Saturday, March 17, 2007


Here are eleven short principles for how to read a book. I just gave these to someone who asked me by email about how to read.

1. Read often, giving adequate time for the nature of the work.

2. Stop watching TV (if you do). It tends to rot the mind. Read the appendix to Truth Decay on that as well as the contemporary classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman (1985).

3. Mark up your books, underlining key ideas and jotting ideas in the margins. Keep an index in the front of the book of the most important ideas. If the book is especially profound, take detailed notes on it.

4. Try to use the ideas from good books in letters, essays, teachings, and conversations. Form a book club. Keep the ideas alive. Aspire to write a book yourself, if it is needed and you are the person to write it.

5. Reread important books. This is a mark of the literary person, as CS Lewis notes in An Experiment in Criticism. I have been rereading much of Francis Schaeffer recently, a man I first read nearly 30 years ago as a young Christian. It is well worth it.

6. Never get rid of a book you have read. I have thousands of books, but lament that have I let go of some I have read (and some I didn't).

7. Read and reread old books. Don't be taken captive by fashion. Savor the classics.

8. Ask smart people what their favorite books are and why. Then read them.

9. Read in silence. Carve out a private place if need be.

10. Always look up and learn unfamiliar words you find in your reading. From 1976-1994 or so, I filled a blank book of over a 100 pages with such words. Use such words in conversation, even if the person you are conversing with may not know them.

11. Spend time in books stores, new and old. Get a sense and feel for what is out there.

12. When in doubt, buy a book.


Mark Nenadov said...

Thanks for another great list, Doug!

I've blogged on this post here.

D. A. Armstrong said...

I disagree in number 6 about getting rid of books. I'm to a point in my life where it seems like some books just aren't worth reading. My library is 800 some odd books and many of them are totally worth while. However, I have a few books after reading them, I felt they were a waste of my time. These are typically the popular level books, in which topics are covered very lightly, with lots of cute stories that appeal to the heart.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Well, if you are writer or teacher, I suggest keeping the books. That has been my experience.

Phil Gons said...

I agree with number 6. You never know when someone might ask you about what someone says in a book you consider to be of little value. Furthermore, poor books can often illustrate bad exegesis and theology. Having them is better than not having them. Of course, I wouldn't recommend going out and buying lots of bad books, but if you've acquired them as a gift and have the space for them, you might as well keep them. My preference is to have books like this in electronic format so that they aren't taking up precious space.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Good point. That is what I was after.

Example: When I was more liberal politically (I was never so theologically), I read several books by William Stringfellow. This was in the last 1970s and maybe early 1980s. When I realized I disagreed with him, I got rid of the books during a move across the country. (Books are heavy and hard to move!)

Years later, I wanted to revist his arguments, but had ditched the books. Bad idea.

Thanks for your comment.

Yossman said...

True. Last year I go rid of a bunch of books on missiology. I do regret that now, but feel consolation at the fact that they ended up in the library of a missionary.

One question though. These reading principles do not seem to aid the processing of a large quantity of volumes in a short period of time, which is sometimes also necessary. How do you deal with that?

Michael Glawson said...

Everyone here has probably heard of it, and some probably have read it, but "How To Read A Book" by Mortimer J. Adler totally changed my reading life. Lots of suggestions in there to the effect of Willard's point and this post. If anyone has missed it, definitely worth a read, and a reread. As an added plus, you're sure to get a chuckle out of the enterprise of a book about how to read books.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

I have no idea how to read quickly, except to make room for time to read in silence.