I received an excellent question from a dear friend of mine concerning what is the best approach for reading good books. Here are his questions and then my reply.
“Dear Bro. Mack,
You’ve been reading good books for a long time now. If you could go back and do all of your reading over again would you do anything different? Read different books? More books? Less books? More books by the same author? Take better notes? Forget taking notes? I think you get the gist of my question.”
Reading! What a gift, what a discipline, what a benefit, what a friend, what an important thing!
What would I say?
1. I would read more systematically. What I mean is I would always be reading something in a planned way, setting aside time for scheduled reading regardless of my situation or schedule. On family vacations or trips away, I would choose a specific book you have been wanting to read and haven’t gotten to it yet. Then read the whole thing while gone.
2. I would read more prayerfully. Spend more time praying about what book I am to read next because some books we are not ready for or they will not benefit us right now like they would in the future; so I want to read now what God would have me read now; and also praying as I read through a book, that the Holy Spirit will give me from it what I need. I am not just trying to fill my head or increase in knowledge; I am wanting to be taught of God.
3. I would read with more balance. Read broadly and mix up my subject reading more; I would read biography, then theology, a book on prayer, a New Testament work, an Old Testament work, church history, the best apologetics, biblical theology, etc, spreading it out; it is easy to read only what we most enjoy and that isn’t best for us in the long scheme of things; somewhat related, I would also read some influential books that are liberal or totally wrong if particular books are really influencing people around me; an example is that I read a good bit of The God Delusion by Dawkins several months ago; I did it purposely since it was so popular and was having a so-called impact widely; I gained insight into the arguments and it helped me know how they think and what they arguments are.
4. I would read with more discernment. What I mean is, if I am reading a book and truly not understanding it or its a real drugery and not benefiting my soul, then I would put it down and take it up later; if the same thing happens again when I read it, I take it from the Lord that the book is not for me.
5. I would come to a knowledge of the very best authors in all of church history, including those still alive, and I would read everything they wrote. All of Bunyan, all of Tozer, all of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, all of J. C. Ryle, all of Francis Schaeffer, John Piper, Sinclair Ferguson, etc; we want to see the minds and heart of the best men who have lived; only read bad authors when it has a very specific purpose, like having to read a popular emergent author to really know their position; but normally stay away from reading dangerous authors or shallow ones; the shallow ones are popular, but they really only give you cotton-candy theology and not meat to make you stronger.
6. I would set a goal to read through some men’s works–John Bunyan, John Newton, John Murray, etc; read systematically through their writings over a period of time. I have told some young men the greatest theological education they could get would be to get the 3 vols of Bunyan and take a year or more to study them closely; it would be the education of a life time; he’s the best, in my opinion.
7. I have never taken notes in my own reading, but that’s probably because I lacked the discipline to do it; the best way for that would be to get some notebooks and to summarize a book in the notes as you go through it; probably would retain much more from the book.
8. I would each year plan a break from books (say, 1 month out of each year) and during that time, I read only the Bible and concentrate on prayer. Take an annual sabbatical from reading books.
9. I would focus primarily on books that are experiential, that feed me spiritually. We don’t need books that are merely informative and that give out information, but we do primarily need food for the heart that draws us to Christ and spurs us to godliness and holy living.
Hope this is helpful in some way.
Happy reading !
– Mack Tomlinson