I was recently speaking at the UCCF staff conference which was a real privilege and joy – and in one of the talks, I gave some tips on reading books, and a number asked for them to be reproduced (as they weren’t on the handout). So I will now oblige here (such is Q’s generosity of spirit).

As John Stott used to intone, leaders should be readers. And that’s great. And for some, this is unnecessary advice. But for those less naturally inclined to read, here are few tips that I find helpful for myself, which you can take or leave. We’re all different, and so we learn differently – so perhaps what I say about books should also count for downloads and articles too.

I also know I’m very fortunate as a reader in three particular ways – I can read quite quickly; I can happily pick up a book on the go and read it just for 5 minutes to fill in a gap (whereas some need specific time periods to get into it); and finally I have times of grim insomnia (not to be recommended) – but the only upside is I can get a lot of reading done.

So here’s an amateurish infographic to bring all this together.

A Balanced Diet

I do think that Christians should aim to read at LEAST as many non-Christian books as you read Christian books. Don’t worry about exact proportions, but they should be roughly equivalent over a year. Each of us will have a tendency one way or the other so will need to be deliberate. For me, actually getting down to reading Christian books is the difficult thing, an act of discipline because of the weakness of so much Christian writing (I am in TOTAL agreement with Matthew Hosier’s recent blog post here).

balanced dietI suggest then subdividing reading into 4 basic categories (which is obviously crude): ideas/doctrine; history & biography; culture engagement; people/pastoral – so that over a year or so, one has a mixed diet in 8 categories.

But there is one additional category that is almost as important as all the others: FICTION!

I don’t think I can stress highly enough the importance of reading fiction. My academic background is humanities, so perhaps I would say this. But good fiction is uniquely able to help us to walk in other people’s shoes. I linked to this interesting article in a previous Q Treasure Map. I always have fiction on the go at the same time as the other stuff as a kind of antidote – usually what I have by my bed. POETRY can also do that too. I’m not against reading the odd airport novel either – especially for the beach – but do try to read some of the classics, and also recent ones that get rated.

So perhaps look at previous Booker Prize winners and see which seem to have stood the test of time. Occasionally I’ll pick up a recent one – e.g. 2013 winner Eleanor Catton’s book The Luminaries I found breathtaking. In my experience modern so-called Christian fiction really doesn’t cut it at all, sadly. Marilynne Robinson is one of the very few who are worth investing time in.

Try to both respond to issues that come up; but supplement this with topics that are general but about which you know nothing. You just never know – a book on the history of basket weaving might give you remarkable gospel insights. Always try to stretch the boundaries of your knowledge and understanding.

Daunt Books upstairs
One of the loveliest bookshops on earth: Daunt’s in Marylebone

Some Reading Pro-Tips

  • The Keeping Tabs tip: Keep a note of what you read – and review it after 6 months or a year. Perhaps use a table like the one on the infographic
  • The 1/3rd Perseverance tip: keep going through at least a 1/3rd of a book. Don’t give up after just a few pages. But also, don’t worry about stopping after that. If you’re still not gripped by that stage, then don’t flog a dead horse. Move on. Life is definitely too short.
  • The Take-A-Break tip: Some books are so dense that there is no harm in having breaks – I remember reading Jim Packer’s Knowing God in 3 chunks with a few weeks in between (it is structured in 3 parts). Just make sure you come back to them!
  • The Book Defacement tip: Underline standout bits and write in margins (but only if you own them of course!!). Eg if the writer is constructing an argument, I might number the steps in the margin and add a 1 word reference. Don’t be bogged down too much by words you don’t understand – but ifthey keep cropping up, or seem important, then look them up. Obviously e-readers make that easy.
  • The Discussion Form tip: It really helps to hear what others think about books. It also gives goals for getting through books or ideas for books you’d never otherwise read. So join or start a reading group – whether on or offline.
  • The Taking Good Notes tip: Make brief notes after you’ve finished a particularly good book (eg I always try to type up key quotes and arguments). One current job I have is working on a John Stott sermon illustration anthology and I’ve got all his card index file cards scanned on my computer. He would fill two sides of a 5×7 card for every important book he read – with key pages, summaries of arguments, relevance for different topics. An amazing legacy!
  • The Annual Heavy tip: Try to read at least 1 difficult and intimidating book from each side of your diet table each year. This may obviously entail ignoring the 1/3rd perseverance tip just once or twice a year!
  • The Enjoyment tip: Above all, enjoy! Relish the outworking of ideas or imagination, enjoy good writing for its own sake and learn from it, whoever the writer is, ruminate on what you read.

One final tip that I forgot to add to the infographic is what you might call

  • The Travel Background tip: if you visit a new country or region for whatever reason, don’t just read the Rough Guide, find a book of history about or fiction set in that place (ideally written by a local author). I can’t remember who suggested this, but I’ve done it for years now, and have posted about this before.
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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Emma

    Thank you so much. I totally agree re Marilynne Robinson and Christian fiction unless one can count Jane Austen! Although I think the twin threats to my reading widely are the internet and my inability to read anything upsetting since having children!

  2. Chris E

    A couple of comments; in reference to the Hosier article. I actually find (presumably NT) Wright to be amongst the more readable of academic writers. Certainly he pays far more attention to his prose than a lot of his contemporaries.

    Secondly, I think there is a certain strand of reformed Christianity which is fairly suspicious of the arts, and by extension artistic expression generally. There are plenty of authors who basically beat you over the head with the truth, rather than attempting to expressively portray the truth, and even making such a complaint would be seen as highly suspicious in their eyes.

  3. Nat Charles (@NatJCharles)

    Can I ask a clarification question Mark? I’m not quite sure what you mean by the non-Christian categories of ideas/doctrine and pastoral/devotional. Do you mean books written by non-Christians that fuel reflection and growth in those areas? If so, what sort of books have worked for you in these areas? Thanks.

    1. quaesitor

      Hi Nat – you most certainly can.
      I agree that it is a slightly contrived grouping of ideas but I did it for sake of simplicity.
      I think i do mean things that do fuel both understanding and practice. So ideas/doctrine will obviously overlap with cultural engagement – but I’m thinking of those spheres of study which contribute to our understanding of (for example) anthropology, cosmology, creativity
      The pastoral side is perhaps more obvious – because there is MUCH to learn from professional caregivers – e.g. psychological/sociological. This in sense entails agreement nor infallibility – but I have learned a great deal (for example) about depression from secular books, for myself and for others. To that end, I have learned a lot and been fascinated by Oliver Sacks’ books; Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life.
      Hope that helps a bit. Come back to me if not.

      1. Nat Charles (@NatJCharles)

        Thanks – yes that does help. I’ve noticed that I read many more books by authors who have a Christian persuasion than those who don’t. I’m trying to set a course for my 2015 reading and need to redress the imbalance!

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