best arguments? Why should I agree with you?” I’m constantly asking these and other questions and reading for the answers. This may be why I often think of reading as a conversation. A good author won’t leave you with a lot of unanswered questions. I find that if I start a book, by considering questions I want answered, I remember the answers when I come across them. Questions are powerful; ask good ones and find the answers.
Rules 5: Master the Art of Skimming
When I pick up a book for the first time, I usually read the back cover first and then study the table of contents. My goal is to quickly figure out the main idea of the book and the main ways the author will support his/her arguments. I then take about five to 10 minutes skimming the entire book. My purpose is to assess the overarching message of the book, picking up everything I can. Sometimes I even skim the book twice.
I’ve found this habit speeds up my reading considerably. During a skim, I determine chapters I want to pay particular attention to and others I might ignore all together. I gauge how a particular book may or may not accomplish the goal I have for reading it. A quick skim will often reveal whether a book should be put back on the shelf or set aside for a more careful read. In the time it takes most to read the introduction, I’ve skimmed the entire book and have an idea of the author’s major arguments and support.
Admittedly, this isn’t an easy skill to master, but the time it can save is worth the effort it takes to learn. Again, our goal in reading is to gain increased understanding. Skimming is a way to quickly discern the extent to which a book will serve this purpose. There’s nothing worse than reading half way through a book and realizing it’s a dud. I’ve also found that my reading and comprehension increase significantly when I have an idea of where the author is headed.
Another time to skim is after reading a great book. This helps solidify some of the main things you’ve learned and will want to hold on to, which brings us to Rule 6.
Rule 6: Review and Remember
One of the biggest challenges we have in reading is holding on to what we’ve learned. I hate how prone I am to forget things. If you’ve ever taken time to read the first five books of the Bible, one of the key themes is, “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7, ESV). God knows we are quick to forget. Remembering takes work. C.S. Lewis is helpful here: “The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.”Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge University Press 1992), 2.
Over the years, I’ve built my own system for quickly recalling what I once learned. This is the main reason I read with highlighter or pen in hand. I’m constantly highlighting or marking things I want to remember. I don’t highlight everything or even every good point. I mark those things that I want to come back to and skim.
When I find a book helpful, I often summarize the best points at the end of each chapter. Then I can quickly read those and remember what I’ve learned without having to read the entire book over again. In fact, some books I intentionally review every year or so. In 15 minutes, I can reconsider the major ideas of a book. The books which have impacted us the most should become the ones we return to most frequently.
* * *
Reading doesn’t have to be the labor it was for many in school. It’s a habit that can add wisdom and understanding to our lives. Most importantly, reading is one of the primary ways we grow in the Lord. As Jesus taught, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32, ESV). All our labors in reading should culminate in the careful reading of God’s Word. Its transforming power is unmatched and should have our greatest attention and effort. Consider ways you’d like to grow, pick up a book, ask good questions and go find your answers.
Copyright 2012 Andrew Hess. All rights reserved.