My friend Warren was asking me some questions about reading, so I shared a few of my regular practices. He said they were helpful, so I thought it might be instructive to others if I wrote them down.

Here then are three things that have guided my reading for many years.

Be engaged!

I do whatever I can to put myself in the best mood possible for reading. It means strong coffee, favorite pens and pencils (picture below), good lighting, being as rested as possible, and seizing all kinds of moments for opportunities to read. I read in line at the post office, waiting for my haircut, and when appointments are running late, but most of my serious reading happens in my favorite chair in our upstairs library.

Books are always highlighted with a red pencil and marginal notes are made with either a black pen or regular pencil (see picture below). If the ink does not bleed through the page, my preference is always to make notes in the margin with a black pen. I always use a very fine point pen for crisp and vivid writing. Fine point pens (and the Tul pens I purchase are not expensive) are also great because they do not easily smudge.

Along with keeping me engaged, taking notes helps me come back later to a book and quickly access what I might use in my teaching and writing. This has paid big dividends over the many years I’ve been doing it.

You are having a conversation

My posture in reading is that I am having a conversation. This means I am not passively receiving what is written. As with all conversations, I try to be a good listener. I also ask lots of questions. This is true whether I am reading the Bible or some other book like the one in the picture. More on that in a moment.

Remembering that I am having a conversation instead of just absorbing information is also a great boon to staying engaged.

Reread the best books

C.S. Lewis said serious readers are rereaders. I’ve found enormous benefit from rereading the best books. Not all books are best so rereading is simply following Francis Bacon’s famous advice:

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some to be chewed on and digested.”

The older I get (currently 63) the more I am enjoying revisiting the books that have either shaped me for many years or those much rarer, new books that cross my radar and wow me. The Pilgrim’s Progress is in the former category while Fleming Rutledge’s amazing book, The Crucifixion, is in the latter category. The picture below is my copy of The Crucifixion. The first time I read the 600+ page masterpiece I made nearly 600 notes in the margins. The second time I read The Crucifixion I made connections and gained insights that were missed during my first read. The second time I made many more notes in the margins such that it now totals north of 900 marginal notes.

When I was teaching at Wheaton College I took some time to check out The Marion E. Wade Center. It houses an amazing amount of scholarship dedicated to seven writers: J.R.R.Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, George MacDonald, and C.S. Lewis. I knew Lewis put marginalia in his books so I wanted to see a few examples. The Wade Center contains many of the books that Lewis had in his personal library. To my delight, the librarian brought up one of my favorite books: Paradise Lost by Milton.

The marginalia of Lewis did not disappoint. In tiny, meticulous script (using a pencil) Lewis flooded the pages with notes. What was true of the way John Adams read also applies to Lewis. Adams, it was said, seemed at times to write more of his own words on a book’s page than the author he was reading! If someone as brilliant as Lewis (three degrees from Oxford all with first class honours) thought writing in books was important, who am I to disagree?

I trust these strategies motivate you to be a more engaged reader.

11 thoughts on “HOW I READ (WITH PICTURES)

  1. Susie

    Inspiring, Dave. Any suggestions for those of us who don’t have storage for lots of books and rely on library checkout and audio?

  2. Dave Post author

    Hi Susie,

    Good question! I have thought about this very issue, but am hoping I do not have to apply my thoughts for many years to come (!) since we can still hold most of our books in a designated room upstairs.

    Our library has over 3000 books. I think about how I would curate a smaller library of say 1000 books.

    First, I would pick the best of the best. That covers hundreds of books. These are the ones that been the most meaningful to me and Doreen.

    Second, I might cheat a bit by putting some books I am not sure I want to depart with behind the books I can see. If I had only two shelves that could hold about 250 each, I could then make it to the 1000 book goal.

    Third, I would probably get rid of most reference type books since they take up so much room and I can find what I need on either the computer or at a library.

    Last, for those I can’t keep, but want to read from the library, I would most likely write down the things that were most helpful. Since I am hoping I can still teach and write into the very latest of my days, I would want to capture what I found most instructive.

    I remember your various rooms that held your library. How many were you able to keep, and how did you make your decisions?

  3. Mark Daymon Cotnam

    Man, you are a dedicated reader! Lots of good stuff here. I, unfortunately, was brought up a public school kid and a library kid so any mention of writing notes in the margins of books gives me automatic heartburn! I didn’t own many books of my own as a kid [except for comic books] until the Scholastic Book club came around in late elementary school. I literally can not write in a book I own [especially The Bible]. Every time I’ve tried I just am flooded with guilt! I have tons of note books with lots of notes and have referred to them when I’ve re-read some favorites but it is awkward. Your method makes loads of sense [and it sounds as though you’re in good company with Lewis and Adams] but I just don’t see myself being comfortable marking up books at this late age!

    1. Dave Post author

      It is great that you keep notebooks! The scribbler’s itch will always pop up somewhere.

      Knowing you, I am guessing that there are drawings and art of various types. 🙂

  4. Nina

    Yes! You are a reader after my own heart! Because I am such a copious underliner and note-taker, I read much more slowly than most people–but I don’t know how to read any other way. Reading the Bible is a challenge because there is never time to make all the notes I want, since lots of them would require stopping to look things up, particularly cross-references and Greek/Hebrew meanings. But I do what I can. Eventually I will need to buy another Bible because the margins of my current one are so full of my scribbles.

    Several weeks ago, I put something similar to your post on my blog (only they were just pictures with captions, not an essay). I’m linking it here, not to market myself (it’s not much of a blog, and I rarely post), but because I think you’ll appreciate book-pictures from a kindred spirit.

    1. Dave Post author

      Hi Nina,

      I am guessing you found my post via Tim Challies.

      Thanks for posting. I took a look at your blog. It is terrific to see how you mark up books! As you well know, that process truly does embed the ideas more deeply.

      1. Nina

        Yes, I found this through Tim Challies and am glad I did! I wasn’t aware of your blog before, but will definitely be coming back to read more.

  5. S C

    Susie – I read about 60 books a year on Kindle or Kindle app for iPad. Both let me highlight (in multiple colors on iPad), take notes, look up words in the electronic dictionary (so easy and great – just touch a word to get a good definition! I look up so many words this way, probably 30 times more often than I use a paper dictionary), excerpt short passages from the book and add them to my notes, print my notes, email my notes, etc.

    I can also borrow books and audio books for free from my local libraries and put them on my Kindle for a few weeks. I can still make notes in a borrowed library book on Kindle, and get them back the next time I re-borrow the book, or even if I buy the book later from Amazon (if it is the same edition). You can even email your notes to yourself or print out your notes before you return a book in case you can not borrow or buy that edition of the book again.

    I highly recommend Kindle for iPad. If money is tight, try buying a used one online (Ebay, CraigsList). An older used model works just fine for book reading. Then you can take your books and notes wherever you go too.

  6. S C

    Nina – I use OliveTree a lot for Bible reading, note taking, commentaries, dictionaries, etc. it is built to do all-things Bible related. (Logos is even more powerful and sophisticated, but you pay more for the software, more for the books, and need more learning curve with Logos… but it is simply great for a pastor preparing weekly sermons).

    One way I use OliveTree every week is on an iPad for silent note-taking while listening to the morning sermon I get into my electronic Bible translation of choice, turn to the preaching passage in that electronic Bible, create a note right there at the beginning of the text being preached from, and type in the outline as I hear it, and add as many notes and follow-up questions as I want.

    After the sermon, I can ask friends or the pastor the questions I jotted down. And years later, when I come back to that passage, my notes are still there, and I can quickly see the outline, notes, highlighting, and I can revisit my questions.

    I find OliveTree so helpful in retaining comments and question months and years down the line. And in devotional reading, to be able to quickly refresh myself from my notes on my last pass through this passage, or from a past sermon on the passage, it is just phenomenally valuable to reinforce the word for me. Year after year, my highlighting from past readings accumulates, and begins to really enhance this year’s readings.

    After you get several years worth of sermon notes and devotional readings in your favorite version of the electronic Bible, your reading quickly come alive to you in a new and valuable way.

    1. Dave Post author

      Hi SC,

      Great ideas! Thanks for stopping by and sharing them. I am going to check out Olive Tree.

  7. Pingback: Midweek Miscellaneous Resources for Growth: Free E-Book, Starting to Read the Bible, Margin, Help with Anxiety, Etc. | Christ Church South Philly

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