How to Read Books

Introduction

I take as an axiom, “Great people read, and great people read a lot.”  My purpose, then, is extending this principle to, “Christians should read, and Christians should read a lot.”  Surely we are obligated to steward the intellects God gave us.  We can do this by reading.  Reading combats laziness, reading informs our worldview, reading gives us a knowledge of the devil’s devices, reading enables us to understand and love others.  Most importantly, reading makes first dates less awkward—it gives us things to talk about.  Reading is a good thing, but it is something many people foolishly neglect, much to their own detriment.  By reading I mean primarily books, not newspapers, magazines, comics, or trashy websites. To quote Charles Spurgeon:

Give yourself unto reading. The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. You need to read.

Of course, How to Read a Book exists, and I have shamelessly plagiarized its title.  But this is not a post about how to read a book, it’s a post about how to read books.  I shall explore how a Christian should approach the necessary discipline of reading extra-Biblical books.  And I have three words to describe how you should approach reading:  broadly, copiously, and deeply.

Read Broadly

Reading broadly has to do with what you read.  You should read a lot of different things.  The breadth of your reading should include different genres, different authors, different philosophies, different lengths of books, different reading difficulties, different cultures, when possible different languages.  I will take time here to briefly defend why the Christian should read non-religious books.  As C.S. Lewis said:

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.

Reading fiction, history, and other secular literature allows us to see the world through the eyes of other people. This enables us to better understand them and better love people.  It gives us a broader and bigger and deeper and fuller and more beautiful and more ugly picture of the world.  We see more of God’s handiwork and perfections in this world, and we see more of its fall, causing us to yearn for the world to come.  I agree with Albert Mohler:

Good books make us think as we read and reflect. The best books make us think deeply, without the overwhelming sense that thinking is what we are doing.

Reading secular literature as well as Christian literature is necessary for the intellectual development of the Christian.  It results in a better and fuller fulfillment of the church’s mission to reach out to and love the lost and each other for the sake of Christ, and deepens our worship of God.

But I also echo J.C. Ryle in Thoughts for Young Men:

Of making many books there seems no end, though few of them are really profitable. There seems a rage for cheap printing and publishing. Newspapers of every sort abound, and the tone of some, which have the widest circulation, tells badly for the taste of the age. Amidst the flood of dangerous reading, I plead for my Master’s book,—I call upon you not to forget the book of the soul. Let not newspapers, novels, and romances be read, while the prophets and Apostles lie despised. Let not the exciting and licentious swallow up your attention, while the edifying and the sanctifying can find no place in your mind.

Our internet—social media, click bait, news websites, youtube—is Ryle’s “cheap printing.”  I point also to Spurgeon (again):

I have seen a young woman sitting down, on board a steamboat, completely absorbed in a very suspicious looking book. I have passed behind her and passed before her, but she has not taken the slightest notice of me. Presently, I saw a tear brushed away from her eye—I knew that she was not reading the Bible—and it was my firm conviction that she was reading a novel. I have often noticed how such people let the novels get right into them, trash as they generally are—but when the most of people read the Bible, they appear to be anxious to get the unpleasant task finished and put away! In some cases they seem to think that they have performed a very proper action, but they have not been in the least affected by it, moved by it, stirred by it. Yet, if there is any book that can thrill the soul, it is the Bible!

How true this is!  The dangers of frivolous reading are well documented.  Many people would rather have their affections and emotions be manipulated by the gossamer illusion of a novel than the riches of God’s glory, the depths or their own sin, or the plight of the unbeliever.  How many of us are more apt to cry when a fictitious character in a movie dies than when we hear the Word of God preached and our sins brought to our attention, or when we sing the praises of our Savior, or when at the Lord’s Supper we remember His death and pain?  How many of us are more apt to boast of the number of times we’ve cried at theaters than the number of times we’ve cried over our Bibles or for lost sinners?  Even secular tragedies, current or historical, matter far less to us than our wanton pursuit of personal pleasure in the Vanity Fair of modern entertainment.  Our emotional investments are often in the fantasies the devil feeds us rather than the realities God gives us.  Such behavior questions our belief in the existence of God:

“Jesus’ words ring as a wake-up call for those who profess to know God and yet live as though God were no more real than whatever movie they watched last night. For those who keep hitting the spiritual snooze button, it is time to wake up and focus on what really matters (cf. Romans 13:11). As Christians, our perspective must be eternal in scope. And entertainment, though enjoyable in the moment, is not eternal.”

– John MacArthur

Enjoying literature and art, and being emotionally invested in it, is good in its place: God gave us story-telling to be enjoyed! But our lack of love for God, contrasted with our great love for the world, condemns us.  Reading good books, those that dwell on the significant, the lasting, the eternal, will combat our idolization of entertainment, which dwells on the transient, the temporal, the fleeting.

There are some horrible secular books out there.  The standard of Philippians 4:8 must be upheld:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

Biblically, we can’t get away with reading secular books indiscriminately.  Christian convictions vary on what exactly is permissible, so always let (Philippians 4:8 and) your conscience be your guide.

Reading broadly encompasses reading different authors, different eras, different viewpoints, different cultures.  I cannot stress enough how important diverse reading is for the Christian.  C.S. Lewis puts it better than I ever can:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

The same is true of each culture, each author, each political standpoint.  Those who only read books from their own era will turn into mentally stunted, stubborn idiots who can’t see past the ends of their own noses.  These obnoxious, close-minded people proudly refuse to learn from the positives of other cultures and past civilizations, instead arrogantly believing themselves part of the greatest generation in history.  Even when they do study the past, they set themselves up as the supreme critics of human achievement, refusing to learn from the morals and accomplishments of far greater people than themselves.  This highlights people’s need to read broadly.

Great men read broadly.  Take some examples.  Jonathan Edwards was influenced philosophically by John Locke, and throughout his A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections quotes Thomas Shepard and John Flavel liberally.  Robert Murray M’Cheyne loved to study the classics, reading in Greek and Latin from early elementary school.  He learned from Richard Baxter’s famous The Reformed Pastor, and treasured his set of The Works of Jonathan Edwards.  Charles Spurgeon’s book Smooth Stones taken from Ancient Brooks is a collection of excerpts from the puritan Thomas Brooks.  C.S. Lewis studied, professionally, medieval Norse and English literature.  As a boy he loved the stories of Beatrix Potter.  His term “Mere Christianity” was borrowed from the puritan Richard Baxter.  He loved the stories of George MacDonald, who incidentally, influenced many other great men.  His “On the Reading of Old Books” was the forward to a translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation.  He wrote both fiction and “serious” Christian literature.  R.C. Sproul reads Thomas Aquinas.  John Piper’s Desiring God is almost a discussion of the Lewis and Edwards he reads.  Al Mohler’s published reading lists basically define “broad.”  These are examples you should be aspiring to.  Read broadly.

Read Copiously

Reading copiously has to do with how much you read.  Reading copiously means reading a lot, or better reading as much as you can.  I won’t defend thoroughly why you should read a lot, but I will sketch out some of the main points for you to think about.  First, consider the points I’ve already made about broadening your view of the world and deepening your worship for God.  Second, consider that by reading, you can humbly study the advice and thoughts of older people, and those whose viewpoint differs from yours.  Third, books, by making you think, will teach you to think.

Thoughtlessness is one of the chief Christian dangers in our modern world.  It leads to a lack of discernment.  It leads to self-deception, both of salvation and of whether you are in sin.  Satan, the Deceiver, loves people who don’t think, because they are so much easier to deceive.  Discernment is the spiritual immune system; thoughtlessness—by default resulting in a worldly mindset—is spiritual HIV, killing discernment and exposing the soul to sin and error.  Perhaps you are not convinced this is a biblically founded argument.  I encourage you then to do two word studies through Proverbs: the first on the fool, the second on the naïve or simple person.  Consider passages like Colossians 2:8.  Having the Mind of Christ is a stewardship; we should actually use that mind.  We are called to identify false teachers in places like the book of Jude. God once killed one of his prophets because he lacked discernment.  Using our minds is a very biblical concept, found throughout Scripture.

Actively thinking is critical to the Christian life, and reading helps us develop that skill.  I will not argue here, though it has been extensively discussed elsewhere, the superiority of books over film, internet articles, games, etc.  Those are all profitable and thought provoking, but the role of the book is the most important and most neglected today.  Physical books lend themselves to analysis and study in a way nothing else does.  Physical books require much of your time, causing you to think longer and deeper than otherwise.  The physical book has a unique effect on the human psyche.  God wrote a book.  He did not produce a film or instruct His followers to carry out theatrical productions or manage subscriptions to His personal magazine.  He wrote a physical book.  His choice is indicative of the special place literature has, not just in the humanities, but in the entire human experience, indeed in the plans and purposes of all creation.

By not reading, therefore, you are harming your soul.  You are hindering your thinking, and instead training your mind to squander time.  You are limiting your ability to express yourself in both speaking and writing.  You are limiting your understanding of how the devil seeks to ensnare you.  You are limiting your view of the world.  You are conducting spiritual warfare without spiritual intelligence, or perhaps even conducting spiritual offensives under orders from the enemy.  You are standing guard against temptations and theological error as vigilantly as the disciples stood guard in Gethsemane.  The spirit is willing but the brain is weak and atrophied.  Your ability to serve God is hindered, your worship is shallow, your shield of faith hangs limp by your side.

Perhaps you object to the divisiveness of doctrine.  “Books are all well and good,” you say, “But Christianity is a lifestyle, and I don’t need to read to help me live.  Besides, authors just quarrel with each other anyway.  Especially Christian authors!  Protestants are bad at unity, and Christianity’s supposed to be all about love.  I don’t want to fall into a dead orthodoxy or academic discord; I want a living religion.”  J. Gresham Machen would have a word with you:

After listening to modern tirades against the great creeds of the Church, one receives rather a shock when one turns to the Westminster Confession, for example, or to that tenderest and most theological of books, the Pilgrim’s Progress of John Bunyan, and discovers that in doing so one has turned from shallow modern phrases to a “dead orthodoxy” that is pulsating with life in every word. In such orthodoxy there is life enough to set the whole world aglow with Christian love.

As a matter of fact, however, in the modern vituperation of “doctrine,” it is not merely the great theologians or the great creeds that are being attacked, but the New Testament and our Lord Himself.

To assert doctrine is useless or divisive, and Christian living is independent of Christian knowledge, is not only absurd, but unbiblical and unchristian. By its nature faith must be placed on an object, and Christian doctrine centers on the knowledge of that object.  Is not the Christian life a life of faith?  Paul ties love and living to knowledge and discernment (Philippians 1:9-11):

And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Objections to reading on the basis of impracticality or contentiousness vanish upon any closer examination; they are completely ungrounded.

The real objections to reading copiously are either laziness or a lack of reading skill.  If you are lazy, how did you make it this deep into this blog post?  Stop being lazy.  Proverbs says it’s unhealthy.

A lack of reading skill can be fixed by reading.  Like all skills, it improves with use.  You may say that reading a particular book is too hard.  For some reason, Jonathan Edwards is often the focal point of where Christians say reading is too hard, so we’ll briefly look at him as a case study.  I concur with Dane Ortlund:

The question of whether Edwards is even profitable to read was asked and answered as long ago as 1918.  Hard things like Edwards are often profitable!  Old things like Edwards are often relevant!  And he is intensely practical.  He wrote concerning revivals, missions, praying for missions, and the history of redemption.  He preached frequently on practical concerns including the use of time, the importance of good government, and self-examination.  His A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections is concerned with the most practical concern of human life: determining the difference between true and false conversion.  And that he has written on practical topics so well is attested to by the lasting influence and recognition of his works.  He is indeed hard to read, but definitely not too hard to read.  What he has to say is worth the effort put into understanding him.

I confess I often find reading difficult.  Take some examples of authors I’ve read: Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Charles Hodge, John Owen, J. Gresham MachenFriedrich Hayek, Lewis & Clark, Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, John Milton, Douglas Hofstadter, and the Federalists.  They’ve all been hard to read!  I got nowhere near as much out of them as is possible, but they caused me to think deeper and harder, to become a better reader, to become a better learner, and to become a better person.  Things that are hard to read are often worth reading a lot of.

This has practical ramifications for how you read: read quickly.  The fewer sittings you take to read a book, the better you actually will, because you’ll be better able to see both the book as a whole and its constituent parts at the same time.  Reading very slowly is detrimental to reading the book; it’s a great way to lose the forest for the trees.  Reading very slowly (over the course of many sittings) does not allow you to meditate deeply on the truths of the book and how to apply them to your life, but rather causes you to entirely lose the literary structure and logical flow of the book you are reading.  Deep meditation and application can only be done after having finished the book, after understanding it in its entirety.  Reading slowly prevents you from doing your job of reading deeply and reading copiously.

But there is another practical ramification: read systematically.  If you’re going to read a lot, and you’re going to read a lot of different things, you’ll have to come up with your own plan.  You’ll have to find authors you like, and authors whose entire literary work you wish to read.  You’ll have to choose topics you want to study and read several books on those topics.  You’ll have to identify areas of weakness, intellectual or practical, and address them with books and articles.  There is no pre-fabricated plan that will help you do this.  You’re going to have to come up with a reading system yourself, even if that system is simply maintaining a mental list of books you want to read.  And if you do not, it is unlikely you’ll continue to read copiously, if at all.

Read Deeply

Reading deeply has to do with how you read.  Coincidentally, the book for which this post was named tells you how to do so.  By practicing better deep reading skills, people would probably struggle less with reading, which would make some of the objections to reading moot.

What do I mean by reading deeply?  To answer that we have to ask, “What are we trying to do when we read?”  I believe the answer to that is:

  1. Understand what the author is saying.
  2. Understand the author’s reasoning to get to each statement.
  3. Choose what to learn from the book and remember that.

Of course, this looks slightly different in different genres.  Understanding poetic structure is “understanding the logic” of poetry.  Storylines define the “reasoning” in fiction.  Sometimes when we read in a foreign language, understanding what the author is saying is the most difficult part.  And sometimes we don’t really want to remember what we just read because it was far less edifying than we had hoped.  But in general the three points still apply.

Now our question becomes, “How do we read in order to accomplish those three goals?”  Well the first and most obvious step is to open the book and read it.  But this often leaves you struggling with the process of understanding.  Many people then try to accomplish understanding by just reading and rereading the same passage over and over again.  But to quote Albert Einstein, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  One thing that can help is reading the passage out loud to yourself.  I find that helps my brain focus on the words when my mind wanders off topic, and many people suggest that hearing the words causes you to think through them differently.  But I think there is one single tip I can give you that will revolutionize your reading habits, as given to me by a high school writing teacher.

WRITE IN YOUR BOOKS.

Underline things.  Put check marks in the margins where there are particularly important points.  Draw arrows linking the logical flow of sentences.  Put notes in the margin when you figure something out.  Draw diagrams in the margin of complicated concepts.  Always have a pencil ready when you’re reading.  Don’t be afraid to mark things, because you can erase those marks you later deem unhelpful.  This discipline forces you to follow the logic and structure of the writing.  This discipline forces you to interact with ideas in a tactile manner.  This discipline forces you to weed the tares from the wheat, the dross from the gold, the filler from the content.  It will help both understanding and retention.  It will help you go back over the book to review later in life.

Now you can’t do this for all books.  Library books are a notable exception.  Admittedly I use a retracted mechanical pencil to draw fake underlines in this case.  Due to its tactile nature, writing in your books is a powerful method for achieving understanding and retention.  Use it liberally.  Some books you won’t want to write in.  Perhaps you don’t need it when enjoying The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that if you underline important points in I Kissed Dating Goodbye you only underline the chapter titles and section headings, if there are any important points at all.  Or perhaps you’re doing light reading and just don’t want to read deeply.  You don’t always need to write in your books, but writing in your books is a necessary tool for reading comprehension.

The following two paragraphs contain the only content I owe to How to Read a Book.  Adler made a strong case for the practice of pre-reading a book.  Before actually reading through a book, one should peruse its title, subtitle, preface, index, and table of contents carefully, because here the author will tell you (if he’s any good) what the book is about and give you some clues as to how he’s going to develop his concepts.  If these parts of the books don’t help you understand what the book is about, it’s probably a bad book.

To many people this sounds like spoiling the book.  I answer that one cannot spoil a non-story, so this objection doesn’t apply to non-fiction and non-historical books.  More importantly, this pre-reading of a book (Adler and van Doren call it inspectional reading) allows you to understand the book in its whole context as you read it, showing you how to go about thoroughly (Adler says “analytically”) reading the book when you do so.  This spares you deep reading books that don’t deserve to be deeply read, which would waste your time.  But when the book is worthy of a deep reading, you are, in a sense, morally obligated to do so.

Conclusion

“What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day is want of reading.  I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little.  And perhaps by neglecting it you have lost the taste for it.  Hence your talent in preaching does not increase.  It is just the same as it was seven years ago.  It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety; there is no compass of thought; reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer.  You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this.  You can never be a deep preacher without it any more than a thorough Christian.  O begin!  Fix some part of every day for private exercises.  You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterwards be pleasant.  Whether you like it or no; read and pray daily.  It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher.”

– John Wesley, to John Trembath, 1760

Christians today need to read.  We need to understand how to reach out to the world.  We need to understand the inherent flaws of our own culture and those we interact with.  We need to come out of the culture and point instead to Jesus Christ.  We need to understand how the world misunderstands us, so that we can better point it to Christ.  We need to learn to think in order to combat satan’s attempts on our lives.  We need to learn discernment to protect ourselves from false doctrines and worldviews.  We need to be humbled by the wise words of others.  We need to steward the incredible intellectual wealth God has given us.  I hope and pray I’ve enabled you to do so a little better through this post.

Read broadly, read copiously, read deeply.  Reading is a discipline, reading is a skill, reading is a duty.  I hope you come away encouraged to systematically pursue the discipline of reading.  And I hope you come away from reading this post excited to read, able to take much joy in reading.  I hope you’re encouraged to find God by reading the Bible and Christian books.  I hope you’re encouraged to see God in the world, even when depicted by secular eyes.  I hope you’re able to worship God better than ever before.  I hope that together we can pursue Christ by reading books.


“Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house.”

– Henry Ward Beecher

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

– John Milton

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How to Read Books

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