Saturday, December 12, 2009

How to Read a Book

As an owner of thousands of books and a reader of many of them, I offer a few pieces of advise on the art of reading a book. This is a lost art for many, given the dominance of image-oriented media today.

1. Read worthwhile books. These come in two categories: (A) Books that are in themselves worthwhile. (B) Books that are substandard but influential, nevertheless. I know nothing of "killing time" by reading. As Thoreau said, "You cannot kill time without wounding eternity." Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as to what books you should read and when. I cannot separate my professional reading from my pleasure reading. However, I will not read books I profoundly disagree with on Sundays, since that is a day of rest (not torment).

2. Always read with a pen or pencil in your hand. Annotation is part of the art of reading. The book should become your own. I underline, make comments, and put notes in the front of the book pointing out important points. I also cross reference important points.

3. Write in the front of the book when you started reading it and when you finished it. This gives you a sense of intellectual history. (Don't ask how many books I have not finished. Some do not deserve to be finished, though.)

4. Recommend books to others on as many topics as you can. Be a walking and talking annotated bibliography.


Doug Groothuis said...

This was posted in response to this post of mine on my other blog, Chronic Illness and Christian Faith. I thought it worth putting here as well. It is by Ken Lewis.

Excellent ideas. Number 2 is particularly helpful. I also keep a notebook with me when I read, keep notes, and transfer the notes to the computer in a free form database(in the case of non-fiction) for later recall. I also do a book review for every book I read. I have written brief reviews on over 200 book I have read in the last two years.

I would also add:

Take time to memorize worthwhile quotes. (Quotations from books I read decades ago still ring in my head.)

Turn off the television. Use the money to buy books.

Read outside your comfort and knowledge level. I read books on quantum physics and Tibetan buddhist philosophy simply to force myself to stay sharp and grow.

Read books that annoy you and frighten you and threaten your worldview in order to understand the opposition.

(Listening to MP3 lectures by guys like Groothuis, Bock, Evans, Craig and a few others also keep one entertained.)

Daniel said...

Great post. I particularly liked #4. In my own day-to-day at work and such I have found that my recollection of books that I have read has come in quite handy for spiritual formation purposes and witnessing. This reminds me of the role of "tradition" -- the passing on of truth over time and generations.

The truths we find in books can speak to new generations of seekers and followers of truth. Somebody needs to tell them about it. Books from 600 years ago, and especially 2000 years ago, can be just as recommended as modern gems. Admittedly I take pleasure when someone asks me for a book recommendation, and they read it instead of watching TV! My heart smiles :)

Emily said...

This is great advice. I second Ken's admonition to turn off the television and buy books instead. On the rare occasion I sit in front of the TV, my mind generally wanders to the exponential amount of information I could gain by reading for thirty minutes or an hour.

It's also crucial to read books that don't necessarily mirror your beliefs. If they don't point you to an idea requiring further reflection, they will at least give you a greater empathy for and grasp of how the person's worldview was formed. This understanding will remove the fear of the unknown and allow you to discuss the idea intelligently.

David Strunk said...

I have responded on your blog before regarding this very point, Dr. Groothuis. As such, I think books are much like church music. Generally (though not always) the best music is passed down over time, much like the best books. If it's still worthy, then it will still be in print. So I read mostly old books now. I try and use a 50 year or older rule.

I know that humans are always adding to our fields of knowledge, so new books are important too. It's just that time itself can be one of the judges of good books. It's so hard to tell in a bookstore of new books what is worthy and what isn't.

Paul said...

These are good and serve to keep the reader engaged.
Of course, there's the classic How To Read a Book that is a must-read!

sdcougar said...

In sync with David Strunk, is the advise of C.S. Lewis on 'what' to read: "We all…need…to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading the old books."
His rule was not to allow another new book until an old one was read.
see the classics button here:

sdcougar said...

One more reflection: How about a piecee on "WHY" to read books, as most Christians do not read much anymore [with the exception of a lot of fiction]. Just look at the bulk of merchandise in Christian 'book' stores.