How do I read a book?

I know. This sounds a little silly. When I arrived on campus to begin seminary a book with a similar title was assigned by one of my professors. I thought it was a bit odd as well. But it turns out that despite being an avid reader all my life, there were a few things I still had to learn about reading. And in this current American culture, I suspect there are many folks out there that could stand to pause long enough to consider their reading habits. So here are a few basic suggestions for your consideration.

First, reading is an appetite. When I hear people say they don’t like to read I usually tell them (or at least think it in my head), “You just haven’t been reading the right stuff.” Either they haven’t hit on the right subject, or they haven’t been reading the best material in a given genre. Likewise, many people are often enthusiastic about reading pulp fiction, but anything else puts them to sleep. You may not be aware of this, but if you read a consistent diet of the same sort of literature (particularly if that literature requires very little of you intellectually), you sort of spoil your appetite. You’ll find it hard to read anything else or books that ask anything of your brain at all. So make sure you are reading a balanced diet. Save the pulp fiction for bedtime.

Second, speaking of bedtime, did you know that if you always read in bed until you fall asleep that you actually train your brain to go to sleep when you read? This doesn’t mean you should never read in bed. It just means that you shouldn’t do most of your reading in bed to fall asleep. If this is already you, I’d try to avoid it for awhile until you’ve retrained your brain.

Third, always keep a pencil with you when you’re reading anything that is thought provoking or important. Make notes in the margins. Don’t be in such a rush. Slow down. Stop and think about something that you just read that was new to you. Do you think it is true? Does it make sense? How does it fit in with what you thought you knew? Make some notes in the margin so you can find it again more easily and remember what your initial reaction was.

Fourth, find great places to read. I love the outdoors. Unfortunately I find it hard to get comfortable to read outdoors except for a few times a year. It always seems too cold or too hot or too wet or too bug infested or I can’t find a comfortable reading position. But when everything comes together it makes for a wonderful reading environment that helps me focus and enjoy reading all the more. So obviously I don’t have many outdoor spots. But I think I work near the best Starbucks in the world. It’s larger than most I’ve been in. Despite being crowded there are usually open seats – the large leather comfortable kind. It’s warm and smells like coffee and I can get a tall peppermint mocha in the winter. I run into church members often and I’m on a first name basis with the staff. I will sometimes read there for an entire morning or afternoon. It’s hard to beat. Do you enjoy a fireplace and have one at home? Do you have a great chair to sit in next to the fire with plenty of light to read by? Those make great spots as well. In the Fall and Spring cafes with outdoor tables and good food are great places too. Finding the right spot can make reading something you can’t wait to do.

Fifth, don’t be afraid to reread great books. I have a short list of books I try to read every year. You will gain some new insight with almost every reading. And the familiarity will make it even easier to read than the first time. And somewhat similar to the effect of a great reading spot, anticipating sitting down with a favorite book is something that will make the idea of reading much more enjoyable.

Sixth, discuss what you’ve read. Reading groups are popular and are one option. When it comes to reading theology or books on the Christian life, find someone to interact with that will be able to challenge you. As a pastor, I love reading books with folks in our church. But we pastors aren’t the only ones in the church who can do this. We have a few ruling elders who are well-read theologically. We also have members who are seminary graduates and have the advantage of having read a lot of the theological books out there under the tutelage of seminary professors (sometimes the very author you’re reading!). Talking about what you’ve read out loud with someone else helps you synthesize your reading and sift through the good ideas and the bad ideas.

These are just a few ideas. We worship God with our bodies as we sing and serve and confess our sin and our faith and we pray. We serve God with our finances as we tithe and give to gospel causes. Do you think we ought to serve God with our minds? Paul says in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Check out these other verses in which Christ and the Apostles make it clear that Christians must engage their minds:Matt 16:23; 22:37; Mark 8:33; 12:30; Luke 10:27; Rom 8:6-7; 1 Cor 14:14-19; 2 Thes 2:2; 2 Tim 3:8; 2 Pet 3:1; Rev 17:9).

So please give some serious thought to mixing thoughtful biblical and theological reading in with whatever else you normally read. If you need help getting started  – finding the right book is the biggest initial challenge – please don’t hesitate to contact me! I’m going to do a post on this very subject very soon. I also have a couple of series on this blog recommending books. One is “Books Every Lay Person Should Read” and the other is “Commentaries for Lay People”.

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