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Why Reading Isn't Enough
This article is Part II in a series on Reading Well. In Part I - Three Questions, we discussed how to get more out of—almost—any book you read, and many of you got in touch to let me know how helpful it has been, and that some of you have printed out the bookmark or even the whole article to aid in your reading.
If you haven’t yet read that article you can find it here.
In today’s article, we’ll explore why reading isn’t enough and why the question “And?” is vital for reading well.
Do You Even Read Bro?
Last month I went to a Christian bookstore in Oxford so chock full of books it felt like the trash compactor scene from Star Wars. There were four or five people working that day—complete with tweed and bow ties—carrying books from unseen shelves to desks piled high with yet more books. During my visit, I often found myself pressing up against the shelves to let these men by, they didn’t acknowledge me once, not even to say thank you or respond to my apologies. Before I left, a couple of young women walked in, picked up some classic novels, and brought them to the makeshift counter. The owner scoffed as he scanned the books. A few days later I walked into my gym—I’d been absent for almost a decade—and found myself in an eerily familiar situation. While struggling with a machine, my eyes fell on the free weights area and saw a statue-shaped man standing arms crossed glaring at the other members. He would occasionally lift a weight himself for a while but soon enough he'd return to his real calling, glaring. If he’d wanted to, he could have offered helpful advice or an encouraging word—much like the workers in the bookstore—but when puffing oneself up, hardly any breath is left for the upbuilding of others.
Bodybuilders and bookworms are not always like this, I’ve heard many stories of fans meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger, being bowled over by his gracious manner and how he gently listened to them, and I’m thankful that academics and broader readers than myself have taken the time to welcome me in, and encourage me on my way. Muscle doesn’t reflect strength of character, and the buying/reading of many books ain’t no sure-fire way of gettin’ there either.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting to a kid at church about what he’d learned in Sunday School.
“I learned about the man with horrible skin in the Bible, it was all peely and disgusting.”
“Oh really?” I said, “and what happened then?”
He looked up at me, thought for a second, and then said, “I don’t know.”
I probed a little further, but it was clear after a few more questions that I’d gotten all I was going to get out of him, and we chatted about his week. I don’t ask questions like this to test the kids but to help cement in their minds anything they’ve learned by way of repetition—and I don’t just do this with kids.
When someone says, “You haven’t read X?!” this is usually paired with a look of disgust/incredulity/shock-horror, “but it’s such an important book!” I’ll always reply, “Oh really? What did you learn from it?”
I will never cease to be amazed by how often this puts people on the back foot.
“Oh, I’m actually just getting started with it, I’ll let you know.”
“Hmm, well it changed my view on some things.”
“I think it just told me things I already knew.”
“It’s been a while since I read it, I’ll have to take another look.”
All of a sudden this life-changing, one-of-a-kind, can’t-be-missed book is forgotten and its advocate remembers they have something to do, or otherwise moves the conversation in another direction.
At its core, the conversation I try and encourage people to have, even with themselves, is this:
“I read a book!”
There is no point in reading anything if you’re not hoping to gain something from it. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that hope doesn’t bear out and it turns out you’re drinking from an empty well, but that’s a reason to look for better books and articles, not a reason to give up on learning altogether.
That’s the reason I don’t write “reviews” as such in this newsletter, I choose to write on how to get the most out of certain books, or just books in general. I do this because too often full bookshelves are a sign of an empty mind. Here are some of the books I’ve talked about over the past few months and the accompanying answer to the question “And?”:
Pride and Prejudice - To help to reader grasp the doctrine of Total Depravity
The Happy Rant - To improve critical Christian discussion
Dracula - With regards to Spiritual Warfare and the Power of Prayer
The Schilder Reader - To assist in living and writing as a Christian in a post-modern era
The Unwavering Pastor - To help you to serve and support your Pastor
Rembrandt is in the Wind - Why art is important and what beauty tells us about worship
In my last article on reading well, I challenged you to read the blurb of the book you’re reading, the contents, and possibly even the first paragraph of each chapter and write down three questions which you want answered by the time you’re finished reading. Though you might not end up finding the answers to those questions, you will notice more simply because you’re looking. Once you’re finished reading though, whatever answers you’re left with, either to questions you began with, or others that you picked up along the way, it’s then time to sit with those answers and weigh them.
Do they challenge your present thoughts or opinions? Do you agree? Why do/don’t you agree? Do you need to act upon them? Will this affect your prayer life/marriage/church attendance/habits/sleeping patterns/feelings towards someone? Do you need to repent of something?
For instance, if you’re struggling in your prayer life and you’re faced with a quote or answer which arrests you, receiving that answer will not be enough to change your mind. You need to sit, face it, and ask yourself, “and… if this is true, what must I now do?”
Dracula, for instance, blew me away because every time the protagonists are in dire need or have a difficult decision ahead of them, someone prays or they all pray together, and conversely when the battle is won, do you know what they do? They pray! I wish I could say that I do this perfectly all the time, but I don’t, the book challenged me in that area. Being challenged doesn’t beget change though, repentance does, and this is a lesson I’m still learning.
What are you reading right now? Or what will you read next, why not take steps this time around to get as much out of it as you can? Ask yourself three questions, and then throughout—and again at the end—ask yourself why any of it is important and what you now need to do as a result.
Why not leave a comment below with what you’re reading, what you’re hoping to learn from it, and what you’ve learned in the past from asking yourself, “and?”
Grace and Peace,
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