Is there a wrong way to read a book?
It always discourages me when I meet people who seem uninterested in reading books. I want to encourage them to do so. I don’t want to make reading sound more difficult than what it is, but I do believe there can be unhelpful ways of reading. Reading, after all, is a skill — a skill that you can do well or not.
As a seminary student and just a flat out lover of books, I find myself reading a book or two a week. I’ve learned a lot from being an avid reader over the years and, most recently, I’ve learned a few things on how not to read from the aid of professors and godly mentors and other peers. No doubt, some of the advice in this post stems directly from a few of my seminary professors.
What are those things?
Here’s some thing you want to avoid when reading.
Don’t read passively.
It’s possible to spend 10 hours with one book and not retain a single thing. This is usually indicative of what we call passive reading. It’s mindlessly reading books without interaction.
You can get away with this style of reading with fiction and novels, but you usually can’t when reading non-fiction.
Read actively. Highlight your books. Take notes. Read in study groups with others. Use Kindle and Evernote to retain information. Re-read what you highlight, and after every chapter, stop and seek to articulate what the author is trying to say. You’ll retain a lot more information this way.
Don’t read the book without knowing about the author.
If you’re reading a book right now and know nothing about the author, stop and learn a few things about him or her.
Reading an author’s work without knowing about their life won’t help you understand what they’re trying to say. Is this their only book on this subject? Do they hold a certain denominational position that may lead them to write things you disagree with? Who endorses them? Who doesn’t? Try to learn a few things about the author. And a good place to start, if they have one, is their blog.
Don’t read the book without knowing about the publisher.
I’ve read plenty of books from one publisher that I love and have seen several others that I would never endorse. That’s fine. I’m not going to demonize a publisher because of a few books. I know that certain publishers will publish books that I won’t agree with, but knowing this ahead of time allows me to not dismiss them altogether. Knowing about the publisher will help ensure that your expectations aren’t misguided.
Don’t read without prayer.
Reading should be accompanied by prayer. Pray that God would give you wisdom and insight and understanding as you read.
Don’t read polemically.
The word polemic is derived from Greek word πολεμικός (polemikos), meaning “warlike, hostile”, from πόλεμος (polemos), meaning “war”. In other words, it’s reading with the sole intent to sharply critique and make war. Reading like this is a sign of immaturity.
Instead, read constructively. In this way, you’re free to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the book. You can apply the helpful parts to your life and dismiss the rest. You’ll almost never agree with 100% of every book you read. And that’s okay. A sign that you’re a wise reader is that you know what to overlook.
Don’t look for what you want the author to say; look for what the author is actually saying.
How many times have I done this? Far too many. I often look for what I want the author to say, instead of what they’re actually saying. I’m coming to the book with my particular worldview and experiences and want the author to say what I want him or her to say. That’s a mistake — and hinders learning.
Read carefully, yes. But remember: you paid money for the book to understand the author’s words, not yours.
Don’t just read people in your tribe.
Finally, if you only read books you agree with, you’ll stunt your intellectual growth and become narrow-minded. Branch outside of your tribe every now and again.
John Piper says, “Reading is more important than eating.” I’m not sure I agree because I love donuts and bacon. But I get the gist: reading is important. It’s better to read than not read. But try to avoid the unhelpful tactics mentioned above. And if you find yourself discouraged, take heart: as long as you don’t give up, your reading skills can soar and you can become a great reader.
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