Reading Better…

I’m not a great reader, I don’t even think I would classify myself as a good reader. In fact, with substantive books, I’m quite slow and comprehension has to be intentional. When I was an adolescent and then a teenager, I could absorb light fiction/novels (Illustrated Children’s Classics, Louis L’Amour, etc.) with an endless appetite because those stories are written primarily as entertainment. However, as I moved into college and then ministry, the content of my reading changed radically. Over the years, as I have collected more and more books and read more and more for education, edification, and ministry, I have learned some things to help overcome some of my literary shortcomings.

I understand that since a part of my pastoral vocation is study, that I have an opportunity and an obligation to be in the books. I love doing it, but it is sometimes challenging. I normally read between three and four hours each day (sometimes significantly more, depending on my study), including my Bible, and so this is a big part of my life (I’m not including internet, social media, or news in this). I don’t think that reading is “natural” to me, as I’ve heard some people described. This is a discipline at which I’ve had to apply myself and grow. I want to share some practical hints which I believe can be very helpful in your development as a learner through the reading of books.

First, I will say that there are different types of reading. Some of my reading is reference work or commentaries; the tips which I’ll share here do not apply to that kind of reading. For instance, if I’m reading a Greek or Hebrew grammar or lexicon, I won’t be doing it with the methods I’ll suggest below. The same is true of commentaries, though they may have a little more relation to my regular reading. Example, I’m currently preaching through the book of Acts on Sunday evenings. I’ll typically read through 5 or 6 commentaries that relate to the passage that I’m preaching that particular week (or a little ahead), but like the Biblical language study, commentaries are also more reference reading to me.

The hints that I’m sharing here apply more to personal growth reading (including my regular Bible reading that is unrelated to preaching or teaching). Here are 3 things that have greatly helped my reading.

  1. Read a book more than once. When I was working on my Phd, the university had a policy for classwork that you read each text book twice. At first, this was frustrating to me since I considered myself to be a slow reader. However, after I read the first book, when I began reading it the second time, I started seeing things which I had missed the first time through. I was amazed at how much more I got out of the book the second time! I began chastising myself for the things I had missed the first time. I understand that this will not happen with every book; often I’ll complete a book (or get part way through it) and decide that “this is not worth reading a second time.” However, if I find a book which I would classify as a “good book” I will often read it a second time. Moving outside the realm of growth or academics, it dawned on me that I have often read works of history many times. I have read almost all of David McCullough’s books twice (other than the one or two that I haven’t read at all). I have read Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War – A Narrative” twice through (and am currently listening to it while on the treadmill). As I scan my history book shelves, I see many books that I’ve read more than once. Obviously, the Bible is a book that we read more than once. I haven’t kept track of how many times I’ve gone all the way through my Bible, but it has likely been a score or more.
  2. Listen to a book while you are reading it. My first kindle had a “text to speak” function which I began to use after learning of its value (despite the mechanical voice). I use Audible now, very regularly. Reading out loud is not new. It is the ancient method which was used in the synagogues of Jesus day since the Scriptures or books were not ubiquitous as they are now. This habit started with me while reading through the book “Things To Come” by Dwight Pentecost. I was having trouble plowing through some of it and decided to use my kindle’s text to speak option. I was amazed at what happened for me. I now do this regularly through audible. I often own both the paper copy of a book as well as the audio version and I listen to the audio version while following along in the paper edition with my eyes, pen and highlighter. I have found several benefits to this practice.
    • It involves more of your senses. The more of your senses that you involve in your learning activities, the better you will learn and the more you will retain.
    • It greatly reduces mindless reading and the resulting re-reading. How many times have you finished a paragraph or page and then questioned yourself “what did I just read?” Then you go back and reread it again to ensure that you didn’t miss anything of importance.
    • It enhances understanding because of the vocal inflections of the professional reader. I’ve realized this, especially as I listen to the minor prophets in the O.T. Personally, the minor prophets are some of the most difficult upon which to concentrate. Listening to another voice reading correctly, greatly enhances my comprehension.
    • It increases your speed. As I mentioned, I’m not a fast reader. I’ve found that as I listen to another person’s voice, I cover pages with comprehension at almost twice the rate of speed as when I read it myself.
    • If I don’t have or can’t find an audio book to go along with my paper copy, I will often read it aloud to myself in order to utilize more senses. However, this sacrifices speed for me.
  3. Stand up and/or walk. Very candidly, though I have a recliner in my study, ostensibly for the purpose of reading, it is actually used more for naps than reading. I get sleepy when I’m reading. As a pastor, I have access to our church auditorium where I spend hours walking around with a book in my hands and AirPods in my ears. It may be your basement, your living room, your garage, your yard, or your treadmill (when I went into the gym the other day, there was a woman on the treadmill with a book opened in her hands as she was walking). The reason for this is obvious, it keeps you from dozing off while reading.

Reading is essential because of the wealth of knowledge, information, and inspiration which it provides to me, but it is not natural and so it has to be intentional. So, over the years I have found ways to improve my reading and comprehension. Not everyone is the same kind of learner, but these methods/habits have greatly enhanced my reading speed, attention, comprehension, and retention. I hope they will help you too!