I often speak to students about the moral nature of our intellectual lives—there are right and wrong ways to learn and there are limits to what God wants us to know. Listen to the psalmist who did not concern himself with things, “too great and wonderful” for him (Psalm 131:1). Now contrast that to Job who spoke in haste of things “too wonderful” for him (Job 42:3), only to lay his hand on his mouth. Knowing is a venture fraught with ethical and spiritual risks.
Many students have since approached me with questions about how to read well. After all, if there is a limit to what we can and should know, there must be corresponding limits to how and what any of us should read. That has led me to create this list of personal reading rules that I try to live by. Like the Ten Commandments in the Law of Moses, I’ve made my list with two “tables”—the “whats” and the “hows” of reading.
What to read:
- Read little. This was once hyperbole but in the day of the Internet it should probably be taken literally. We only have so much time and capacity for learning and understanding new ideas. So a crucial decision in all reading is to say ‘no’ to a lot of ‘interesting’ things in favor of ‘necessary’ things. If you develop good habits here, you’re way ahead of most people. Don’t fret for one minute the ambitious list of books you intended to read last year. Instead, ask yourself: Did I read one or two good things?
- Be humble and stay focused. Related to the rule above, I try not to worry if I’ve never heard of a book or author. Making this a habit has helped me avoid the pressure to rush out and buy a book, or click on a link to an article I probably won’t finish. Stick to your calling and close those open reading tabs.
- Read with specific goals. My reading includes specific things for depth, for breadth, and for leisure and refreshment. I spend most of my time on the first, then the second, then the third.
- Listen to wise counselors. I get a lot of recommendations, and so I have to use a refined filter to choose what to read. I try to focus my reading on established writers and only those books recommended to me by a very few trusted friends. I also read more old stuff than new stuff. I’ve nearly abandoned Christian bestsellers, hot new books, blogs, the popular news media, anything that took less than a month to write, and most of what comes through connections on social media (of which I read very little).
How to read:
- Read critically and carefully. When I’m reading for breadth and depth, I choose the time of day carefully and limit distractions as far as possible. No music, phones, or computers nearby. Then I pray and read with pencil and colored sticky flags nearby. When I restart these books I often go back over the flagged pages to remind myself of things I want to take away from the reading over the long haul. Most people can only focus like this for about 30 minutes at a time, and maybe 2-3 hours on a good day!
- Read in conversation with the author. This is a human thing after all. I try to read as if I’m in a conversation with the author: Is this true? Show me. What do you mean? Can you give me an example? Well said. And, Do I understand you correctly here? Give the author the benefit of the doubt. The best reading happens when you’re on a search for something with the sense of someone looking over your shoulder. This keeps your mind on the page and out of the many distractions in life. If I find myself drifting too much, I put down the text until the energy returns. You cannot read well when you are tired!
- Remember the right things. I use journals and a couple of software tools to record important thoughts in a retrievable place. The journal is for my own wrestling with an idea before it goes into writing or teaching, and it’s probably more important than saving the information electronically. Be very selective in what you choose to remember; we’re easily prone to have eyes bigger than our stomachs.
- “Re”read. I reread many books and articles. I saw recently that we remember less than 10% of what we read over a lifetime. I remembered that because I reread the study. To help my memory I use flags and notes to maximize what I take away, but I also go back to important pieces, sometimes often. I’m rereading one author now for at least the fourth time in twenty years and finding all new insights I’d simply missed in earlier readings. That’s true for anyone I reread. In the first reading of a difficult book, I look for a few things and questions to follow up on in the future.
- Pace yourself. Try not to read over your head or take it all in now. Learning goes in developmental stages and you have to build up patiently. This is an area of recent personal growth. I worry less about what I know today than where I want to be in 20-25 years. “Genius is long patience,” as the Dominican scholar Antonin Sertillanges once wrote. Or as Eugene Peterson often quotes Nietzsche, “The important thing is a long obedience in the same direction.” Read with patience and endurance rather than fear and urgency.
- Read in community. Scripture everywhere portrays us as socially connected. We depend on one another as a body and, so far as possible, we ought to learn together. Find like-minded people and draw on their wisdom. Read alone and slowly first, of course, but then always discuss.
The “two greatest commandments” that Jesus quotes in the gospels are not among the Ten Commandments written on stone (though they were among the commandments given to Moses). It seems fitting to add a summary commandment that covers these ten. I draw this command from the long tradition of Christian medieval scholars:
Read under the bond of love. That is, read and study with love for God, love of neighbor, and love of wisdom.
 My thanks to Zachary Lee for sparking the idea of “Ten Commandments for reading.”