Why We Read & How We Should Do It

There are several reasons why we might pick up a book or an article to read. Perhaps we want a particular bit of information, like how to change the oil in our car. Perhaps we are curious about a particular topic or historical figure, or we merely want to read a classic piece of fiction. Whatever reason we have for curling up with a good book, I doubt many of us want to be the same after we finish. We want to know how to change oil in our car or what made a leader the way they were. We want to feel the burden of Raskolnikov’s guilty conscience so we can experience his release when he finds true forgiveness. We want to be changed. To read otherwise is mundane—boring.

Why We Read

When we read, we commune with the author of the work — sometimes deeply, at other times in passing. To commune with the author well, to read him virtuously, we must first seek to understand him. Mortimer J. Adler says in How to Read A Book, “You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I understand,’ before you can say any one of the following things: ‘I agree,’ or ‘I disagree,’ or ‘I suspend judgment’” (241). Which one of us feels a sense of community when we are misunderstood? None of us. When we read, understanding the author opens up doorways for community with the author.

A word of caution: There is an approach I call “polemical reading.” This mode of reading does not seek to understand. It seeks to tear down someone else’s ideas. It seeks to humiliate the author, treating him as an imbecile. But worse yet, it gives the reader a sense of pride over the author — a notable sin that is in direct opposition to God. This should never be why we read. We cannot truly understand or love the author if this is our goal when we read.

I do not mean to say that we can never disagree with an author. But we must first understand the author before we can disagree with him. So, in a way, our main goal in reading is to understand someone else’s ideas, rather than our own. And with understanding, comes communion.

How We Read

Subsequent to communing with an author are other motives for reading. As stated previously, we may simply want to learn how to change our oil. We may have a textbook for a class. That is where strategic reading comes in. But strategies still aim at the same goal—understanding the author.

For those of us who want to read more, what practical steps can we take? If we do not have the pressure of school, we simply have to make it a priority. Laura Vanderkam says, “Instead of saying, ‘I don’t have time,’ try saying ‘it’s not a priority,’ and see how that feels.” We make time for what we make a priority and push aside what we do not. If you want to read more, make it a priority. Plan for it.

I will choose two examples from my own life on how to make a plan to read more. First, I read during my lunch hour five days a week. Taking away time for eating and time to get set up, I can cover 20-30 pages each day. That is 100–150 pages per week, 5,200–7,800 pages per year. If the average book is around 300 pages, that’s 17­–26 books a year. And that’s just my lunch hour.

Another way that I made time was to read early in the morning. I started getting up at 5 a.m. That was hard for me. I absolutely hate alarm clocks, and the idea of one waking me up at 5am was loathsome. So, I moved a coffee pot in my bedroom and set it to start brewing at 4:53am. Sometimes we need a little motivation to make something a priority. Ten years after implementing this, I have no problem getting up at 5 a.m. (In fact, I find myself getting up earlier.) In short, make time to read more and you will—use coffee if needed.

As a student, required reading may be more demanding. Understanding the author does not always mean you have to read every word (or linger over every word). Learn how to skim a book well. Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book provides some excellent tips on this. However, if you are still a stickler for reading every word, pick up Evelyn Wood’s Seven Day Speed Reading and Learning Program. I once had to read 100 pages a day for six weeks to keep up with my reading for my courses (yes, you read that correctly). I was resistant to speed reading, but I found that it helped me accomplish my required reading, and I also retained the information afterwards. A word of caution: proper speed reading takes more concentration, not less. You will be drained after attempting this.

Finally, we live in a world where we set Goodreads Challenge goals to read X number of books in a year. Sometimes we need to ignore such pressures — especially when reading authors who impact us the most. Be selective of who you let into your inner circle of authors. Only the authors you find pushing you toward what is true, good, and beautiful belong here. When you make time to read, make sure you make time for these authors. My morning reading (outside the Bible) is reserved for four authors. These are the authors that I find shape me the most and push me towards a virtuous, thoughtful life.

If you make time to read, to understand an author, few books will leave you unchanged in some way.

Dougald McLaurin is research and outreach coordinator at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute. version of this article originally published at IntersectProject.org.