Tip 3: Read With Purpose in Mind

The political satirist P. J. O’Rourke has a piece of advice for readers: “read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.”

It may impress the coroner to pull your face off the drool-stained pages of War and Peace, but in this post I’ll be arguing that to improve our reading efficiency we should choose books, not based upon their impressiveness and size, but for how closely their content correlates to personal interest and immediate need.

I suspect that due to task-driven thinking, and possibly to our books-as-assignment educational experiences, we fall into a trap of referencing books in the coldest of terms. We say things like:

My goal is to read this book.

My goal is to read this stack of books.

I’m feeling guilty because I bought all those other books that I need to read.

I’m feeling like a failure because I’m only halfway through that book, yet there is sits, unread.

Notice a problem?

This language often exposes that our perception of reading progress and goals have become mechanical. How many of us admit that our primary reading goal is to COMPLETE a book rather than to LEARN from it, to finish it rather than enjoying the progress of learning? Beware of this tendency.

Our reading goals must enlarge beyond a desire to see a stack of completed books accumulate. We want our heads and hearts filled with God-glorifying truth, not just information, but the kind of truth that lives and breathes and kicks and bears direct influence what we think, choose, and speak.

But reading books mechanically, or keeping on in a book because it needs to be finished, is a lot like enduring a 40-minute mundane cardiovascular workout. Mechanical endurance reading kills the reading appetite as surely as the anticipation of a split pea soup dinner kills my appetite for food.

But protecting ourselves from this will require forethought and planning before we begin our reading.

Ask, and it will be given to you

The key is asking the right questions. Before you begin any book—before you step into the bookstore—I’d recommend that you ask yourself: “What 5 things do I want to learn?” The answers to this question will focus our book purchases and, as we will see later, establishes a threshold to determine if the books we are reading are helpful or not.

Before I begin books, I ask myself these questions. Sometimes I write the answers on paper or just keep a mental list. Instead of telling you more about this principle, let me show you some recent examples as I planned my reading:

Question: Within one of my specific ministry initiatives I’m struggling to identify its specific vision and direction. But I’m having an even more difficulty communicating to others how this initiative lacks vision. So how can I communicate this lack, get everyone to see the problems, and to position others to help sharpen the vision?
Book: The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures by Dan Roam.

Questions: With young kids, my wife and I have been majoring on authority and discipline. But now our son is growing up. So what should I be striving to instruct him in? And I recently read that spanking is only for children who refuse to repent for their sin. Is this true? If so, at what age?
Book: Instructing a Child’s Heart by Ted and Margy Tripp

Questions: (1) Why do the Dutch theologians like Bavinck spend so little time defending inerrancy and so much time defending organic inspiration? (2) Where in their ethics is the priority on re-creation (grace restores nature) reflected? (3) How do these guys so naturally mix systematic theology and ethics together? I’d like to follow this model.
Book: Concise Reformed Dogmatics.

Question: Most of my sporadic periods of creativity occur during my mornings (6-11 am). Is it possible to structure creativity? If so, how can I schedule this time for focused creativity?
Book: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.

Question: What in tarnation is Twitter? And why are marketers all frothy about this narrow social networking platform?
Book: Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin.

The point is that before diving into books, I’ve already raised specific questions that I’ll be looking to answer. I know that if I walk into Barnes & Noble without first establishing similar questions, I’ll walk out with a few books that captured my attention but will likely sit unread because they are not targeted to my specific needs. It’s not the book’s fault. It’s mine.

With these questions written out on paper, I now approach books with clear intention. I surround myself with books and begin reading from the driver’s seat with my foot on the accelerator, taking a turn when necessary, stopping or accelerating at will, know when to continue reading a book, when to chuck a book, and when to replace a book. In those moments when a book answers a specific personal question, I experience the small combustive explosion, generating the horsepower to pull me along into a more disciplined, faithful, and consistent reading schedule.

Questions and Scripture

The similar principles can be applied to our reading of Scripture.

This year my wife Karalee has begun reading the Bible in 12 weeks (she finds it beneficial to read the entire Bible in a couple months than trying to sustain a schedule to read the entire Bible in a full year).

But while it’s not uncommon for folks to begin a “read through the Bible in a year” plan in January, my wife’s plan is unique in that she is reading Scripture to focus upon and isolate every reference to humble self-sacrifice and every story that demonstrates the theme. And if her list of notes from the first half of Genesis is any indication, it appears she will learn a lot on this top by the time she reaches Rev. 22.

Karalee’s approach to Bible reading is especially fruitful because her reading time is especially focused.

When is a book “done”?

One of the critical reading skills is to know when a book is “done.” This goes back to what I was saying about a mechanical view of reading. I think too often we assume that the back cover marks the completion of a book. Not so.

Especially in business, leadership, and marketing books authors often begin repeating themselves over and over and over and over… Noticing this repetition—not hitting the endnotes—is when you know the book is done.

And if the book is not hitting your purposes/questions after about 100 pages, it may be time to move on to another book or skip to a later section.

Time is a precious commodity and as readers we need to invest our commodity in excellent books. In the words of Mark Twain: “The man who does not read good books, has no advantage over the man who can’t read.”

If the book you’re reading is not helping you, move on to another. By asking the questions you have established a threshold to determine what is helpful and what is not. So get quickly to the useful books and quickly get past the less useful ones.

Chapter recommendations

As an aside, my friend C.J. is a skilled reader and a master of book recommendations. What makes his so skillful in his recommendations is the care he takes to isolate specific chapters in books. When talking about spiritual disciplines he often references one chapter by Don Whitney in a book about the life and theology of Jonathan Edwards. Admittedly that’s an unlikely place to look for help in the spiritual disciplines, but the chapter is excellent and oftentimes unfortunately neglected.

After watching C.J.’s example I think I can say that pastors will better serve their people if they could call attention to specific chapters in books rather than assigning full books. This makes for a more realistic goal for non-readers and a less daunting assignment than wading through an entire book.

Just a thought.

Series Conclusion

So those are 3 tips to reading more effectively. In the final two tips—marking in my books and in asking the right target questions—I am reminding myself that my library is a toolbox. I can read a book if I choose, put it away after the first 50 pages if I don’t find it profitable, cross out what I disagree with, and be liberated from viewing books as assignments. If a book isn’t working for me, I have too many other promising titles awaiting to invest time in finishing a mediocre book.

I could continue with more but I’ll stop here.

Please leave your own personal tips for reading effectively and efficiently. Drop those in the comments. Thanks for reading!

19 thoughts on “Tip 3: Read With Purpose in Mind

  1. Thanks for the series Tony.

    I found that when I wrote notes on what I was reading on a separate sheet of paper I would a) fail to type them into a database or b) lose the notes altogether.

    Taking a page out of Tin Sanders’ Love Is the Killer App I write my notes on the front cover and then I create a glossary of definitions and quotes on the back cover. This has helped me integrate what I’m learning more easily into my life. It also provides me with handy-dandy personal Cliff’s notes of the book.

    Sanders also gives some great advice on choosing what to read, integrating what your reading with what you’re doing, and giving info away. I highly recommend the book for those insights.

  2. Hi, Tony

    I’ve read quite a few books on reading and your tips are some of the best I’ve seen.

    If you’ll let me share a tip with you, if you check out the Sorbonne method of note-taking, it is ready made for writing in books.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Thanks for this series, I followed some advice from number 2 in the series & crossed out a section of a book that was off on its teachings.
    You were right!

  4. Hey Tony,

    I really appreciate your series on reading tips. Especially on the idea of reading focused. It’s good to see that there are other delusional optimists out there.

    And I like your wife’s Bible reading plan: do it in shorter time.

    Last year I read the Bible through and appreciated the exercise, but am going to try something different this year:

    Read the OT in a short period of time [dedicating Sundays to devouring chunks of it] but camp on 6 chapters of the NT everyday for 30 days.

    I got this idea from John MacArthur’s little book “Found:God’s Will”. I started with 1 John. The following month I read the first 5 chapters of John everyday for a month. Then chapters 6-10, 11-15 and 16-21.

    Talk about opening my eyes. Good stuff.

    My other reading goals for 2008 is to read 50 books. At minimum. 300-page books in a week will be easy.

    But let me ask you this: How do you think I should handle large books, like Charnock’s “Existence and Attributes on God”?

    I like to read one book before I pick up another. But I’m thinking I’m going to have to slice Charnock up into weekly/monthly page goals, and just get over the fact I’m reading two books at the same time.

    Any thoughts?

  5. I particularly like that the questions that direct your reading are supported first by the intention to read.

    I have been frustrated at times with a trend I’ve seen to suggest books to people who are struggling with “xyz”. Instead of personal ministry, active loving, and prayer, I’ve seen people want to throw a book at another’s sins/questions/problems.

    Books are great, a perculiar means of grace (thus, 2Tim 4:13), conversations with absent or dead mentors, etc. They are not substitues for living ministry in the body.

  6. I read Charnock a few years back – I was preaching on the attributes and set up a schedule so that I had read the appropriate section by the time I came to preach on it. It involved reading 10 pages a day.

    As I read I underlined quotes I liked. I then typed them up.

    Each day I also used MS Word in Outline mode to construct the outline of each chapter with appropriate points, subpoints and subsubpoints – with quotes located in their appropriate place. This really gave me a handle on what he was saying. In fact I think that towards the end of the books I was outlining the chapter mostly before I read it – looking for key words like ‘firstly’ etc.

    I really enjoyed it – although some parts were like chewing concrete and I didnt get much good out of them – especially in the opening chapters.

  7. What a great post—I came here through Gary’s blog

    I appreciate your take on why and how to pick books (fresh to me).

    My biggest problem (I too LOVE to read, and read prodigious amounts) is that I am weirdly compelled to always finish books, no matter how bad. I am serious. I will knowingly be hating a book, or the author’s writing style, or the premise, yet be unable to go onto another book until finishing. Now, often I am reading several books at once, and even if one is stellar and the others so-so, I still find I have to finish each of them. I think I am just hoping against hope that the book somehow gets redeemed.

    Anyone share this complusion?

  8. Oooohh….I just read that you will “put away a book” if it doesn’t grab you in the first 50 pages.

  9. On not having to read the whole book: I too have a stack of half-finished books lying around, bookmarks in place – I can pick up a book six months or a year later and suddenly find I am ready to go on with it.

    On reading the Bible: I am a few days into my third reading of the chronological Bible I bought some years back as part of the process of coming to faith. Yes it’s kind of a cheat, but it helps me get all the history in order, even though I am light years away in terms of my familiarity with the Bible than the person who first picked up that book. And yes, sometimes it feels like endurance reading (Leviticus and Numbers, oh my) but I know that if I keep going the beauty and truth will hit me again.

    So this is the one instance where dropping a book because of the author’s repetitiveness is not so valid! I like your wife’s idea of reading the Bible through with a theme in mind, though, and might implement it at some time. My advice is, in this particular instance whatever works is good.

  10. Thanks for the posts, they have encouraged me to read my face off.

    Question, and this is for anybody really: I read oftentimes when eating or doing something requiring both my hands. So far, i’ve been sadly attempting to use my TV remote or some other janky setup to prop the book open. I know some people use the electronic reader thing-a-ma-gigers, but I currently don’t own one of them. Any suggestions?

  11. Mark:

    I have not seen any information on the Sorbonne method online. I first read about it in Steve Leveen’s The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life and he got it from Edmund Szekeley’s The Art of Study (he’s kind of New Agey). It can be explained in a few sentences.

    Here it is:

    You have four margins on each page of a book.

    Right margin: write a summary of each point (paragraph, sentence, etc.) in your own words

    Left margin: write a question that is answered by the summary in the opposite margin (use this to test yourself as you review your reading)

    Top margin: write a summary of the entire topic covered on that page (or pages) in your own words.

    Bottom margin: write down everything you don’t understand. Use this to spur you to further research.

    Use numbers to connect each of these to the text.

    A similar method is helpful for taking notes of a lecture, class session, sermon etc. called the Cornell Method. The explanation of the Cornell Method is here:


    There is also a helpful PDF generator here (I’m not crazy about it):


    or you can simply by this product by Ampad that is very similar to the sheet generated above:


    Levenger Press sells note-taking sheets that are for the Cornell Method here:


    There are also helpful articles about reading and note-taking on the Levenger Press site. They bill themselves as having tools for the serious reader.


    NOTE: I do not work for Levenger Press nor am I associated with them in any way. I simply find their products and articles helpful.

    Here are links to the books on Amazon. I highly recommend the first one by Steve Leveen. The second one, I think I was expecting more out of. But since their available for only a few cents, it might be worth your while.

    Leveen: http://www.amazon.com/Little-Guide-Your-Well-Read-Life/dp/1929154178/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1231943500&sr=8-1

    Szekely: http://www.amazon.com/Art-Study-Sorbonne-Method/dp/0895640651

    My apologies to Tony for taking over his comments section.

    I hope that this information is helpful.

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