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

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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 pastors 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. (As a result, 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.

On Disciplined Reading (4): Why Should I Read? Other Advantages of Reading

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In the first installment of this series, I gave a theological reason that one might want to read: God himself gave humans the unique ability to read and write, and to use our rational and imaginative capacities for his glory is one way that we reflect his image. In this installment, I will enumerate further reasons to read and some of the advantages accrued for a lifelong habit of reading.

First, reading books sharpens the mind. For Christians, reading gives us the chance to interact in the world of ideas, giving theological critique of what you read. It is one way to practice thinking Christianly. If I am reading a work of fiction, I ask a series of questions: Who is the hero, and why does the writer want me to admire him? Who is the adversary in this story, and what does the author think is so bad about him? Does this story provide a note of redemption, and if so, in what is the redemption found? If I am reading a theological text, I critique it in light of the Scriptures and the best of the Great Tradition. If I am reading one of the great philosophers, I question his presuppositions and look into the logical coherence, empirical adequacy, and existential viability of his theories. Reading prepares us to think in a distinctively Christian manner.

Second, reading exercises the mind. It forces us to increase our skills of concentration, memory, and reasoning. It requires that we focus on, remember, and assess arguments, plots, themes, characters, facts, and figures. Reading improves vocabulary. Without reading regularly, I would have never known, inter alia, such susquapedalian words as “pervicacious” or “stultiloquence.” Further, reading makes us better writers. (Just think how much worse this blogpost would be if I didn’t read regularly.)

Third, reading gives one something about which to converse. If I have read Ghost Wars, I can make a meaningful contribution when conversation turns to Afghanistan. If I have read The World is Flat or The Clash of Civilizations, then I can make conversation with about any number of global issues. If I have read Mere Christianity, I have some idea how to make theological conversation with a skeptic. If I read Wildlife in the Kingdom Come, I will be well-equipped to poke fun at theologians.

Fourth, reading allows one to “travel” to other times and places. Although I might not have the time or money to travel to Iran right now, I can read about it in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ or The Shia Revival. I may never be able to interview Abraham Lincoln or Jonathan Edwards, but I can read their biographies. Although I was never able to converse with one of the famous atheists, I am able to read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian.

Fifth, reading reduces stress. Researchers at the University of Sussex have shown that the best way to relieve mental and physical stress is to read a book. In their study (which Al Mohler pointed out in his blog on 4/3/09), reading caused a 68% reduction in measurable stress, topping other stress reducers, such as listening to music (61%), sipping tea or coffee (54%), and taking a walk (42%).

Finally, reading is an inexpensive and low maintenance form of entertainment. Compared to the cinema, for example, books don’t cost much. Most books cost $10-$30, which is approximately the same as 1-3 movie tickets, and give more pleasure over a longer period of time. Library books do not cost a dime. Imagine the money I can save if I can one day get my baby daughter hooked on reading (and convince her not to marry).

Note: In the concluding installment of this series, I will interact with some of the comments and questions I’ve received, make some book recommendations, and provide some concluding thoughts.

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

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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.