2014: Lessons Learned in Reading

As I've said, I became a real reader this year. I feel like I finally learned how to read and became devoted to doing so. Here's a list of the lessons I've learned so far:

Read books, not news. We live in a media-saturated world where you can get infinite info through a variety of mediums including newspapers and blogs, but, ironically, I'm a strong advocate for primarily reading books. As important and edifying as local news and cultural commentary can be, the chances are you get plenty of it without even trying. It's almost impossible to remain unaware of important news these days, and you'll digest a sufficient dose of societal input by simply paying attention as you walk around town. Therefore, we don't subscribe to any newspapers, blogs, or magazines, and we don't use Facebook or have a TV. Instead, I focus 95% of my information intake on books, particularly good ones. Granted, I'm not the best guy to have on a trivia team during the pop culture round, but I keep up on important issues just fine and I make better use of my time than ever before.

Read to learn and enjoy, not accomplish. This is hard, especially for me. I love accomplishing even the silliest of things. In ministry, the work is never done, so there's nothing I like more than checking things off lists. However, that's a bastard approach to reading. Like people, books and ideas demand appreciation in themselves, not for what they can do for you. You know you're using a book rather than reading it when you experience that moment when you realize you have know idea what you've been reading for the last five minutes. If you're not sincerely interested in something, just put it down. 

Don't read tired. I love to read before bed, but there are times when I spend twenty minutes trying to read one page because I'm nodding off every other sentence. Just stop it. Go to bed, make coffee, or take a nap and read later. Often all I need is a good ten minutes of shut-eye and I can get back to reading. Don't fight sleep. It's a losing battle. 

Our brains retain far less than we think we do. When you're reading something good, you often think you'll never forget it. This is a lie. You will. Soon. This is why note-taking, highlighting, journaling, and re-reading are essential. Don't assume you'll remember the nuggets. Assume you'll forget them and adopt a system for finding them again later. C.S. Lewis said, "I can't imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once." We aren't literary exactly sponges. Instead, we're more like word filters. Some stick, but most don't. Therefore, I don't let a great sentence go unmarked. As a side note, the Kindle highlighting function is awesome for this. 

Read poetry and fiction, not just nonfiction. Good literature and poetry, like any art, can teach more than even the best nonfiction. Language, after all, is the use of metaphor, so story, allegory, and creative imagery can be incredibly useful teaching tools. Why do you think Jesus used so many parables? They're ingenious, timeless, and piercing. The same goes for good creative writing. For example, Marilynne Robinson is an incredible theologian as well as novelist, but her fictional dialogue has taught me more about humanity, sin, and grace than any of her essays have. A mature imagination is also crucial to a life of faith, which is why people like MacDonald, Tolkien, and Lewis admired fantasy so much. Experiencing Narnia can help us believe in heaven and our love for Aslan reveals how much we actually long for God. If it kindles our imagination in this way, fiction can be even more sanctifying than sermons. I find that prose that is true to life and poetry that resonates with my soul both help me connect to God, even if they don't mention anything about Him. So, balance theology and nonfiction with novels, fantasy stories, and love poems; balance both fiction and nonfiction with reading the Bible; and balance all reading, even of the Bible, with silence, solitude, and prayer. In full transparency, this is something I struggle with often.

Only read good books. Life is too short and there are too many classics to read crap. There are nearly 300,000 books published in the U.S. every year. You could spend the rest of your life just trying to get through June's romance novels, so don't. Only read the good stuff. There's lots of it. The rest isn't worth even fifteen minutes of your time. That means doing your homework isIt's worth taking an hour to decide on the right books if it saves you two hours of bad reading. This means you should be cautious of pretty cover art, flashy window displays,  New York Times bestseller labels, and impressive sales. None of these make a book worth reading.

And, read old books. Be wary of new. The best test of a book's quality is time. You've heard of Shakespeare, Plato, and Dickens for a reason. They wrote great stuff. Read it. Additionally, most new ideas aren't very good, anyways. It's an old world after all. Old books are the safest and they're often the most illuminating. For more on this, read C.S. Lewis' On the Reading of Old Books.

Read what your favorite authors read. I call this reading deep. When you find someone whose work you love and trust, plumb the depths. Find out who inspired them and read that too. This actually describes much of my year. C.S. Lewis, my favorite author, attributed much of his inspiration to G.K Chesterton and George MacDonald. So, I went back a generation and read them and guess what, they're great! Similarly, take book recommendations from people you trust. This summer, a trusted friend recommended Christian Wyman's My Bright Abyss, which I loved. In it, Wyman quoted from a woman named Marilynn Robinson, so I picked up Gilead, one of her books, as well. Robinson quickly became my favorite living author and I spent the fall reading nearly everything she ever wrote. One recommendation, when plumbed, led to total gold. The same goes for theology. Isaac Newton is credited for saying, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." So it goes for the best of today's theologians. The best of them pull constantly from Augustine, Aquinas, Ignatius, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, etc. So, read those guys too. 

Take smart shortcuts. You can't read everything, especially the old stuff. It's okay to read summaries and secondary sources, so long as you know that's what you're reading. For example, I'm studying philosophy, but it would be a huge and mostly wasteful endeavor to read all the major works of every self-claimed philosopher. Rather, I want to track with major themes and ideas, so I read two brief histories of philosophy this year. They provided a great overview of popular notions and historical thought trends. However, I can't claim I'm an expert now. I still need to double check the primary sources before I go quoting Nietzsche or Kant. Similarly, you can read summaries of the church fathers and ancient theologians, but don't mistake those for the theologians themselves. It's okay to study contemporary Calvinists, but despite what you may have heard, John Piper is not the same person as John Calvin.

Read according to your digestive system. In other words, know what you should be reading. Be honest with yourself and consider what you can handle intellectually and spiritually. If you need spiritual baby milk, that's fine. Get it and drink it. This could mean sticking to the safe theologian types like Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, NT Wright, etc. However, if you can chew on a carcass, swallow the meat, and spit out the bones, then it'd probably be could for you to take a break from those guys. Dare to read unorthodoxly. Christian Wyman and Anne Lamott are nearly heretical, Thomas Merton got weird in the end, Marilynne Robinson is a bleeding heart, George MacDonald got kicked out of his church and C.S. Lewis was famously unorthodox, and yet they've all brought me closer to Jesus. There is incredible wisdom out there even in the most unorthodox and seemingly unChristian of places. It's a joy to go find it, so long as you won't lose yourself in the process. There is much to be discovered when you challenge yourself with new ideas and perspectives. Don't be afraid to read outside the box, especially our little Western evangelical box. (It's actually mostly an illusion, you know.) 

Spend recklessly on your book budget. The Bible says wisdom is worth more than gold or silver. I believe that. It's definitely worth more than Blue Bottle latte or another pair of shoes. So, spend accordingly. The San Francisco Library Big Book Sale and used books are awesome, but unless you particularly enjoy old books, it’s not worth the time. You’ll spend 10-40 hours reading a book, so don't read random stuff just to save a few bucks. Your time is worth more than $.25 per hour. Buy what you want to read and what you ought to be reading, even if it costs a few bucks.

But don't waste money on books. Spend recklessly, not foolishly or uselessly. Though finding a good deal doesn't justify a bad book, there's nothing wrong with buying used books. I love a crisp new book as much as anyone, especially with all the beautiful cover art they're printing these days. But as hard as I try, I can't keep them pristine. Once I bring the crisp copy home to my wife, who doesn't care about books like I do, they quickly become used books. So why not save $10 and buy them that way? On Amazon, you can typically buy a good used copy for $5-10 less than a new version. Plus, who doesn't love the smell of old, well-loved books? And the really old hardcovers that count as vintage are so sweet! My hundred-year-old copy of Kidnapped, for example, is one of the coolest books I haveThere is one exception to this lesson, however.

Don't buy books that have been written in. This is why I'm a terrible friend to borrow books from. I treat most of them as potential future references, so I highlight, underline, and write notes in the margins. A few of them look a bit like journals. And that's the problem. You want to read the book, not someone else's journal. Unless the notes belong to someone really cool. If you ever find the copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance, that J.R.R. Tolkien shredded with scalding criticism, please let me know. That would be pretty cool. Otherwise, other people's notes get in the way. They ruin your own chances at underlining and note making. In a year, you won't know which marks are yours and which belong to the college student that read it twenty years ago. So, buy used, but not written in. 

Don’t buy lots of books until you’re actually a regular reader. Like REI, the publishers and bookstores make much of their money on New Years resolution splurges and book purchase therapy. We buy books just in case we might possibly have the desire to read them one day, which for many, never comes. It's great to have books on the shelf, but only if you really do love to read. A desire to have read things is a poor excuse for a love for reading. Be disciplined to not make purchases for the experience of buying a book, with one possible exception: $1-3 used books. In that case, support your local library and buy away. Once again, in full transparency, I  struggle with this. When stressed or frustrated, I’d often rather go to the bookstore than my own bookshelf, which ironically has all the books I've already decided are worth reading. 

Enjoy audio books responsibly. Listening to books read aloud is a lost joy. Historically, most great works were actually intended to be read aloud to audiences. In fact, that's how many authors made much of their income. There are audio versions of many of the classics available for free. If you ask me, it's all about a good reader. Personally, I prefer a male with a strong British or Scottish accent. Audio books can also be super efficient. I often listen to books while I walk around town or go on drives. However, make sure not to turn yourself into a headphone zombie. You shouldn't always need a distraction. The regular sounds of life are good, too. And avoid multitasking. It's taken me all year to finally learn that I can't listen to a lecture or story while checking email. It's so stupid! No one is smart enough to read with their eyes and ears at the same time. You just end up doing a terrible job with both. 

Read aloud to your spouse. I want to go a step further and say get rid of your dumb TV, but I won't. I'll just say this has been one of the simplest and sweetest pleasures for us. Do it. And try using voices and accents. 

Don't read too many books at a time. This might be more for me than for you. I read a lot of different things for a many different purposes, and often these overlap ridiculously. I've found myself in the middle of six or seven books at a time. Again, it's just dumb. I end up not being able to focus on any of them. I can handle about three at a time, max. 

Finally, read poetry in regular doses. First of all, poetry gets no love these days. But still nothing is more profound than a good, true poem. I think poetry is best read in disciplined regiments rather than huge chunks. I've tried to jam through whole anthologies before, but I almost seem to overdose. Poetry has a different rhythm and it seems to wear me out faster than prose. After an hour or so the words start to all mush together. It's like literary scotch. You're better off enjoying a small glass every evening than a whole bottle come Saturday. Last month, for example, we started reading through This Day, a collection of Wendell Berry's sabbath poems. Every sabbath, we read a handful together and then put the book back. It's great.

 

That's all for now. Happy reading!