I’m honored to be here at Colorado Christian University this morning. The purpose of my talk is to share 23 lessons about reading I have learned from 23 years of reading nonfiction books. Some of these lessons will be new to you. Most of them won’t be. And they’re all in the book I mentioned, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books.
Well, the distinguished biographer David McCullough once recounted the following story from the early life of Theodore Roosevelt:
Once upon a time in the dead of winter in the Dakota Territory, Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat down the Little Missouri River in pursuit of a couple of thieves who had stolen his prized rowboat. After several days on the river, he caught up and got the draw on them with his trusty Winchester [rifle], at which point they surrendered. Then Roosevelt set off in a borrowed wagon to haul the thieves cross-country to justice. They headed across the snow-covered wastes of the Badlands to the railhead at Dickinson [North Dakota], and Roosevelt walked the whole way, the entire forty miles. It was an astonishing feat, what might be called a defining moment in Roosevelt’s eventful life. But what makes it especially memorable is that during that time, he managed to read all of Anna Karenina [Leo Tolstoy’s 900-page novel]. I often think of that when I hear people say they haven’t time to read.1
We haven’t time to read 900-page novels, much less 200-page nonfiction. Partly we can trace this back to a moment when Roosevelt was fourteen years old, when Samuel Morse, of Morse Code fame, sent the first telegraph message from D.C. to Baltimore in the spring of 1844. His message was a biblical exclamation: “What hath God wrought!” (Numbers 23:23).
Well, we know what the telegraph wrought: a new opportunity to shrink data down into fragments, sentences, and phrases. The telegraph became the private text message, which became the public tweet.
Born into the world in the spring of 1844 was the microspectacle — a tiny fragment of information, sentences, and phrases — eventually leading to images and videos — all spread at lightning speed across the globe. And the faster our media delivery systems became, the more efficiently those spectacles were delivered to the handheld devices in our pockets.
Viral phenomena shrinks into smaller and smaller micro-spectacles until we find ourselves hopelessly addicted to our smartphones. Now we scan videos, scrub ahead, jump ten seconds forward in search of the snap ending. Sports become four-second clips. Movies become five-second GIFs. The tornado chaser’s footage becomes a dramatic twenty-second video.
And we love it. Focusing our attention for too long is hard. Our brains love little snack breaks, and the digital media companies know it. We are targets of attention-candy that fits nicely into our appetite for something new, weird, glorious, hilarious, curious, or cute.
“The iPhone is a chemical-driven casino that preys on our base desire for vanity and our obsession with train wrecks.”
We also love anything that pertains to us or our likes — it feels like people are giving us attention. The iPhone is a chemical-driven casino that preys on our base desires for vanity, ego, and our obsession with watching train wrecks. We love the ego buzz of social media. And we never stop hungering for Turkish delight-sized bites of digital scandal.
“Mobile is a great market. It is the greatest market the tech industry, or any industry for that matter, has ever seen,” said technology analyst Ben Thompson. Why? “It is only when we’re doing something specific that we aren’t using our phones, and the empty spaces of our lives are far greater than anyone imagined. Into this void — this massive market, both in terms of numbers and available time — came the perfect product.”
Smartphones make it possible for the attention economy to target our little attention gaps as we transition between tasks and duties. Our attention may be slightly elastic enough to fill up every empty gap of silence in our days, but in the end it’s still a zero-sum game. We have limited amounts of time to focus in a given day, and now every second of our attention is getting targeted and commoditized.
Attack on Concentration
The potency of the digital spectacles today is a new phenomenon, but distracted attention is nothing new. Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper felt something similar with an emerging new media, back in 1911. Long before AI algorithms learned to rearrange our social media feeds to addict us, magazines hooked readers with entertaining feature articles. The problem, Kuyper said, was that you barely had time to read one issue before another issue of randomly collected feature articles arrived in the mail.
Magazines were not troublesome because they were bad. They were troublesome because they were so addictive. And in luring readers to endless stream of feature articles, it raised a spiritual problem. Kuyper wrote, “Each of us must, on the one hand, exert ourselves to participate in the life of our time, while on the other hand we must continue to protect the freedom of our mind and force it to concentrate on what matters.”
If readers cannot concentrate on what matters, they become “constantly occupied with all kinds of things, not because this is what they seek or want, but because all of this [content] attacks them, overpowers them, and occupies every corner of their heart and thoughts unasked.” The coming of the magazine marked a tsunami of fascinating content that simply overwhelmed the human powers of input.
By contrast, Kuyper said, the life of faith demands focused recollection: “It should not be forgotten that all religion is a penetration with the innermost part of the soul into the unity of all things, in order to comprehend the unity of the One from whom everything comes. For that reason, to take delight in godliness you must ascend from the many, the varied, the endlessly distinct, to the coherence” of all things.2 Without focus, without the power to see coherence, faith dies.
God Wrote, We Read
That’s very interesting, but is Kuyper right? Does so much ride on coherence? Is it biblical? That’s the bigger question. To answer that, let’s take a moment and think about this with Bibles open to Ephesians.
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles — assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this [Paul’s epistle], you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles [along with Jews] are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. (Ephesians 3:1–13)
“The mystery of the gospel was written down. Can a higher tribute be paid to the discipline of reading?”
So how are we to understand ancient prophecies, Israel’s role in redemption, the mystery of Christ, his global gospel, the church’s start, the purpose of the church’s existence, the fact that the world exists in order to house a church, our new boldness before God, the nature of spiritual warfare, and the ultimate purpose of the Creator for his creation? How do we understand all this? By reading Paul, as he puts the story of the Bible together for us. The mystery of the gospel was “written” down (Ephesians 3:3). Can a higher tribute be paid to the discipline of reading?
The life of faith is the life of comprehending unity. And what’s written in Scripture is given to us so that, when we read, the people of God can comprehend “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:9) — namely, the ancient prophecies, Israel’s role in redemption, the arrival of Christ, his cross-cultural gospel, the beginning of the church, our new boldness before God, the dynamics of spiritual warfare, and the existence and purpose of creation itself. The Christian’s brain needs to comprehend this macro unity.
Not only the church, but also our culture — and the entire educational system — is facing a crisis of the mind. The immediate is crowding out the ultimate. So Christians are ones who are always learning how to learn, and yet the pressures against serious reading are all around us. Secularism is one of them, so too the individualism of social media.
23 Tips for Better Reading
But for the remainder of our time together I want to get very practical. I’ve been a serious book reader for 23 years, and I want to give you 23 practical tips to consider, particularly when it comes to reading nonfiction.
These are lessons I have learned myself. They help me. Maybe they will help you. Maybe they will help you parent. Again, this is in my book Lit!, so I’ll run through them rather fast. Be inspired for the lifelong cultivation of reading skills. That’s what I hope to impart.
1. Read Daily, in the Gaps
Social media does one thing well: it fills up every gap of life with things interesting and eye-catching and scandalous and awe-inspiring and interesting. We can reclaim those gaps for reading.
And those gaps really add up. Most people can find sixty minutes each day to read. It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t: fifteen minutes in the morning, fifteen minutes at lunchtime, and another thirty minutes in the evening. At this pace, you can devote seven hours to reading each week (or 420 minutes).
The average reader moves through a book at a pace of about 250 words per minute, so 420 minutes of reading per week translates into 105,000 words per week. Most books today are about 60,000 words long. Assuming you can read for one hour each day, and that you read at around 250 words per minute, you can complete more than one book per week, or about 60 or 70 books per year. It’s very doable, and that’s just in redeeming the gaps of life.
2. Redeem Each Environment
When I started thinking about the situations where I seek to capture reading fragments, I began to see that certain settings favored certain types of books. Here are a few of those places:
- Desk reading: I haul myself out of bed, pour some coffee, and head to my desk. Here is where I meet with God through Scripture and often where I dive into commentaries on the Bible and theology. Most of my serious devotional reading is done at that desk in the early morning hours.
- Coffee shop reading: The longest and most difficult books, the books that require the most caffeinated attention, I bring to the coffee shop on my days off. There I invest two or three hours of reading with singular focus. Once the earbuds are in place, the music begins, and the cover is opened, the world around me fades away.
- Barbershop reading: My barber has twenty magazine subscriptions, because people waiting for him have free time to read. I never go to the barbershop without a book. I find that I can read just about any type of book in this setting.
- Lunch-break reading: At work, I can often read a brief devotional in small fragments of time. I keep an array of books within arm’s reach at work, including a copy of The Valley of Vision at my desk. I often take fifteen minutes during my lunch break for a brief devotional. It’s a great time to recalibrate my heart in the middle of the day.
- Evening reading, when my brain is fried: At night when the sun is down, and my brain is shot from the day, I can read historical novels and biographies. For me, this is the best time to read about the lives of others.
- Bedside reading: In defiance of feng shui experts, I keep a stack of books next to my bed. These are books that I read in the thirty minutes before I fall asleep, and each of the books can be read in short chunks. These are not books I intend to read from cover to cover, but only to read a few parts of. I replace the stack of books every couple of months.
- Travel reading: I travel a bit, but it took me a while to figure out how to make the most of my travel reading. For a while I traveled with light fiction, thinking that a novel would be perfect. But my reading never got any lift. While trying to read novels in the vibrating hum of a jet fuselage, I found myself nodding off and losing interest. Later I discovered that at thirty thousand feet, my life seemed to come into focus. Once I made this discovery, I began to limit my carry-on to business books, Christian living books, and books that gave me just enough instruction to stimulate reflection and planning about my family, my job, and my life priorities. I step off the jet with pages of thoughtful personal reflection, a renewed energy for life, and a clear focus on my primary goals.
3. Ruthlessly Curate Your Reading List
Several years ago, my wife and I both came to understand that if we were going to preserve our ability to read long books, we needed to not only read in the gaps of life, but also needed to get away to read books. We had small kids. I worked online, submerged in social media. All of life was conspiring against this habit of reading books well. So we decided to set aside time each year and go on a “reading retreat” with a stack of books. Now, I certainly recommend the practice.
But what was especially fun, leading up to that trip, was that my wife and I could bring only printed books. No e-books. You had to physically travel with your book selections. And especially when we began doing these trips with carry-on bags on commercial jets, we narrowed those titles down to two or three books. One trip, I brought only one title.
Now, these restraints have led us to become ruthless book curators. A few weeks out, my wife and I would buy — or get from the library — a stack of ten new titles, pick through them, sort them, rank them. We would whittle them down, down, down, until we had our chosen few. For all seasons of life, that’s a great discipline. Curate your reading list carefully.
4. Learn to Speed Read
Many mature readers will grow comfortable with a broad range of reading speeds: from a quick skim of the text, to a close study of the text, to a deep meditation over the text. On one side this means training our brains to read more quickly. Learning how is not complex, and you certainly don’t need a speed-reading course to do it.
One simple way to read faster is by running your finger under the text as you read, increasing the speed of your finger across the page until you are pushing your eyes to read faster than normal. In other words, use your finger like a stuffed rabbit zipping along in front of a sprinting greyhound. Keep running your finger faster until you begin reading more comfortably at that speed. At first this may feel awkward, but over time, this reading speed may become easier.
Due to differing comprehension speeds, not every reader will be able to read faster. And that’s okay, because a lot of books should not be read quickly anyways. But if you can learn to read faster, go for it.
5. Slow Read
On the other side of the spectrum, mature readers must also be comfortable reading slowly. Book reading is not all about burning through prose. Sometimes the best way to read a book is to gear down and read slowly and meditatively.
“Reading can be painful. Learning to read isn’t like learning to walk; it’s like learning to play a piano.”
In this situation, beware that impatience can rear its ugly head, make you feel guilty for not reading faster, and eliminate the joy from your book reading. Often our frustration with slow reading stems from a wrong attitude — of viewing books as a task to be accomplished, not as a difficult pleasure to be enjoyed. Reading, especially when we are just getting started, can be painful. Learning to read isn’t like learning to walk; it’s like learning to play a piano. It’s not natural.
So don’t give up too easily on a book that requires slow reading. Sometimes the best books require patience. Get comfortable with the slow pace, even if it’s a pace that is a lot slower than others.
6. Install a Transmission
Mature readers know when to read quickly and when to read slowly. Reading is like driving a moving truck through mountain highways. There are times to chug uphill in a low gear, and there are times to coast downhill in a high gear. Each book has its own terrain.
Our reading speeds will change as we read, because different sections in books will be like muscling uphill or cruising downhill. Over time, you will begin to sense the terrain of a book, and you will learn how to use different gears. Just be aware that the terrain can change. Some parts of a book can be read more quickly than others.
Before you begin reading a book, determine its purpose in your life. Why are you reading this book? What makes it better than the tens of thousands of books you had to ignore to read this one? Is it (1) part of your spiritual diet, (2) for personal change, or (3) just for fun? Determining clear reading priorities is critical.
Once the reading priorities are clear, then it’s time to ask specific questions. I encourage readers to write five to ten specific questions they would like the author to answer. By posing questions to a book before you begin, you establish an objective basis for why you are reading this book in the first place. As you read, those questions will make it easier to determine if the book is achieving this purpose.
8. Determine the Author’s Orbit
Which direction do you want the author to pull you? Do you want the author to pull you into the book (centripetal), or do you want the author to push you out of the book (centrifugal)? For example, if you read a book to simply delight in literary beauty, you want the author to pull you in, to hook your mind and heart with rich imagery.
On the other hand, if the book is for immediate personal change, you want the author to push you out, so you can unhitch from the book for personal reflection and application. The force of a book is shown by how well the author moves the reader along the intended route.
Determining which direction we are seeking to move is important. The business books I read are always centrifugal, pushing me away from the book into personal reflection. The leisure books I read are often centripetal, pulling me into the book for literary delight. Knowing this difference will shape the way you read (and respond to) books.
9. Run a Background Check
Before I read a book, I run a quick search online to browse book reviews, find concise summaries, read endorsements, and check for any high-profile blurbs that have been published about the book.
This step acquaints me with the authors I read. Who are they? Where do they work? What worldview do they represent? This critical step helps to prepare me for what I am about to read and can alert me to the author’s motivations. This background check requires only a few minutes of my time, and it is time well invested.
10. Grab a Pen
I buy copies of my print books, because I’m a strong believer that you should write in books, and write in them with a pen. Gasp! A book-mutilator! I keep a pen close. It’s good preparation, and it puts me in a posture of expectancy.
Without a pen in hand, I forget the thoughts that pass through my mind. Out of habit, I grab a pen before I grab a book. I have a whole chapter in my book, Lit!, devoted to marginalia and explaining how I do it. Write in books. Do it.
11. Slowly X-Ray the Book
Before I begin reading the first page of a book, I invest thirty minutes to ask broad structural questions. Adler, in his famous book on reading, writes, “Every book has a skeleton hidden between its covers.” I am trying to x-ray for that skeletal structure.
First, I study the table of contents, noticing how chapters build on one another. Second, I scan the book and its section headings. Third, I read the chapter summaries and even the concluding chapter. Anything that looks like a concise summary gets read first. (Confession: I typically read the final page before the first page.) Only then am I ready to begin reading the introduction.
Readers are tempted to dive right into the first pages, but it takes patience to x-ray a book. The time spent slowly inspecting a book is a rewarding investment. This step has protected me from wasting time reading mediocre books. Take time to x-ray for the skeleton, and take as much time as you need to do it well.
12. Determine a Reading Strategy
After I x-ray the book for its structure, I have a good sense of the book’s main points. Now I must determine how I want to read it. Different books must be read in different ways. Francis Bacon famously wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” That is very true. So what should I do with a particular book?
After a slow inspection of a book, I have four options:
- Chew and digest it like a steak. This approach says, “Yes, this appears to be an excellent book that will answer the questions I have asked. I want to read the book carefully and intentionally, cover to cover.”
- Swallow it like a milkshake: “Yes, this appears to be a helpful book that will answer my questions. I want to read the entire book, but quickly. I don’t want to invest too much time on this single book.”
- Sample it like a cheese platter: “Yes and no. Portions of the book seem to be unrelated to my questions. Other sections are pertinent.” There is nothing wrong with reading only portions of a book or specific chapters. By doing this you keep your book reading focused, and this focus can protect you from losing interest. Most importantly, this choice will protect you from the common myth that books must always be read from cover to cover. Not so. Some great books in my library are there because of one or two chapters.
- Spit it out like expired milk: “No, this does not appear to be a book that will answer my questions, or at least not as well as another book might. I will move along and look for a replacement.”
Mature readers learn to engage different books in different ways.
13. Jog Past the Questions
Let’s say you choose option two, to swallow the book at a quick pace. This is how I usually read nonfiction books. Now that I have a general idea about the structure of the book, it’s time to read. I begin reading chapter 1 and keep moving along at a quick reading pace. If something is confusing or does not make sense to me, I make a small mark and continue reading.
In the margin of a book I mark anything that I initially disagree with or question. At the end of the chapter, I return to the marked sections. Often, by the time I have read through to the end of the chapter, many of those initial questions have been answered by the author. I can save time by not stopping every time I have a question.
14. Note the Progression of a Chapter
As you read, pay close attention to the section headings and structural indicators like “first,” “second,” and “finally.” This internal structure is important and worth noting. If these are not marked with clear headings, you may want to make them obvious by underlining or circling them as you read along. Especially in old books and books that lack section headings, I note the structural indicators in the margin. These indicators are like street signs that guide me through the author’s development of a point in a chapter. I make those markers clear.
15. Discover the Thesis
Every nonfiction book has a skeleton because it has been developed from a core thesis, a sentence to summarize the author’s main point. Every chapter should also have a thesis statement. Sometimes the thesis is easy to see.
For example, in a new biography I was reading, the author asks in the introduction, “Why another biography on this person?” His thesis is embedded in that single paragraph. Sometimes it’s not this easy to find. If you can find the thesis for the book, underline it or put an asterisk in the margin. If you discover the thesis of a chapter, circle it and make a note of where you found it. Keep the thesis statement in the forefront of your mind, and watch how the author supports and defends it.
16. Know When to Quit
Even if you decide to read a book from cover to cover, this decision is not a vow. The evaluation of a book cannot wait until the book has been completed, and there comes a point when the reader must stop. Often a book’s value (or lack of value) is clear in the first few chapters. So how far into a book should a reader go before quitting?
This is where the one hundred-pages-minus-your-age rule comes in handy. This rule states that readers should start with one hundred pages and subtract their age. If you are twenty years old, you should give a book eighty pages before quitting. If you’re fifty years old, give it fifty pages. The more years, the more reading experience, the less time you need before you can close and shelve a book. And it means that, when you are one hundred, you are free to judge a book by its cover.
Often readers don’t stop reading because they don’t have “permission” to stop. You have permission. The only book you should read entirely is the Bible. All other books must prove their value along the way. Don’t allow unfinished books to pile up in a mountain of guilt. Show patience with a book, but cut the ties when necessary and move on.
17. Mark the Gold
I read nonfiction books in order to make discoveries, either about myself or about a particular topic. The time I invest in reading is paid back in bits of information — sometimes only paragraphs, sentences, or phrases — that change the way I live and perceive the world. It’s a sweet wage for the labor. John Piper once explained it this way:
What I have learned from about twenty years of serious reading is this: it is sentences that change my life, not books. What changes my life is some new glimpse of truth, some powerful challenge, some resolution to a long-standing dilemma, and these usually come concentrated in a sentence or two. I do not remember ninety-nine percent of what I read, but if the one percent of each book or article I do remember is a life-changing insight, then I don’t begrudge the ninety-nine percent.
When one percent of what you read is life-transforming gold, the labor of sifting through the other ninety-nine percent is not troublesome. Whenever I read these nuggets of gold, I mark them and add them into a database I keep on my computer.
18. Collect and Store the Gold
Some people collect coins and baseball cards. I collect other people’s thoughts. When I read an important sentence or paragraph (the one percent), I mark it and then later return and copy it into a topical database on my computer. If you have a poor memory (like me), you will need a place to collect the sentences and paragraphs that you hope to retain for the future.
How exactly you go about collecting these insights may look different. Some readers use a photocopier and folders. Others use a handwritten journal. I use Evernote and a simple Microsoft Excel database. I collect quotes, which I type out verbatim, and organize them by topical categories and refined subcategories. I can tell you from personal experience, a captured thought that later finds expression in a real-life situation will boost a desire within you to continue reading. Whatever process works for you, find a way to store the gold.
Before we can embrace the author’s arguments or reject the author’s conclusions, we must first understand what the author said. This is the role of paraphrasing. At the end of a chapter, paraphrase the chapter’s content. In one sentence, what was the main point of the chapter? At the end of the book, restate the main point in two to three sentences. The goal here is not a critique but a simple restatement, as objectively as possible, of what the author attempted to communicate.
20. Answer “Why?”
An author has taken time to address the topic, a publisher agreed to print it, and you bought (or borrowed) the book. So why did the author write it? Why did the publisher print it? Why did a bookstore stock it? Each of these questions must have an answer. As you read, those answers may emerge in the author’s language. Your job as a reader is to find the answers. Often an evaluation of a book is informed by answering these important “why” questions. Why does this book exist?
21. Find the Holes
It takes discernment to evaluate what the author has written, but it requires highly advanced discernment to determine what the author has left unwritten. Often a book’s fatal flaw is not that the author said something poorly, but that the author failed to say something essential. So what was left unsaid? What pieces were missing from the book? The questions that you write out before you begin reading become very useful at this point. By returning to your initial questions, you can determine if the author missed anything on the topic.
22. Let the Dust Settle
After you have completed a book, stop and give yourself time before making a final evaluation. Like driving a pickup down a gravel road, reading a book kicks up a lot of dust (details) in the brain, and it’s helpful to let the dust settle before we evaluate the book. Often the book’s value will become clearer after a few days, after your mind has processed the details. The thoughts that linger in your mind about a book are the thoughts that you want to capture. Go back and write those thoughts in the inside cover of the book or in a notebook.
23. Compare and Contrast Books
If we select books with specific priorities in mind, we will inevitably read books with overlapping content. Mature readers compare their books. After reading, answer a few more questions in the front cover, such as: Is this book better or worse than the other books I have read on the topic? Is it more helpful or less helpful? Where did this book contradict another book? What content was covered that other books neglected? The best books, the books that cover a topic most thoroughly, are the books we respect, cherish, reread, and recommend to our friends.
So those are my 23 tips for reading nonfiction, pulled from 23 years of reading nonfiction. All these skills, I believe, will make us more discerning readers, better thinkers, better Bible readers, and better able to do what Paul calls us to do: to hold together God’s immense plan for his creation and his bride, the church.