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.
2012 has been a year of many great reads, but these were the standouts.
5. Augustine of Hippo (Peter Brown)
Peter Brown’s masterful Augustine of Hippo is widely considered the definitive biography of the bishop, and with good reason. He is exhaustive in his use of original sources and other scholarly material (it seems that every other line has a footnote); he skillfully re-creates the world in which Augustine moved, giving us a tangible feel for the rich and volatile atmosphere of North Africa in the 3rd century; and most gratifying, he writes beautifully, making it a great pleasure to read and soak in. For the uninitiated in Augustine, this book should be like the main course that comes after some appetizers that can give you a taste for what is to come. It also is abundant in details, concerning not just Augustine but surrounding controversies and political problems, which might not interest the reader meeting Augustine for the first time. For such a reader, I recommend beginning with his Confessions.
4. Confessions (Augustine)
Augustine’s Confessions is an important and rich work. It’s important because it is the first autobiography of the modern world, containing deep psychological and existential reflections, long before such terms and concepts came into popular use. And it is a rich work in that it is no mere recounting of events and reflections on these, but rather a lengthy prayer to God that takes the reader (and as a renowned and popular bishop, Augustine knew he would have many readers) from the earliest memories of infantile selfishness (he shows us why babies are not really “little angels”) to the loftiest meditations on the nature of time and memory, and his place in God’s cosmic plan. The Confessions give us Augustine in full measure: the young and promiscuous “lusty stallion,” the demanding and intense friend, the brilliant rhetorician and philosopher, the loving son who never spoke a harsh word to his mother (she commended him for this in her dying moments), and ultimately, the giant of the church who was, through and through, a true lover of God.
3. Churchill (Paul Johnson)
The list of Churchill biographies is almost endless. This is part of what makes Paul Johnson’s book a great contribution: it gives us a great sense of the man, and covers the crucial events of his outsized life. More than this, Johnson generously shares all those quirky and fascinating details that have made Churchill one of the most closely studied persons of history (e.g. his talent for going from hard-charging, energetic work to being able to, almost at will, relax and recuperate his energies; it helped that he was a great napper!). Johnson writes of Churchill, whom he once met, with warmth and affection, yet he does not try to hide character defects and other less than flattering facts about him. And in true form to the kind of historian he is, he concludes his brief but highly enjoyable biographical portrait with five lessons (see my post, listing these, below) we can take away from the life of Churchill.
Just Courage was the most challenging book I read this year. It is International Justice Mission president Gary Haugen’s highly personal account of his work to end human trafficking as well as an impassioned call to Christians to take justice seriously, because justice matters to God. He compellingly shows that justice for the vulnerable (e.g. the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan) is a major concept in Scripture which we ignore to our own spiritual loss. One thing I appreciate about Haugen is that he understands the fears and hindrances that keep many of us, with our comfortable jobs and pretty houses and neat lives, from engaging in this kind of work (granted, not everyone is called to fight human trafficking halfway around the world; many can do it from their own house or church, even). He admits that it can be scary to leave what to us mean comfort and security and predictability, and to go risk your safety by upsetting the snake pit that is the world of human trafficking. But as a man who knows and loves Jesus, he then reminds us that we have better reasons not to fear: because God is the one doing the work; we are but the instruments he chooses to use to accomplish his purposes in this world.
Before he wrote the recent, highly acclaimed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy), Eric Metaxas wrote of another great man: William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a highly successful Member of Parliament from the late-18th century to the early 19th century, whose lifelong mission as a gifted politician was to abolish the slave trade. This was my favorite book not only because it is about my historical hero, but also because it is superbly written. Furthermore, It is not an exhaustive biography of Wilberforce. It focuses on his conversion to Christianity and his subsequent decades-long struggle to abolish the slave trade. Metaxas does a great job of showing us Wilberforce the person – lively, cheerful, witty, indefatigable, and keen on putting his faith into action. This was not only a pleasurable read, but personally important in that it painted a picture for me of how a committed Christian can successfully navigate the dangerous world of politics, and not just survive or keep his position, but accomplish a great victory in the cause of justice in this dark world.
William Wilberforce’s journey to faith was not in isolation. He had the good fortune to be helped by Isaac Milner, a rare genius and physical giant of a man who, though not personally committed to Christianity, was a theologian in his own right, well equipped to explain and defend the great doctrines of Christianity which he respected. On a voyage across the English Channel and through France, they read a book titled The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, of which Milner declared to Wilberforce, “It is one of the best books ever written” (47). Together they read, examined, discussed and reflected on its contents (what one would give to listen in on their conversations!), and the wheels of their souls began turning. Before long, Wilberforce, age 26, put his faith in Christ.
Shaken out of his carefree, pleasure-seeking attitude to life by his newfound faith, Wilberforce was at first harsh with himself. He resolved to eradicate his vices and replace them with virtuous habits, even making a list of the number of times he failed or prevailed in each vice or virtue each day. What floored me, however, was the agreement he entered into with his friend Isaac Milner to, in their own words, “exercise the invaluable practice of telling each other what each party believes to be the other’s chief faults and infirmities” (67).
This episode offers two practices that can enrich friendship and lead to personal improvement:
1) As seen above, friends can be candid with one another about the other’s “faults and infirmities.” This requires not only a close friendship but strength of character, for it entails humility, candor, and above all, genuine love, which will guard against mean-spiritedness and over-sensitivity.
2) The other is reading books together. A person reading alone is a happy sight; but when you see two friends reading together, you know something special is taking place. There are few pleasures like going through a good book with a kindred spirit. Not only do you gain a deeper understanding through discussion as well as another perspective, but you also gain a more intimate knowledge of your friend.