Shortly after I became a Christian, wise friends put good books in my hands.
I was in college, and these volumes of theology and practical Christianity lived next to my textbooks. When reading for class, I paid attention to every detail, stuffing my brain to capacity. I read these new books the same way.
For me, reading was a way to learn and prepare. Books were an academic tool, nothing more.
Don’t Read Like a Student
This strict, make-every-book-count approach drained the fun out of reading. It left no room for fiction, and I started to read fewer books overall. I grew tired of rising to intellectual heights every time I found my bookmark.
But over the next five years I started to notice something. The people I admired most read widely, from all parts of the library.
Reading like a student is limiting. It’s like restricting yourself to one kind of pie. Apple is great, but wouldn’t life be better with cherry or pecan on the menu too?
Instead, I want to read like a reader. This includes reading for information, but it encompasses more. Doug Wilson captures this contrast well.
…we test students right after they read something mostly to ensure that they have in fact read it. From this, many have drawn the erroneous conclusion that the only good that can be extracted from the reading is that which can be displayed on or measured by such a test. This is wildly inaccurate. Most of the good your reading and education has done for you is not something you can recall at all. (Wordsmithy, p.36)
Adjusting my mindset has had at least two implications for me.
1. I read to be shaped.
We emulate the company we keep. This is as true for our literary companions as it is for our literal ones. Books influence us in ways we can’t always pinpoint.
Think of your books as dinner guests. You might invite some for their thoughts on current events and others because they tell great stories. Some friends make us laugh, some challenge our assumptions, and some remind us what’s most important in life. No one wants a house full of smug intellectuals.
Doug Wilson again:
You read widely to be shaped, not so that you might be prepared to regurgitate. (Wordsmithy, p.36)
What freedom! I now select books for a variety of reasons. I read fiction, history, humor, memoir, and biography, and I don’t feel the need to justify every choice with a Christian cliché.
2. I read different books differently.
Each book calls for its own level of attention and engagement. Like a baseball hitter, a reader must identify the pitch before he swings.
A biography is not a novel. A memoir is not systematic theology.
Even instructive books can demand distinct levels of commitment. I usually read these books with a pen in hand, but sometimes I’ll grab a notebook too. Some books so provoke or inspire me that I need to scratch out comments or questions on the spot.
This practice also brings liberty. Not every book is a textbook. Some works are best skimmed, sampled, or (GASP) abandoned.
It’s Okay to Forget
Here’s one last quote from Doug Wilson. He advocates high-volume reading and notes how a student approach can trap us in quicksand.
Read like a reader and not like someone cramming for a test. If you try to wring every book out like it was a washcloth full of information (and nothing but information), all you will do is slow yourself down to a useless pace. Go for total tonnage, and read like someone who will forget most of it. (Wordsmithy, p.34)