One of the questions that I get asked a lot is “how on earth do you read so much?” That question is usually followed up with “do you speed read?” The answer is that due to ill health I get very little sleep, which means I have more hours than most to read. But the answer to the second is; no, I do not speed read. I was recently asked for advice on Twitter, someone asked “Alistair, advice on reading more books?I’m averaging 1 a week and the stack I want to get through is growing!” Here are a few of my thoughts…
1. Read the right books
Don’t just start with any old book, or the one that you feel guilty about not having read yet. Start with a book you’ll enjoy and get reading it! Find out what you like, for example I don’t read novels because 1) I have a big library full of theology books that are waiting to be underlined; and 2) because I’m able to relax and enjoy reading theology books (weird, I know). So pick the book that appeals to you and read.
Or, if you aren’t new to reading a good number of books, don’t just pick ones that you agree with. Reading books that you know you won’t agree with, or you’ll find questionable, is good because it stretches you. I try to read a book that I disagree with about once every month or two months. That kind of pattern helps me know what others are reading and how to argue for or against an aspect of theology.
Read the right books.
2. Set aside time to read every day
Reading requires discipline. It may surprise you, but growing up I hated reading and no I am not exaggerating. You would never see me near a book, but now in my spare time you’ll find me reading, looking at books or organising my books (I know, I’m sad). So, what changed?
A few years ago I was on placement with no internet, no phone signal, no movies and nothing but books for my dissertation for a total of four weeks. I forced myself to read. Upon arriving home I realised that I had an hour after my wife left for work and before Bible College classes started. So I forced myself to read everyday for that whole hour. I persevered and with ups and downs and by choosing the right books, I started to actually enjoy reading.
Set aside whatever time you can per day to read, it could be 15 minutes or 30 minutes or an hour. The time is almost irrelevant, the important thing is disciplining your mind to focus on reading for a set amount of time a day.
3. Always carry a book with you
I never leave the house without a book, it might be a small book that fits in my jacket or in my briefcase, or it could be on my iPhone or iPad. But if I’m out and about instead of pulling out my phone and mindlessly scrolling through social media, I’m best using the time to learn and grow.
You can either get smaller books, 10ofThose & The Good Book Company sell tons, or you can get a kindle or the kindle app. That way you always have a book with you and even if it’s only 5 minutes, use that time to read. Also carry a pen. I started taking notes in my books and underlining, it’s really improved how I read and my memory when I flick through a book again.
4. Read for enjoyment
Yes, it is possible, you can also just read a book for enjoyment, shocking I know! You don’t always have to read a book and think about how to argue for or against something. You don’t always have to be looking for that perfect sermon quote. You don’t always have to read theology because ‘that’s what a good Christian should do’ – you can read a book for fun.
There is no point dragging your way through a book that you know is going to be hard just because you feel that you need to. Not every book is a cover to cover kind of book. I enjoy reading theology, but I’m not going to pick up a massive systematic theology and read it from cover to cover in under a week. Pick books that you know you’ll be captivated by. Read good books that you will enjoy reading.
5. Read for the benefit of others and with others in mind
Reading is mostly something that you do alone, but that doesn’t mean that you need to read solely for yourself. That’s part of the reason that I started this blog, I wanted to help people know about good resources even if they weren’t written with me in mind. Read books that you know others are reading (both the good and the bad) to be able to engage in good conversation with them. Read good books to recommend to others, even if they’re not that relevant to you (I don’t have kids, but I’ve read a ton of parenting books). Read to disciple others, this may be in a one to one setting or a book club, but read to spur others on in their godliness.
Reading with others in mind is vital if you read a lot. As a book reviewer, I get a lot of books from publishers for free so that I can read and review them. So I have read multiple books on suffering, parenting, marriage, ministry, preaching and so on, not every book says something different! But make sure that you approach a book, or a topic, afresh each time and consider the intended audience. Reading like that will make your recommendations better.
6. Read one book at a time
Controversial I know! That’s why I left it until the end. My personal preference is to read one book at a time, pitmans that I can learn from one source then move on to the next. It means that the content of one book is running around in my mind and that I’m not mixing up ideas or arguments between two titles.
Another reason I read one book at a time is that I get a sense of achievement once I put a book down and pick up a new one. I’ve also found that reading one book at a time helps me read faster because all of my focus is on the one book and so I can read quicker. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone or if I’m just weird, but I enjoy reading one book at a time.
7. Read to retain not to impress
The key to good reading is not the number of books that sit on your ‘read’ shelf, but the key is how much you remember. You’re better reading one book a months and remembering it, than four a month and not being able to explain it or retain the information.
This is another one of the reasons I started this blog, it is a helpful log of a handful of the books that I read and the reviews help jog my memory from books I read years ago. I also use Libib to keep track of my library and I can post shorter reviews on that, Goodreads is another helpful tool.
Reading a certain amount of books a month to impress is unhelpful and will not actually help you grow in the long run. But reading enough that you can retain the information will help you reflect more, engage more with others who’ve read the book to and help you put the book’s challenge into practice.