Let’s face it, we all wish we had more time to read. Our culture’s relationship to time leaves us feeling stressed, anxious, and pulled in too many directions, constantly wishing we had more time to enjoy everything. A daily decision we have to make is between stopping to read and getting things done. Enjoyment versus pragmatism.
Perhaps that’s the problem, though. We have little room in our minds for the notion that reading is much like sharpening an axe before using it to chop wood. When it comes to the principle of lifelong learning, reading is central. Whether it is fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, blogs, news articles, essays or books, reading enlarges our imagination, as well as our capacity for understanding the world around us. Let’s explore a few ways we may all grow as readers.
Balance Old and New
C.S. Lewis said that for every new book you read, the next one you pick up should be an old one. Lewis’s advice echoes the maxim of how studying history helps us gain perspective from the past so that we may avoid its errors. It’s all too easy to get trapped in our present context and view our circumstances in a distorted perspective. Most of us recognize the need to read old authors and books, but don’t really do it.
It’s great to read the newest books and articles on theology, current events, and leadership, but we need just as much to fortify our reading with history’s best writers, so that we don’t become prisoners of the contemporary view of life. Next time you finish a new theology book, go next to Augustine, Luther, Kempis, or Edwards. For current events, balance that new book with de Tocqueville, Jefferson, or Plato. And when it comes to leadership, for every how-to book you read, it would be helpful to follow it up with Aristotle, Augustine, Bunyan, Douglas, or Dostoevsky.
Distinguish between Deep reading and Main-Point reading
One of the best ways to combat information overload is to distinguish between deep reading and main-point reading. Think of deep reading as any reading where you take in every word, and main-point reading as reading for overall comprehension. We deep read for enjoyment or more thorough understanding, while we main-point read to get a framework or overall view. The difficulty comes when we are confused about our purpose in reading, because each type of reading carries with it certain benefits. For instance, most blogs and news pieces aren’t written at the same level as a book, so it’s easier to main-point read these types of materials. Set out spaces to read both deeply and for main-points, and your level of overall value and enjoyment will increase as you forgive yourself for not reading every word of that particular blog, article, or book.
Calendar Times to Read
Eugene Peterson, a former pastor, theologian, and writer, used to calendar time each week to read, and when I read about the effect it had on his overall work, I started to apply a similar principle in my schedule. Obviously each of us will have different levels of flexibility to arrange our schedule, but I’ve even heard from friends how liberating and grounding it is to have the 15 first or 20 minutes of their day blocked off to read. Whether it’s a few hours of time to really engage with a book or just a few minutes, the practice of setting time aside to read can be one of the simplest strategies for life-long learning.
Learn the Power of Re-reading
Over the past year or so, I’ve gone back a re-read a few of my favorite books from the past and have been astonished at what I’ve gleaned the second time through. C.S. Lewis, along with countless others, have extolled the virtues of re-reading, both with fiction and nonfiction. It is impossible to absorb everything in the first reading, and some books truly merit returning again and again to so that we may glean the depths of their wisdom. I return to Lewis’ Weight of Glory and Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles frequently, because there’s always something I’ve missed before or something I need to be reminded of again.
Read in Community
We learn so much more when we learn together, and reading, while an individual joy, can be shared and enjoyed on an even deeper level when we join with others. Find a reading group, or informally get a few friends to read the same book together and then talk about what you’ve learned. It can be as unstructured as “What have you been learning?” to in-depth discussions of thesis statements, plotlines, or character development. The great benefit of reading together is how it aids us in synthesis. We begin to make connections in other parts of our lives when we talk about how a book has impacted us, and a similar effect happens as we listen to its impact on others. Some of the greatest leadership lessons can occur when discussing a book together with someone.