How to read a Christian book

flickr: Abee5

If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s forgetting. Your name. What I did on the weekend. The experiences of last year. Gone, every one.

I used to read Christian books and forget them. In one sense, that’s no big deal: we all forget, and it doesn’t mean we haven’t learned anything. But I also wasn’t absorbing what I read: crystallizing the key points, tasting the sweet, going away informed and transformed. That takes a different kind of reading.

Over the years I developed a method of reading that helped me remember what I read. I thought this was idiosyncratic, something that would work only for me, until I read Tony Reinke’s Lit!. To my surprise, a number of “my” techniques jumped off the page. If they’re good enough for Reinke, they’re good enough for me, and they might work for you too.

So here they are: 11 ways to read a Christian book, absorb it, and remember what you read. (If you’re an e-book reader, adapt them for the screen; you can highlight and make notes there too.)

Make time for reading
When I had babies and thought I’d never get time to read again, John Piper taught me that if you read for just 15 minutes a day, even if you read slowly, you’ll get through 20 books a year. Tim Challies points out that, even if you only read in the bathroom, you can get through a book or two a year. At least that’s a start! Carry a book with you (much easier if you have an e-reader) and pull it out when you have a spare moment. Read while you eat lunch. Read in the doctor’s waiting room. If you haven’t done much reading, start with a book you think you’ll enjoy on a topic that interests you.

Learn – or re-learn – to read a book
There’s nothing like reading online to ruin your ability to read a book. Reading books can sometimes feel like an outdated skill, something you were forced to do at school and happily gave up once you left. I’ve noticed that when I do a lot of online reading, my brain learns to skim, to dip in and out, to jump from one idea to another. I don’t take time to think through and apply what I read. My reading becomes fragmented, shallow. To read a book, I have to retrain my brain, to coax it into a slower, more reflective style of reading. The good news is that our brains are very adaptable. We can learn new skills: it just takes practice.

Choose books well, and know when to give up
Tony Reinke calculates that, for every book you read, you ignore 10,000 other books; so choose what you read with care. Feel free to stop reading if a book is doing you no good: a helpful rule is to stop after “100 pages minus your age”, as you’ll become more discerning with time.1 Get out of your comfort zone, and read a range of books: high and lowbrow; secular and Christian; biographies and letters; non-fiction and fiction; old and modern. If you’re not sure what to read, ask a reader you respect for a list of recommendations.

Read several books at once, or stick to one – it’s up to you
The world of keen readers is divided into those who read one book at a time and those who read lots at once. Some people find that sticking to one book aids concentration and speed; but I love having several books on the go, because different books work well for different times. There’s the novel that puts me to sleep (in a good way). There’s the theological book I read when I have a fresh brain and a spare half hour. There’s the collection of reflections that demands a cup of tea and a quiet ten minutes. Which brings me to my next point …

Know why you read – and let the “why” shape the “how”
There are four main reasons I pick up a Christian book, and each demands a different pace and style of reading. Think of these as four parts of a balanced Christian reading diet, with the Bible at the foundation.2 Often, I have a book from each category on the go. I read:

  • to sharpen my thinking. I read carefully, pencil in hand, with my critical hat on. I ask questions of the text, note down the main points, try to work out where the author is going, and compare what I’m reading with other books on the topic.
  • to drink in the truths of the faith. Every year I try to read at least one book on the cross of Christ or the character of God. I read a chapter on my mornings off, meditatively and receptively, allowing what I read to shape how I think and feel.3
  • to help me live out my faith: for example, books on holiness, evangelism, suffering, work, or relationships. I try to read from a book like this at least once a week and prayerfully apply it to my life.4
  • to deepen reflection. Good devotional books; biographies and autobiographies; collections of letters; wise reflections; fiction and poetry: all have their place, and the best deserve to be savored slowly.5

To use a helpful category of Reinke’s, the first and third categories are books that “push you out” into new ways of thinking and living; the second and fourth, books that “pull you in”, that you drink in for their own sake.6 It’s good to read both kinds.

Get an overview
When you first open a book, start by getting an overview. What does it look like, feel like, smell like? (Yes, it matters: you’ll be spending quite a while here!) Open it. Read a few sentences. Read the chapter headings. Flick through the book (or scan it on your e-reader) and notice how it’s laid out. Maybe skip to the last page and read it. Read the introduction or first chapter, and find the key sentence: the one that tells you what the author is trying to do (write “sum” or “aim” in the margin). Now you’re ready to go.

Write in your books
Always read with a pencil in hand (unless you’re using an e-reader, in which case  highlight and make notes electronically). I like push-up pencils best: the fine line means you can make your notes neat and small. Keep an eraser handy. There are three main things I mark as I read:

  • key sentences and paragraphs. When a passage stands out or adds to the argument, or is particularly helpful or memorable, I use a variety of markings depending on its significance: underline or double underline; a single or double line down the outside of the paragraph; an asterisk or circled asterisk in the margin; a box around the paragraph. That way I can see at a glance the bits I want to come back to. (Post-it notes are another good way to mark significant passages.)
  • the flow of the argument. As I read, I try to follow the author’s thought and indicate the main points with a number or word in the margin. The logic is clearer in some books than others: sometimes the only obvious structure is the one you provide. If the argument is hard to follow, you might like to write the main points at the head of each page. It can also be helpful to circle a few key words in a paragraph to highlight definitions and contrasts.
  • questions and comments. If I have a question, the argument is unclear, or I disagree, I put a question mark in the margin and note down the issue. Sometimes it will be answered later in the chapter or book. If not, I might make a note of it in the front of the book.

Summarize (the key to memory)
For me, this was the breakthrough in remembering what I read. I used to write long summaries in the back of my books; this never worked, as they were unwieldy, and I never looked at them again. Instead, here’s what I learned to do (it’s worth the few minutes it takes):

  • summarize each chapter at the head of the chapter. Once you reach the end of a chapter, flick through it again and get it clear in your head. Turn to the top of the chapter, and in the small space given you (keeping you brief and to the point) write a few sentences, or a list of points, that outline the chapter. This will help you recall what you read, and provide a summary next time you look at it.
  • write the main point of each chapter on the contents page. Now turn to the contents page. In a few words, next to or under the title of each chapter, note the chapter’s main point (this should be what stood out for you). Asterisk your favorite chapters. Now you’ve got an outline of the book’s key points and best chapters should you come back to it.
  • create your own index at the end of the book. On a blank page at the back of the book, you might like to write a list of topics; next to each topic, note down page references as you come to them. Alternatively, list significant passages with page numbers as you go along. When you want to locate a passage in a book, this will be your personal index.

Store the gold
John Piper says, “It is sentences that change my life, not books.” It’s a good idea to store these golden passages so you can find them again. Here are two ways to keep track of the best bits of a book:

  • on a blank page at the back of the book, when you come to a quote you want to remember, note down the page number, describe the content in a few words, and give it a little asterisk or “Q” for quote. (I do this on the same page where I keep a list of topics or key passages.)
  • store your favorite quotes in one place. You can do this in a computer file or electronic device under various topics, in a written journal, or on a blog. It doesn’t matter, as long as you can find the quotes later on.7

Keep a record of what you read
Allow a few days, or a week, for the book to settle into your mind and life. Then sit down and write a brief impression of it in the front page of the book, a computer file, or your journal. (It’s helpful to keep a record of all the books you read, at least by author and title, and perhaps by rating.) Include a summary; what you thought; good points and bad; and who it might be suitable for. Sometimes writing this kind of review is the only way I can get a book clear in my head.

Share what you read
Now it’s time to recommend the book (if it deserves a recommendation!) to others. You might like to share your impression of the book in a small group, on Facebook or in a blog. If you don’t like reading alone, why not join a reading group, or ask a friend if they would like to read a book along with you and get together to discuss it. Don’t hoard books: share them freely, and accept you’ll lose a few along the way.

Why not grab a book, make yourself a cup of tea, sit down in a comfortable chair, and get reading? You’ll be all the richer for it.

  1. Tony Reinke, Lit!, pages 93-94, 115
  2. Your reading should also include secular books, both fiction and non-fiction, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.
  3. Because this style of reading is less critical, you’ll want to take more care with your choices. Favourite books I’ve read in this category include John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, JI Packer’s Knowing God, and Tim Keller’s Jesus the King.
  4. This is a category you want to be careful about, as there are so many poor Christian living books out there. The best authors in this category are gospel centred writers like Jerry Bridges, Tim Chester, Ed Welch and Elyse Fitzpatrick. See my post The dangers and delights of books about personal change.
  5. Some of my favourite authors in this category include Nancy Guthrie and Paul Tripp (devotional books); Naomi Reed (autobiography); CS Lewis (letters); and Marilynne Robinson (fiction).
  6. Tony Reinke, Lit!, pages 111-112.
  7. A handy tool for this is Evernote.

4 thoughts on “How to read a Christian book

  1. Thanks for the helpful tips. I tend to try and read 4 books at a time. A tricky one (e.g. a theological look at “Paul and the Law”), a medium level one (e.g. Matt Chandler’s “The Explicit Gospel”), an easy/fun one (e.g. “Church Planting is for Wimps”), and a novel (e.g. “The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin”). Also, I take notes of favourite quotes, and try to write a book review – even if I just do that for my own benefit rather than always sharing with others.

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  3. I like your idea about reading different types of books at the same time. I love a good novel but sometimes, instead of reading a novel before bed, I reread a Christian book I’ve enjoyed before to focus my mind on good thoughts before bed.

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