Dr Alastair Roberts delves into the art of reading well and the transformative power it can have on our lives. Unpacking the rewards that come with truly engaging with a book, he presents a compelling argument for why good reading is an act of love and hospitality
We are currently in the process of moving house. Amazed at the size of our library, the removal men asked me the familiar question: “Have you read them all?” While I can honestly say that I have read every title in my library, I cannot make the same claim of the contents behind them!
Every book promises some reward to those who engage well with it. A novel might invite you to suspend disbelief. A cookbook invites you to prepare dishes using its instructions. A hymnbook invites you to sing with others. A play might invite you to perform it on the stage. The rewards of engagement depend heavily upon one’s willingness and capacity to answer such invitations.
Reading well is a matter of developing, extending and practising a repertoire of attention, receptivity, comprehension and responsiveness. It is something akin to the practice of hospitality and is also a form of love. Good reading is receptive, but it is never passive.
Poor readers are inhospitable readers. They engage with books only on their own terms. They are impatient with books and don’t give them time. They don’t give books the close, undivided and sustained attention they require. They prejudge and allow the voice of books to be drowned out by the clamour of the crowd and its opinions, not granting them a generous hearing. They are listening for things in the books they read, rather than listening to them. They don’t welcome strangers but only engage with books that fit tidily into known categories of friends and enemies (further confirming and entrenching them in their existing beliefs). Such readers receive little from their reading.
Poor reading is not the preserve of the less educated. Some of the most hospitable readers have limited education and some of the least are the products of our finest universities.
Books are not equally rewarding of engagement: focus on those from which you – not readers in general – profit the most.
Few books need to be read. Fewer still need to be read through. Even fewer books need to be studied very closely. Only a small minority of books need to be reread, meditated upon and internalised.
This said, read hopefully and prodigally. Expose yourself to a variety of books, to different voices and viewpoints, different fields of interest, different styles and genres, to writers from different periods. So much of the reward of reading comes serendipitously, from the surprising ways in which our reading cross-pollinates. Reading is also one of the greatest pleasures this life can afford: our reading should not be allowed to become a chore or merely a means to some other end. Read things that you can delight in and savour.
Consider ways to improve the conditions within which you engage with books. Set time aside. Find quiet and solitude. Remove distractions. Step away from the charged realms of social media and attend to books on their own terms.
Underline, annotate and take notes. When you finish a passage of nonfiction, for instance, take the time to pause, recall and summarise the arguments that you have just read in your mind. If you cannot do so well, reread the passage. There’s no hurry; take whatever time you need. Put the book down, take a walk and chew over the ideas. Restate them in your own words. Further metabolise them by writing about them, exploring and developing them. Imagine how the author would respond to other authors you are reading. Read books that stretch you or extend your realms of interest.
Books frequently belong to wider conversations. Such conversations typically have an implicit ‘canon’ of texts – leading parties in the conversation – with which active participants are expected to be conversant. It is good to pursue conversance in such conversations. You may begin by eavesdropping upon a conversation that has likely been going on for centuries, but your long-term goal should be active participation. It can also be helpful to focus upon one principal figure in the conversation, reading everything that they wrote and taking them as your primary point of reference.
Writing about one’s reading is invaluable. Reading in company with others in seminars and book groups can really sharpen one’s capacity to see texts from different perspectives. Listening to or producing podcasts with fellow readers is another worthwhile practice.
Becoming a good reader is a lifelong task. Those committed to it will also discover that the virtues and practices they develop are of much more general importance. In improving as readers, we are enriching our capacity for engagement in all aspects of our lives.
Don’t miss Premier Christianity’s Summer Reading Guide, available here