Abandon hope all who read this! Nothing works for everyone. Nothing works all the time. There are always more books than time. We only remember 3 percent of what we read–at best. Some books are too hard to read. We are all too busy. Reading is hard. Life is short. For some reason, we have to waste lots of time holding jobs, running errands, and doing stuff other than reading. Speed reading is a myth for most. Some authors we adore wrote upwards to a hundred or more books. Reading translations restricts your experience of reading foreign authors. And Faulkner’s middle section in “The Bear” which appears in Go Down, Moses is almost impossible to make sense of. And Faulkner is easy compared to Herman Dooyeweerd.
Still with me? Okay, I will share some of what I have picked up and learned about reading, reading habits, reading for knowledge, reading for pleasure, reading with a focus on study and mastery, and reading as a way of life. My habits and patterns are not for everyone. They don’t even really work for me! But what I do has helped me get a few steps along the way.
First, I will take note of three books about reading. I could expand this to ten or twenty, but three are enough.
Today, I finished reading Shelf Life: How Books Have Changed the Destinies and Desires of Men and Nations by George and Karen Grant. This was my third time to read the book all the way through. It is light, entertaining, and easy to read, but filled with loads of wisdom (via dozens of quotes by dozens of authors) on books and reading. It inspires and directs, but has some practical guidelines as to how to read, what to read, what to collect, and the like.
Several times, I have read and taught from the book How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. I have been told that the original edition which was written solely by Adler is better. The first several chapters of this book are indispensible. It is funny (but I am not laughing) that we teach kids how to read in the early years, but then neglect teaching them how to read in the latter years. Meaning, we teach them how to sound the words so they can read a book, but then don’t teach them enough about how to analyze, think about, and use books.
The reading lists at the back of this book are overwhelming and helpful. The chapters on specific areas can be scanned or skipped, but the first several chapters need to be pre-read, read, and reread repeatedly.
How to Read Slowly by James W. Sire probably strikes many as a book to avoid. We all want to know how to zip through a book. We want to be able to knock out War and Peace during a lunch break. “I already read slowly. Why do I want to read that book?” Shut up! and read the book. Yes, we all read slowly–we think–but this book has some helpful tools for what the subtitle says, Reading for Comprehension.
2. Have a balanced diet. Many years ago, William Hackett, an octagenarian at the time and the main book seller in Arkansas, told me, “You can’t just eat meat. You need to have some dessert and other things.” Four or five heavies are too many. Meaning, if you are reading Calvin’s Institutes, Plato’s Republic, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at the same time, you are either too smart to be reading this blog or you are wondering why you are failing as a reader. Get thee to a salad bar and dessert table.
Read some fun stuff. I have my dessert readings. Sometimes, I don’t get to the desserts until after I have read the more serious or required readings. For dessert I like narrative histories, biographies, and fun types of fiction. Some of the fiction I enjoy (like the spy novels of Daniel Silva or the crime mysteries of C. J. Box) includes lots of murder and mayhem. I enjoy it. If Silva or Box were to write a book about grading test papers, I would be truly horrified. Killing bad guys in a story is relaxing.
I love political histories. I read lots of military history. I love reading about the lives of political and military people.
Find some truly enjoyable writers. Whether Lewis and Tolkien, Mark Twain and P. G. Woodhouse, P. J. O’Rourke and Rick Bragg, find those authors and types of books that are well written (hopefully) and enjoyable.
But balanced diet means you have to include the other more meaty, protein filled readings as well.
3. Discover and carve out your prime reading times. Some people will say things to me or about me like this: “You must read all the time.” Nope. I devote an hour or so solely to reading in the mornings and an hour or so at night when I go to bed. I get a few snatches–and I mean snatches–sometimes during the day.
As much as is humanly possible, nothing, meaning NO THING, intrudes upon, interferes with, or distracts me from the morning and evening reading times.
Callie the dog tries.
My wife always has at least one thing she has to tell me.
My kids no longer come in the room crying, but they do come in the room (at night more than morning) to tell me something.
But mainly, I have my hand to the plow and my eyes fixed upon the furrow.
4. Teach yourself to get through a book–from beginning to end. One of the main and hardest lessons I teach in school is this: Finish the book. Even parents will object and tell their kids to make sure they are comprehending and remembering what they read. I am all for comprehension and remembering. But step one is perseverance and completion. There are times when books have to be jettisoned, started over, or slowed down. But generally, my approach is a FORCED MARCH through to the end.
The point is to embrace the discipline of reading in spite of all obstacles. Obstacles include distractions, weariness, lack of comprehension, and time. FINISH THE BOOK.
One of the best helps for this discipline is reading fiction that is engaging. Meaning, you teach yourself that you have to find out how the story ends. (But don’t cheat and skip to the ending.)
5. When necessary, make use of every little help you can get. When I am struggling with a book, I will sometimes go and read a short review of it. I read what Amazon readers have said. I go to Goodreads and glean from the reviews. I look for Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, etc. I ask others what they think of the book. This means little helps. Don’t buy the 500 page book on Plato’s Republic to help you get through his much shorter work. But if you find Plato’s Republic for Dummies in an abridged edition, read it.
When I was reading Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot some years ago. I was struggling to follow the story. Each night I would read a chapter or so. The next day at work, I would look up that chapter on the Sparknotes website. This was like talking to a friend who had read the book. Sometimes I realized that I had missed something vital in the chapter. Occasionally, I was right on target.
5. Be reading several books at a time. I really already covered this in point 2 above. Unless you are completing a book every day or so, you will likely need to have anywhere from two to twenty books you are reading from. Yep, some will get abandoned and left behind.
6. I usually read in chunks of 10 pages a day from each book I am currently working through. Or I read a chapter a day. The ten page goal is my go-to setting for the more challenging reads. If the book takes off and I am galloping through it, great. If not, ten pages gets you through 300 pages in a month. It works for me.
Again, sometimes books with chapters around 12 to 20 pages get read by chapters.
7. This morning I read from four different books. Since I am out of school today, I was able to read a bit more from each one than usual. There was a fifth book I tried to read from, but my mind was too zapped at that time. The book Long Before Luther was too much like the book I had just finished reading from (Reformation Thought by Alistair McGrath).
Before the day is over, I will read from at least three more books, God willing.
8. Concerning note taking, underlining, and highlighting: I never highlight any more because highliters tened to bleed through the pages or fade. They also ruin the look of the book when the highlighters’ colors are too strong. I never underline in a really nice edition of a book. I occasionally mark in the margins of cheaper books or school related books with an “n.” for “note” or “n.b.” for “note well” or a check mark for something funny or witty or a “c.” for “consider and think about this” or a “q.” for a good quote (meaning a quote from another source).
Books I teach from–like my copies of The Iliad or The Unvanquished–may have lots of underlining, cross-references, and notes.
I love Moleskine notebooks for writing in. But I don’t take time usually to write any or many good quotes in them. My reading time is limited, so writing notes and quotes stalls the end result.
Please share any ideas you have that work for you. This is not the final say-so on reading.