So it was a significant event in my reading life when, as I turned the last pages while sitting in the plane during our recent flight, I realized I had found my favorite book: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (Harper, 1954).
This was actually the second time I read this book. I first read it two years ago, in preparation for a fellowship program that I didn’t end up doing (I got married instead!). The first time I read it, it was excellent. But it was as if I took a few bites, tasted it. The second time, I enjoyed the full meal, and it was so rewarding that before I finished it I was already anticipating the next time I would read it.
Bonhoeffer – a German theologian and pastor who was murdered by the Gestapo for plotting to assassinate Hitler – wrote the book while teaching an underground seminary in Nazi Germany. He instructs on doing life together in Christ, as a community of Christians or as a family, and deals with topics such as prayer, common devotions, daily work, solitude, and serving one another. It’s a small book, running just over a hundred pages, but it is rich in wisdom and practical instruction. If you want to grow as a member of your community or your family, I cannot think of a better book you can read than this one.
Here are three excerpts to pique your interest. More posts will follow.
“Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts” (29).
“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (30).
“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door” (38).
When’s the last time you committed a poem to memory? What about a phone number or an address? Most of us don’t need to do these things any longer. Google, our laptops, and our many smart toys have made the need to commit information to memory obsolete. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but perhaps it’s worth reflecting on this change and what it means for our brains and our society.
In The Lost Art of Reading (Sasquatch, 2010), David Ulin quotes from Eva Hoffman’s Time:
“On one level we are relegating more and more of our mental operations to various technologies, with digital devices increasingly acting as prostheses for our faculties. We entrust our sense of spatial orientation to satellite navigations systems; we give mathematical calculations over to the appropriate gadgets…we have less need to remember information ourselves when so much can be stored in our computer’s memory. The feats of memory recorded in oral cultures, or performed by Soviet poets and writers under censorship, seem hardly credible within our zeitgeist. Nadezhda Mandelstam memorized all of her husband’s poetry because it was too hazardous to write it down. Solzhenitsyn committed to memory each page he wrote when he was imprisoned in the Gulag, and the destroyed the evidence. Such powers of retention are unimaginable to most of us and they may become even more so, as we transfer memory to the many storage places available to us – there to be filed way, for instant and effortless retrieval” (89).
In his extended essay The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch, 2010), David Ulin offers one response to the problem of “communication overload,” taken from an organization whose aim is to “cultivate unhurried activities and quiet places, sanctuaries in time and space for reflection and contemplation” (86). Here are the ten principles of this “technological Sabbath,” which I find helpful, even pleasurable, as some of us consider ways of setting aside quality technology-free time by ourselves and with loved ones:
1. Avoid technology.
2. Connect with loved ones.
3. Nurture your health.
4. Get outside.
5. Avoid commerce.
6. Light candles.
7. Drink wine.
8. Eat bread.
9. Find silence.
10. Give back.
In his extended essay The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch Books, 2010), LA Times book critic David Ulin cites a 2009 study showing that in 2008, Americans consumed information for about 12 hours per day, and about 100,000 words per day. This, he explains, is the equivalent of a three-hundred-page novel, which at first seems encouraging. Except that much of this is a fragmented consumption of the “back-and-forth between texting, e-mail, print, Twitter, blogs and other websites,” amounting to what he calls a “collective data dump” (80).
He then writes:
“This is where reading, real reading, comes in – because it demands space…Perhaps most important, there is the way reading requires us to pay attention, which cannot help but return us to the realm of inner life” (80).
Then it gets really good:
He quotes a co-author of the study mentioned above, on the impact of these kinds of reading on deeper thinking: “Our attention is being chopped into shorter intervals and that is probably not good for thinking deeper thoughts.”
And from a psychiatrist working with ADD: “We have a generation of people who…are so busy processing information from all directions they are losing the tendency to think and feel. And much of what they are exposed to is superficial. People are sacrificing depth and feeling and becoming cut off and disconnected from other people” (81).
These insights should caution us against our often superficial habits of mindless information consumption (I myself am guilty of this), and more importantly, they should move us into being more intentional about doing the kind of extended, concentrated deep reading that is fast becoming a thing of the past for many.
What does it look like for a father to wisely and lovingly instruct his children in the realities of life? It looks like James Garfield (1831-1881), twentieth president of the United States, turning to books – those reliable and patient teachers – to teach his children a lesson in the difficulties of life, from Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Anchor, 2012) by Candice Millard (given to me by my dear parents-in-law):
“Searching for a way to teach his children this hard truth [the inevitability of death], to prepare them for what lay ahead, Garfield had often turned to what he knew best – books. After dinner one evening, he pulled a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello off the shelf and began to read the tragedy aloud. ‘The children were not pleased with the way the story came out,’ he admitted in his diary, but he hoped that they would come to ‘appreciate stories that [do not] come out well, for they are very much like a good deal of life'” (19).
Plan to read a lot this year? Yes? That’s awesome! As we enter 2014, here are 14 tips* for better reading so you can get the most out of your books.
Happy new year and happy reading!
* NOTE: Almost every tip here is borrowed or taken directly from Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Crossway, 2011) by Tony Reinke, an exemplary bibliophile who also writes a great blog about books. I thank him for writing such an excellent and helpful book, and for inspiring me both as a reader and a blogger. I also am indebted to Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (Simon & Schuster, 1940), an invaluable classic beloved by generations of readers.
1. Read good books.
Not all books are created equal. Today we’re blessed with many good books, and unprecedented access to them, but there’s no substitute for spending time with those books that have stood the test of time and shaped our world. The effort they require is more than surpassed by the reward, like digging for gold – difficult but profitable. If you’re not sure where to begin, a good place to begin is Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books,” which covers the foundational texts of Western world.
To get the most out of your reading, establish priorities to guide your reading diet. A good way to set priorities is to base them on your roles in life, such as husband/wife, father/mother, student, professional, friend, and so on. For me, these include: Christian, husband, son, brother, and friend.
For example, here are Tony Reinke’s priorities, in order of importance:
- Reading Scripture
- Reading to know and delight in Christ
- Reading to kindle spiritual reflection
- Reading to initiate personal change
- Reading to pursue vocational excellence
- Reading to enjoy a good story
3. Read every day.
To read more, you must read consistently. 15 minutes every day is perfectly doable if you’re serious about reading.
4. Read everywhere.
To read more, find time everywhere and anywhere to read. These small chunks add up faster than you’d think. For example, Tony Reinke says he reads over his morning scrambled eggs, lunchtime tuna salad, at the DMV, and to his kids before bed.
5. “Install a transmission.”
This analogy by Tony Reinke perfectly captures the right approach to reading speed, correcting the mistaken approach of trying to speed read everything. Basically, your reading speed should be determined by the terrain: some books, and even some parts of books, require you to slow down, whereas with others you can go faster and even “cruise.”
6. Use a pen, highlight, circle, and make notes on the margins.
Tony Reinke calls this the art of “marginalia,” which is to deface a book’s margins with your thoughts, questions, and protestations. These show that you’re engaging with the material and the author, not simply passively absorbing words on a page. Also, know that you can do this with an electronic reader, so for all the Kindle lovers out there, this goes for you too!
6. Keep a dictionary handy.
Want to grow in your vocabulary and improve your ability to understand more difficult reading? Keep a dictionary handy to look up words you don’t know. I myself have often tried this but not kept up, but it’s a worthwhile habit that pays off in the long run, and not just because you can drop big words at cocktail parties like Snoop Dogg drops it like it’s hot. Again, electronic readers have a dictionary as a built-in function, so use it!
7. Summarize, make outlines, or paraphrase chapters.
This is another useful tool of active reading. I confess that I don’t yet do this, but it’s a valuable and worthwhile effort by the reader, if he wants to better understand and retain what he reads, to briefly summarize or recap what he’s read, both at the end of chapters and at the end of a book.
8. Dog-ear pages containing “Wow” passages.
One of my most useful habits is to dog-ear pages that contain a striking passage to which I may want to return later, making it easier to find these. This, moreover, helps set apart the “Wow!” passages from everything else you underlined, circled and highlighted. Some people view dog-earing pages as a barbaric act unbecoming of those who respect books, but I think this is baloney; I value books not for their neat packaging and pristine look, but for the content of their pages. Don’t be afraid to really own your books.
9. Read 3 books at a time.
Tony Reinke explains that he reads three books at a time because different times of the day are suited for different types of books. For example, most of us won’t dive into a breezy, light novel at the beginning of our day, just like we won’t try to read a more demanding book about, say, theology or philosophy, just before bed.
10. Read together.
Tony Reinke devotes a chapter to this, arguing that reading and discussing books with others not only helps to retain what is read, but it’s a great way to build community. Read with a friend, with your significant other, or with your family, and join or start a book club. Spread the book love!
11. Stop and think, don’t just react.
We’re quick to react and share what we read on Facebook and Twitter (I’m the chief of culprits). This is great, but too often we don’t first stop, and think, about the meaningful, striking or perplexing passage we just read. As Tony Reinke writes, “I am quick to Tweet and slow to think. I am quick to Google and slow to ponder.”
12. Read critically.
First seek to understand the author’s message, and once you understand it, evaluate the strength of the author’s main argument(s) and the ways she supports it. And always, always, always ask the most important question you can ask of anything you read: is it true? Does it accord with what is real, true and good?
13. Teach what you read.
Teaching, or sharing, what you read is a fun and great way to better your own understanding. Knowledge is to be shared, for the good of others and yourself.
14. Read the Bible (and throw in some Shakespeare).
For life, wisdom, joy, and faith, read this book above all. Even if you’re not religious, the Bible is not only beautifully written, but it will enrich your reading in general because Western literature is filled with biblical allusions and references. As some have said, the Bible and Shakespeare (who knew his Bible well) are two foundational sources of Western literature.
My favorite books of 2013, in order:
1. Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas.
I’m breaking a rule with this one: including it as one of my top reads before I’ve finished it. But I’m just over halfway through the book, and it’s already my favorite! Expertly employing historical narrative, Metaxas introduces us or reminds us of these seven great men: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Chuck Colson. Their greatness, Metaxas explains, is in their use of their power and position to serve others. Indeed, we can and should all recognize this as that which makes one truly great.
2. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller.
I read this to prepare for marriage this year, and it’s a book my wife and I will go back to many times during the course of our marriage for guidance and motivation when the going gets tough. Keller expounds on the biblical principles laid down for husbands and wives and shows us the power, the essence, and mission of marriage. It’s replete with useful principles and examples of meaningful, Christ-centered marriage, but one of the most helpful insights I took was the view of marriage as, ultimately, “spiritual friendship” between two sinners in need of God’s grace. Five months into my marriage, I affirm that this is indeed the bread-and-butter of our union – daily friendship and companionship in which we not only greatly enjoy one another, but also encourage and gently push each other to grow in our love for God and others. Keller’s important book explains the theology and teaches the practice behind meaningful marriage.
3. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Most people recognize the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, but few know the crucial role of his struggle with lifelong, persistent clinical depression in forming and strengthening his character. Shenk sheds light on Lincoln’s condition, which began in his 20s when he had his first severe bout of depression, with the understanding of our modern understanding of this illness, and he demonstrates how Lincoln’s trials with depression prepared him for the gargantuan trials of his presidency and the nation. This book illuminates and consistently fascinates, besides being eloquently and delightfully written.
4. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Though too few today have heard of him, Reinhold Niebuhr was a towering theologian and public intellectual at mid-century. He wrote this book as a critical self-examination for our nation, which following WWII found itself as the unchallenged superpower in a world threatened by the menace of Communism. Clear-eyed about the evil and perversion of communism, Niebuhr called on the American public and their leaders to not be blind about our own contradictions and ironies, such as professing noble universal ideals of peace and freedom while securing them through the threat of nuclear annihilation, as demonstrated in Japan at the close of the war. He argued that as the necessary and often tragic exercise of leadership in the world meant that we would not be able to keep intact our professed innocence and virtues. Still, he was clear that the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. This profound and prophetic work, written in 1952, remains as relevant as ever today.
5. Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft.
“This is a book for anyone who has ever wept and wondered, ‘Why?'” begins this book. A philosophy professor at Boston College, Kreeft takes the reader by the hand and brings him to the feet of philosophers, theologians, artists and writers to help him better understand the why behind the painful but universal reality of suffering. Kreeft’s gentle wisdom is displayed on every page, making this a deeply personal and moving journey in addition to an intellectual examination of the various and often inadequate answers to suffering found in different religious and philosophical worldviews.