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.
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.
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!