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How to Read and Understand a Difficult Book

I’ve read many difficult books. Most of them have been rigorously academic. They can be tough to read, but if you learn how to read them well, there’s gold on the other side.

But why read a difficult book?

how to read and understand a difficult book

Why Read Difficult Books

The goal is to read hard books that are profitable. Just because a book is written by an academic who uses a lot of big words doesn’t mean that it’s good. You also want to avoid reading a hard book for the sake of intellectual pride.

Here are a few reasons why these sort of books are worth reading.

1. Because they challenge your assumptions. We think we know more than we do. When we read hard books, especially by those of whom we disagree, our assumptions are challenged. We need humble pie.

2. Because they challenge your intellect. Of course, one of the goals of reading hard books is to grow in knowledge. It’s hard to do this when you only read books that affirm your convictions and never challenge you. Challenging books stretch your intellectual capacity.

3. Because they make you slow down. Patience is not my strong suit. I’d much rather fly through a book, say I’ve read it, and move on to the next one. But this is not always beneficial. Books should be read with highlighters and pens in hand; active reading is the goal. Notes should be taken as this will help you to remember what you read. Difficult books make you slow down, and this is almost always a good thing.

4. Because they have stood the test of time. As an aspiring author, one thing that scares me is the thought of writing a book that no one cares about in 50 years. Who writes not to be read? And who doesn’t want their work to last? But the reason why Christians are stilling reading Calvin’s Institutes, Luther’s The Bondage of the Will, and Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections hundreds of years after they’ve been published is that they’ve stood the test of time. And they have stood the test of time for a reason: because the content has proven to be helpful, truthful, and transferable to every generation.

5. Because they make you grow. Imagine the guy at the gym who only works out one muscle group and does the same exact exercises every time. He’ll see some results at first, but over time, he won’t. He’ll plateau. He won’t see any more growth. This is also true for those of us who always read the same kinds of books. If you want to grow, you’ll have to read things that challenge you.

These are just a few reasons as to why we should read difficult books.

How to Read and Understand a Difficult Book

OK, now that we know why we should read difficult books, we need to know how to read difficult books. Again, after doing this over and over again, here are some thoughts that come to mind:

1. Understand the author. Who is the author? Have they written books before? Are they an Anglican or Baptist or Presbyterian? What are some of their theological views? Many authors are misinterpreted simply because they’re misunderstood. Authors deserve better than that. While we may not be able to do this every time, we should seek to know a few things about the author before we read his or her book.

2. Understand the thesis. Sometimes you can’t find the thesis because there isn’t one. Sometimes you don’t find the thesis because you missed it. If you find the thesis statement, you’ll do a much better job of keeping track of the author’s argument.

3. Understand how to skip certain parts. You don’t have to read every single word of a book to say you’ve read it. Don’t feel guilt and shame for not finishing a book. Some books should be read all the way through; most should not. Books were made for man, not the other way around. You have to learn how to pick out the good stuff and overlook what may not be particularly relevant.

An example of this is Calvin’s Institutes. In the two-volume edition that I have, before Calvin gets to chapter one, he writes a 20+ page prefatory address to King Francis I of France. You can read this if you want, or you can just skip it and come back to it later. Better yet, you can just start with volume 2 where Calvin writes his magnificent work on prayer. The point is, you shouldn’t feel anxious about reading absolutely every word in every book. Read and skip what you want to.

4. Understand the author’s audience. I read a book by a female theologian in which she purposely mentions from the outset of the book that it is written for academics and theology students. This helped me to know that the content may be difficult, and probably shouldn’t be a book that I recommend to those who are not theologically inclined. It also helped me to make a mental adjustment to the hard content before I read it, knowing that it may hurt, sort of like a batter in baseball who sees a one hundred mile an hour fastball coming for his hip. Understanding the author’s audience will help prepare you to read the book well.

5. Understand that this will take time. I quit going to the gym for a period of time. I gained weight, lost muscle, and didn’t feel as good. When I went back for the first time, I felt out of shape, flabby, and weak. But, I stuck it out and overtime lost fat, gained muscle, and got back into shape again. At first, it was extremely challenging and difficult, but over time it became easier, and I saw fruit from it.

This is also true in reading hard books. If you’ve never read one before, of course the first one you pick up will be hard to read. This is where most readers quit. Resist the temptation. You have to be convinced that it’s worthwhile, and you have to be committed to it for the long-haul. And if you stick it out, over time, you’ll see great rewards and fruitfulness from all your hard work and effort.

[special]Note: If you’d like to read some of the challenging books I’ve read and loved, see my post Top 20 Best Books I read in Seminary.[/special]


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