Bookstore Events: Tyler Flatt | “Thinking about Reading”
Tyler Flatt discusses how to get more out of reading.
Tyler Flatt discusses how to get more out of reading.
Here is a transcript of Dr. Flatt’s presentation:
So my pretentious Greek title here is a word as far as I know that I’ve coined. It means talking or thinking about reading, and that’s our goal today is to talk and think about what we’re doing when we read, and I’m going to go out on a limb and offer you some advice or some provocative suggestions about how you might get more out of your reading. There are so many different ways that we could talk about what happens when we read and how to do it better. What I’m not going to be talking about are really basic principles like ethical or charitable reading. There are some excellent books that you can read by really good Christian scholars on that sort of topic. You can read Alan Jacob’s book on the Hermeneutics of Love. There’s lots of stuff out there. As a matter of fact, Dr. Vanhoozer, who’s here this week has written some great things about reading. He wrote a book called Is There Meaning in This Text, which I recommend to you highly. So there’s lots of books already out there about how you can express love through reading, how you can try really hard to understand what you’re reading while you restrain the impulse to judge or evaluate your reading. One of the things I talk about in a lot of my classes is that you have to earn the right to critique a book by first trying to understand it on its own terms. That’s something that we owe to books in the same way that we owe that courtesy to people. We owe it to our fellow human beings to try to understand them from the inside out, as it were before we presume to sit in judgment on them if we sit in judgment on them at all. I’m not going to be talking about any of that. The focus of this talk is far more practical and even pragmatic. I would say. What I’ve done is I’ve gathered together some ideas for how to make your reading more productive and effective as serious readers than it has been hitherto, and you might wonder what qualifies me to advise you on how to read well. And my answer is just that Jacob Percy invited me to, and Dr. Mohler put Jacob Percy in charge of his bookstore. So he must be a man of good taste and judgment, and so that’s why I’m here telling you my thoughts about reading. I really can’t make any more grandiose claims than that.
I do teach literature here at Boyce and some history and some language courses as well, but this is a subject I think about all the time. I actually think about it obsessively and I constantly steal great ideas from other people wherever I find them. So I don’t make any great claims for the total originality of any of the things that I’m going to say. I think maybe the combination of all of them together here is possibly unique and original, but again, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants when it comes to this sort of thing as all of us are. So I want to start off with four preliminary considerations and Jacob’s going to help me watch the time. I want to make sure that you can get to Dr. Vanhoozer’s next lecture, which I think is at 4:00, right in Heritage Hall. So I’ll monitor myself and I’m going to try and do something which is really foreign to me during this talk, which is to express myself concisely, see how well I succeed. It’s kind of an occupational hazard. So this talk is not about my favorite book. This is probably the question I get asked most frequently by my literature students, and I dread it because I’m never exactly sure what a responsible answer to that question is. I teach so many books, I’m afraid if I select one of them, it will make the others seem less important. So I’m always really reluctant to answer it. Also, I don’t know, it depends on the day, except in one sense, and this is what I want to talk about initially, my favorite book is the Bible. I feel that’s necessary to say—somebody just rolled their eyes at me.
I feel this is necessary to say in a sense, to get it out of the way. Hopefully that should be obvious. It’s maybe not always obvious, and we can talk about reading without ever mentioning the Bible. That’s probably not a good thing. We want to mention the Bible right off the top, not only to give it its place of honor, but to say that is the most important kind of reading that we do. Of course, I’m not going to give you tips and advice for how to read your Bibles. Well, not because that’s not extremely important, but because there are many far more learned and talented people on this campus who are teaching you about that all the time in your classes at the seminary and at Boyce College. So I’m not going to tread on their toes. I’m going to let them do that because that’s what they know how to do.
So I’m talking about reading other books, reading books. Besides your Bibles, I also want you to think about reading as a way of using a particular technology. When I teach Homer, for instance, in my Great Books 1 class, one of the things that often strikes students about that work is that it represents a time that is the time at which we think it was composed in which writing was brand new in Greece. It was an imported invention from Phoenicia from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean at that time, and it completely revolutionized all sorts of things about the way that people lived in that time. Literacy among us is so close to being prevalent at a rate. I think near 100%, and reading, especially on a college and seminary campus is so fundamental and basic to every moment of our lives. I think we’re in danger of forgetting that it’s not something we’re born knowing how to do, but this is good news.
If writing is a technology, reading, then can be thought of as a techne in Greek, which means an art or a skill or a craft. I encounter students all of the time who tell me I’m not good at reading, I’m not good at reading, and the tone in which they say it to me indicates they believe this is a kind of birth defect. It’s a talent you either have or you don’t have. It characterizes the whole person. Either you’re one of the people who can read or you’re one of the people who’s not good at reading. I think this is total nonsense. Even when I talk about language, learning language in my language courses, I had a student come into my office recently and say, I’m just not good at learning languages, and I’m just skeptical of that kind of claim. Whenever I hear it, I just think it’s bogus.
So I just said, why don’t you prove it? Why don’t you prove to me that you’re bad at learning languages? I just don’t believe you. I believe that you believe what you’re saying, but I think objectively it’s complete hogwash and she couldn’t really prove to me that she was bad at learning languages because she isn’t. She’s just had some discouraging experiences in the past and has gotten the idea in her head that this is not something that she can do. Well, this is really dangerous. If you get the idea that you can’t do something well by nature, it’s going to affect the way you perceive every setback. All of that’s going to seem to reinforce that idea. I think this is true of reading as well in a more general sense. This is an art and a craft and a skill that can be learned with practice, and you can improve immeasurably even from year to year in all sorts of different ways in that particular skill and art and craft, which should be of great encouragement to you.
I’m trying to encourage you might not be clear. I’m trying to encourage you by saying this is something everybody has the basic equipment to do. The first step obviously is learning how to read, but I’m going to assume that all of you here are literate this morning and have already checked that box off if you’re literate. That’s just the beginning of learning how to read, and again, there are aspects we’re not going to talk about today, but I’m going to think about this from the perspective of craftsmanship. How do you employ more precision, greater dedication, and more forethought to your reading? To me, that’s an attractive subject. Again, I can’t stop thinking about it. There are two big questions by the way, which we’re only going to touch on briefly at the beginning. In some ways, they’re the most important two questions that we can ask when it comes to your reading.
First of all, life is short. Life on earth is short. You’re all immortals, but as far as your earthly time is concerned, it’s brief. It’s brief. You’re going to blink and it’s going to be over. So I’ve been told I’m just as young as many of you are, so I’m taking this on authority, but apparently it goes by quickly. That means that to some extent, reading is a kind of economic decision. (This is for you, Dr. Bosch.) Economic decisions are necessary when we have scarcity, we have needs that need to be fulfilled, but we don’t have unlimited abundance with which to fill them. We have to make priority choices. I think that’s true of reading. Reading is time consuming. Your life is limited, perhaps more limited than you think it is. All of us assume that we’re going to get our three score and 10 biblical lifespan, but maybe not.
Who knows? We don’t know how long that we will have to be reading people at least on earth. I’m not going to address whether or not there’s reading in heaven. I don’t, but we’re talking about reading on earth. You need to ask why you’re doing what you’re doing while you’re here on earth because there’s not a lot of time to waste and you need to be clear about the goals you’re trying to achieve. I think if I asked most students, why are you reading? Why do you read? Their answer would be to gain knowledge, and that’s a good answer, especially on this campus, but in a sense, it’s only kicking the can down the road to gain what kind of knowledge and to gain knowledge for what purpose. For what purpose. Presumably in heaven after this life is over, we will know things that we don’t know.
Now, we may even acquire knowledge in a different way. We may acquire vast amounts of knowledge in heaven. That’s hard for us even to understand right now, but we’re dealing with earthly conditions. What is it that you’re trying to achieve with that knowledge? Knowledge of what? For many of you you’re thinking, well, I just want to get through my classes and get my training. So knowledge of theology, knowledge of church history, knowledge of coin, a Greek individual subjects, yes, but I’m going to assume that if you’re here at this talk, you’re a serious reader, which means you’re reading for more than just checking off an academic box. This is a lifelong pursuit for you and you have goals that go beyond just gaining a credential. I want to exhort and encourage you in the strongest possible terms to keep that an open conversation with yourself before the eyes of the Lord.
That is, I want you to have that as a continuous dialogue with yourself. Why am I doing this? What am I trying to achieve with all this effort I’m pouring into reading? And I want you to have that conversation in the presence of God, your creator. I need you to remember as I need myself to remember, it matters to him how I choose to spend my time. It is a kind of test. Whenever there is a moment of free time in which we choose to read, how are we employing this resource? That’s a really important question you can’t ever stop thinking about because there will be drift. There are many men and women whose primary reason for reading whose primary motive for reading is to know more than the person sitting next to them. I know that this is true. It’s not because I’ve been reading your mail.
I am you. To some extent. There have been times that I have pursued reading projects just because I don’t want to be caught out when someone who I think I should know more about something than knows more about it than I do, that’s not a holy ambition. That’s not a good reason to devote so much effort to reading, just to appear to be more knowledgeable than somebody else. But that and other kinds of perversion of the why question can creep in subtly and are threatening to creep in subtly all the time. So try and be clear on a regular basis on why you’re doing the reading that you’re doing. Secondly, what do you choose to read? That’s not something I’m going to talk about much more after this moment, but this is one of the big choices, is how do you decide what sorts of books and in what proportions are going to make up the bulk of your reading life?
Maybe you’ve never actually thought about this, in which case this is an exciting new ground for you to break. Maybe you’ve just thought, well, I just read what my professors assigned or what it seems like the moment absolutely calls for. I’m going to be delivering a sermon on Sunday. I need to read a commentary on Matthew. That’s what I’m reading because I have to read it to achieve a certain immediate goal. But probably again, if you’re here, you’re a serious reader who’s reading for goals that stretch beyond just an immediate workman-like kind of need. So you need to ask yourself long-term, what do I want in my diet? I use the analogy of eating all the time in my classes when I talk about reading because I think there’s a commonality here. You are what you eat, you are what you read. To some extent.
Your mind is going to be shaped by the sorts of things you consume just as your body is shaped by the diet of food that you consume. Do you have in your diet all the essential vitamins and minerals that your mind and your spirit need, or are you absurdly imbalanced in some ways? Now, if I just let myself read the things that I felt like reading without any other thought, I would be absurdly imbalanced in terms of what I’m nourishing in my mind and in my spirit, just as if I didn’t occasionally try to give some thought to what I eat in the cafeteria. The composition of my body is sort of absurdly imbalanced. It would be about 90% french fries and 10% hamburgers from the grill, and that wouldn’t be good for me. So we have to take thought for what sorts of things we’re consuming and in what proportions, not only why we’re doing these things, but what does my diet look like and if I were to consult with a doctor again, if I were to bring this before the Lord and see and say, “This is what is shaping the mind and heart of your servant”—of what would I be ashamed?
What would feel a little bit silly, and what do I feel like I could account for well and say, “I feel good.” I feel good that this is in my diet and I’m not so much talking about sin or temptation here, okay, I’m going to assume that most of you aren’t regularly reading books that lead you into sin and temptation. That’s that’s a different talk that we could talk about. Books are dangerous just like movies are potentially dangerous or TV shows or music or any kind of culture produced by human beings. They have structure and also direction. They can direct us towards heaven or towards the other place. But you should ask yourself ideally in terms of my vocation and my long-term reading goals, which are answered by asking why am I reading what should be in my, let’s say annual reading diet? I find a year to be a convenient way to think about and explore my reading habits for you.
Maybe it makes more sense to talk about months or even weeks. For me, anything smaller than a year is too shortsighted scope. Anything longer than a year, because our lives are so full of unexpected events is kind of a pipe dream. I’m not making any thirty year reading projects in my mind because I don’t even know that I will live out the year, let alone the day. So I think a year is about as far as I want to go into the future, but think about why you’re reading. Think about what you’re reading and its composition, its effect on the composition of your spirit and your heart. Alright, now let’s get to the good stuff first principle here. Okay, big principle: I’m not going to lay down some of these suggestions for you because I want you to be like me or because you should want to be like me.
I think the best approach to the reading life is a bespoke approach, a tailored approach. I have the slogan on here for a reason made in Canada. I grew up in Canada, I was born in Canada. I’m a Canadian, and Canadians are very proud of things that are made in Canada and they’re so proud of things that are made in Canada. This actually has passed into the political lingo of my country in the sense that politicians will say, we’ve got X or Y big problem. We need a made in Canada solution, which is a way of kind of summoning patriotic pride, but it’s also a way of saying we can’t just take off the shelf what the Belgians do or definitely not what the Americans do. Canadians never want to do what Americans do. They always have to be different. We can’t just take some other nation’s solution off the shelf and apply it to our own people as though it doesn’t matter that we’re different, that we have our own unique culture to some extent.
So this is a big popular slogan. Our solution should be made in Canada. This is how you should think about your reading life. It should be a solution that’s made in Steven or Jacob or Hannah. It should be a solution that fits who you are. It should be a solution that fits your experience, your weaknesses and strengths as a leader. I think it’s generally a bad idea to take someone else’s habits built up over decades of personal experience and choice and think that you can just drop those wholesale like a module into your life, plug it in with an HDMI cable, and be ready to go. I don’t think it generally works like that, even in Bible reading. If you think about Bible reading, how many of you use a Bible reading plan? I use a kind of Bible reading plan. I can’t prevent myself from modifying them all the time, though.
I modify them to fit the way that I work and the way that I think and the rhythms of my life, and I always find that that’s necessary. To some degree, I think you should think of all of your other reading like that too. So my purpose isn’t to give you a ready-made model to this is how you should read in every respect. You’ve got to sort of come up with that for yourself. I do want to give you a bunch of bits and pieces though, some of which you might decide to grab and say, I could apply that in a particular way to the way that I read profitably. That in fact is what I have done. I’ve assembled an eclectic bunch of techniques based on people I’ve known, things I’ve heard, random ideas I’ve had in the middle of the night, some trial and error as well, trying the same thing for five years in a row and finding, Hey, this never works. Why don’t I abandon it and try something different? So that’s what I’m going to give you.
Here’s the meat. Okay, twelve different things I want to say and I’m going to try and say this concisely. These are suggestions, suggestions that I’ve tried to express concisely. First of all, write often while you read and also I think after you read, most of us have heard this before. This is often called active reading. Sometimes it’s even taught to elementary school kids. The way I put it in my syllabi is generally read with a pencil in your hand or a pen if you must. Although I always thought that’s kind of barbaric. I like to be able to erase what I write. Sometimes I write stupid things and I immediately regret it. So recognize your human fallibility by writing with a pencil. That’s my advice. Write in your books. I think the type of book that is too good or precious to write in is very rare.
If you’ve got an original edition of Erasmus annotations on the New Testament, don’t write on that, but for everything else, there are billions of cheap paperbacks in the world. There is no reason why you shouldn’t assume ownership of the ones that you own and use them up. Don’t just use them, use them up. Nobody’s going to want some books after you because you’ve written in them. I get angry when I order a used book and it says the pages are clean and then I get it and there’s somebody else’s note. I don’t want somebody else’s notes in it because it’s already sort of been used up. I want to use it up, so okay, I’ll spend another $11 and get myself a clean copy and use it up. Don’t feel guilty about that. Okay, these are cheap. Again, they’re produced literally in the billions. Use them up by writing in them and don’t worry about who’s going to inherit them.
They can buy a new clean copy as well. Write often while you’re reading and I would say write after you read. I’m not going to talk too much about scientific research on these things partly because I don’t know a lot about it yet, but partly because I approach things differently in my life, but there are studies that I have read about that show that if you read and then close your book and recall what you have read on a separate piece of paper or in a notebook, think about it, meditate on it, and write some reflections about it, the chances of you retaining what you have read are much higher. There’s something about the way the neural pathways in our brain are strengthened that makes that a smart idea. I have found that to be true in my case. I can remember in my mind the images of individual pages I’ve written on and even what part of the page.
I’ve written a particular comment on some book on which I took notes ten years ago. That’s outstanding recall. One of the things I should mention here is I’m pretty sure, I don’t know if there’s an objective way to test this. I have I think a worse than average memory just based on my observations of other people. I just really struggle to hold onto things, so retention is a big secondary kind of goal in all that. I’m talking here trying to remember what you read and make it useful so that it’s not just a brief impression formed on your mind that vanishes again, like looking at your face in the mirror and then forgetting it when you walk away. That’s not what any of us want, right? We want to retain, we want our time to be a good investment, so write often lower the barriers.
This connects to writing. Often there are things which make it hard for us to read and things which make it hard for us to think and read actively. Let’s say with a pencil in your hand. There are really easy ways to make things easier for yourself. I think it’s generally true in life that it is easier to form new habits and break old habits if you remove ahead of time as many barriers, as many discouragements as possible, and a lot of this is predictable. Early on when I started thinking I really need to write in my books and about my books more often if I want to remember things, I just thought, well, how am I supposed to do that? I don’t always have a pencil with me. I hate writing on my phone. Some of you, I don’t have a section here on using OneNote or something like I hate those apps.
I have not been able to make them work. Dr. Baise uses them brilliantly to capture quotations and I’ve just never gotten the hang of it, so that’s why I’m saying pick a solution that works for you. If those kinds of apps on your phone, you probably always have your phone when you’re reading, so that’s useful. For me, the solution was, hey, I’m going to buy a mechanical pencil, and I consulted Dr. Wilsey who knows about such things and he told me, you need to buy these Japanese mechanical pencils, which are incredible, and so I bought the Japanese mechanical pencils and there were two of them and I thought, okay, I’m going to keep one in my office and one at home, and then I realized, well, I read in four or five different places in my home and I sometimes forget to bring the pencil from upstairs to downstairs and as ridiculous as it sounds, that is a legitimate, not a legitimate, that is a real barrier to my taking notes.
It’s like I don’t want to go all the way upstairs. I can’t remember where I put the pencil, so I just bought ten pencils and I have two in my bag. I’ve got three in different parts of my office. I don’t even know how many I have at home right now. I have one next to my bed. I have one next to the couch. They’re everywhere and this has actually worked because I think, oh man, I’m reading this thing. I forgot to be writing while I’m reading. This is a magnificent quotation. Where’s the nearest pencil? And there’s millions of them now, so that’s a really easy thing. That’s a really easy way that I can promote this good habit of writing as and after I read, I’ve just made it easy for myself and it’s like these to give credit to Dr. Wilsey, these aren’t expensive pencils.
They’re really great pencils because they were made by the Japanese who don’t mess around when it comes to engineering, but you don’t have to be wealthy to do this. That’s just one example. Think about things that make it hard for you to think, well, I’ve only got one good notebook. Go and buy ten more notebooks and have notebooks everywhere and write in them all the time. Whatever you need to do to make it easy or more likely for you to pick up this habit, do it. Think about it ahead of time. Next, invent a system of notations. How do you write in books? Well, you can just write comments in the margins. I like to do that. One of my favorite stories to tell in my classes is about one time when I was a T.A. teaching in Boston, I took a group of students to see some books in John Adams’ personal library, some books that it belonged to.
The second president, John Adams, voracious reader. You can see the original book collection he owned in the Boston Public Library. I mean not just anybody can go see it, you have to get a library guide to go see it, so I took some students there and the guide opened up some books for us and that sort of thing, and we could read John Adams’ notations in the books, in the margins of the books that he was reading and they were fantastic. There was a passage in Aristotle on how slavery is a natural condition for some human beings and in the margin he just wrote preposterous nonsense. He was an abolitionist and there was another passage where he was reading about Egyptian religion in a different book and in the margin he wrote, “Is this religion, good God?”
Which is wonderful because not just because that’s immediate access into the mind to that particular moment of John Adams’ mind, which is fascinating for historical reasons, but he wasn’t writing for our benefit. He wasn’t thinking, I’m sure, two hundred and fifty or however many years it’s been from three hundred years from now, somebody’s going to want to know what I thought about this passage. No, he’s doing it for himself and recording his feelings and reactions. You might say, why would I do that? I know what I’m feeling and thinking when I read a book. That’s true, but you might want to go back to that book later and remember, what did I think about this? Maybe my opinion has changed by the time I read it the second way through, or maybe that’s just a shorthand that just helps me remember, oh yes, this is ridiculous.
Remember why I didn’t like this in the first place. That forms and strengthens those neural connections that we want to retain what we’re reading, but beyond just writing in our books, I think it’s not too much to strive to create our own system of marks and notations. Lots of people do this differently. I’m not going to give you any prescriptions for this. I’m actually right now in the midst of inventing my own new system of notations because what I was doing before is not very effective to help me remember, I think some people’s system of notation can get very complicated. Some people have marks that mean, I disagree with this and I agree with this. This quotation is worth remembering. This is something I should investigate later. People have a whole bevy of mark. Some people use dots or lines to indicate this is most important, what is said on this page, this other point, less important but still something I want to remember to kind of grade the significance of what they’re reading for their own interest.
There’s lots of ways of doing this. Pick one, stick with it and then adjust and improve it as you use it, but I would say don’t be content with just writing in your books. Develop your own shorthand of signs and symbols. Plus it looks cool when you open your books and you’re like, oh, this really looks like I paid attention and I feel good about that. It builds your confidence. You may possibly forget the meaning of some of your own symbols. I can’t help you with that. That’s a problem like I drew four dots here. What does that mean? Try and remember. Maybe write it down like make a key somewhere so that you can look at up again. Okay, next, track everything. Again, when it comes to forming good habits, I have found in my own experience, and I’ve heard other people say this too, measuring progress is a really effective way to keep your motivation going.
In general, I think it’s true. We improve what we measure. People know this about working out right? Probably one of the first things you learn about working out, not that I’m an expert on this subject by any means, but one of the first things you learn is record your workout. How many miles did you run? How many minutes did it take you? How many deadlifts did you do? How many laps did you swim so that you can beat your own personal time next time because it’s you versus you, right? You’re challenging yourself to do more, maybe to read more or if not to read more, to read better. Start tracking what you’re reading and other data associated with that can vary. I’m going to show you in a minute what I do and do that regularly. Force yourself to do it no matter how insignificant the details seem.
Force yourself to do it for a year and I think it’s a habit you’ll basically have forever. Lemme just fast forward, this is how I do it. I feel like I’m being very vulnerable with you right now. I don’t ever show anyone this document because it’s just for my own purposes, but this is a selection of books I’ve read recently. I have a massive Excel spreadsheet where I collect data on these things with multiple pages of different kinds of data and me it’s important to note the title, the author, the category or genre to which a reading belongs the number of pages in the book. The first colored column is, did I read the whole book, green, or just part of it, red, and if so, what parts did I read? What chapters or pages or so on, and then the final colored column is what priority was this book for me to read that is to say, how urgently do I need to read it? The lightest blue is doesn’t matter. I could read it now or fifty years from now makes no difference. Dark blue is usually I need to read this for a class that I’m teaching or I urgently need to know what is in this book for some specific purpose, so I classify that so I have an idea of my priorities.
I find it helpful to group my readings in kind of chunks or seasons, so I’m near the end of the NATO alphabet. The NATO alphabet is just the alphabet with words attached so that people who are flying in planes can say instead of saying T, W, Z, they can say a “tango-whiskey-zulu” just because it’s easier to hear on the other end of the microphone. I use those designations just to say this was all kind of a group of readings I did more or less at a particular time. Often I’ve noticed these tend to fall into semesters for me because my life is governed by semesters, so there’s kind of a group of readings. I read a certain number of books and then when I feel like there’s a new break, a new season or a new something I’m embarking on, I start a new letter.
I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get to Z, which is pretty close. I guess I’ll just have to start over or something. Those are the kinds of data that I find at profitable to include might be completely different for you. Maybe some of that just doesn’t matter, but all of these have a range of page numbers because I want to know how much I read in a given period of time, not because there’s any objective standard I’m trying to hit. There’s nobody standing over my shoulder saying, I’ve got to read a certain number of pages if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven. I just want to know, am I reading more or less than I did last year and why? Because that’s important to me. I don’t ever talk, let me just insert a note here. I don’t ever talk about how many books I read.
I think it’s a foolish habit for people to talk about how many books they read in a year and the only reason this makes me a little bit angry. The only reason I can see why anybody ever talks about that is subtly or openly to try and impress others. Don’t do that. The only person who should know how many books you read in a year should be you and even you don’t really necessarily need to know. I’ve already forgotten. I don’t keep this in my memory. Occasionally at the end of a year, I’ll check and see did I read more books this year or more? Actually, really, I don’t care about books. Did I read more pages this year than I did last year? That’s just because I want to be reading more. I have the sense that I could be filling more time with productive reading, and so I want to measure that so as to increase it, but I don’t talk about how many books I’ve read or how many pages I’ve read and neither should you.
Again, I really don’t think there’s a legitimate reason ever to do that. If you can think of when, you can let me know after we’re done talking, but there’s so many temptations to pride here, right? So be on your guard against that. Make this private. You should be reluctant to show something like this to anyone. Yours should be the only eyes who see it, and the only reason I’ve included is snippet of it here is just to show you—some of it actually has been redacted—but just to show you this is one way you might do it to encourage you, okay, so track everything. Everything that you want to track or need to track—that is you should plan a little bit and I say a little bit because you can go overboard with this. I think you can say, I’m going to plan out my reading for the next year.
Good luck if you can do that and follow through with consistency. You’re amazing. I have all kinds of things come up in a year that I didn’t expect needs that I have to meet to which a particular kind of reading is suited. Hey, I’m in the middle of these two or three or four or eight reading projects, but oh man, I’ve just been asked to give a talk on Roman sewage systems or something at some college somewhere. Sometimes this sort of thing happens. Not that often to me, not very in demand, but sometimes it happens and like, hey, I’ve got to stop whatever else I’m doing and learn about Roman sewage systems so as I can pretend that I know something about it, needs will come up. You shouldn’t do all the planning all the time, but you also shouldn’t do no planning. It’s hard to monitor your diet of things that you’re reading if you don’t do a little bit of planning.
For instance, I have trouble remembering sometimes to read things that will help me be a better husband and father in the context of my family life. If I were left to myself, I’d always be reading other things which are more exciting to me in the moment, but reading is one of the ways I can learn how to fulfill those roles better in the sight of my God and so I have to deliberately push myself to say, “Hey, it’s been a while since you read a book of this type on this subject. Why don’t you stick one in the diet because you’re running low on the process of meditating on, ‘hey, it’s important how I am a father and how I am a husband.'” I need to devote some time to reflecting on that, so I’ve got to add those books back into the diet. Planning is necessary for that I think, but don’t plan too much again because life will surprise you and also this is the next thing.
You need to leave room for desire: surf the waves. This means surf the waves of what you want to read at a given moment to some extent. Strike while the iron is hot is another way of saying this. I remember one day I was in the mood to read about the American Civil War. I’m not sure what put me in that mood, but I was just in a Civil War sort of state of mind and I happened to be in half price books and I saw for $1 in the clearance section—Dr. Bruce will have to help me. I can’t remember the name of the guy. He said one volume history of the Civil War called Battle Cry of Freedom. McPherson, what’s his name? James McPherson. Thank you. James McPherson wrote this one volume. It’s excellent by the way, if you’re interested in American history, which you should be, I found this book for $1, Pulitzer Prize winning all this kind of stuff, went home, have eight other book projects already on the go and just said, you know what?
I have like an hour right now. I just want to read this. I just really want to read this, and I raced through that book like an athlete for the next, I dunno, however long it took me a couple months or so and devoured it and loved it and it made a deep imprint and stamp on my mind. I remember that book. I love that book. I’m going to reread it at some point because it’s really excellent. Sometimes I think you need to be open to a wave of desire for learning that comes over you. That doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes we’re perverse and we say, no, I’ve got to stick to what I’ve undertaken. I should not let desire at all interfere with my very rational and sober plans. Let’s just stick to the plan, Stan. Don’t do that all the time. Do that some of the time to avert chaos and total disorder, but some of the time you need to say, I want to do this right now because some books are long and hard and if you can take a running jump at them and get to the end, do it like if you are just on fire to learn about John Calvin, go start the Institutes tonight.
It’s a long slog, but if you’re on fire to do it, strike while the iron is hot. Don’t wait and say, well, I’ve scheduled that for March, for my March reading because in March you’re going to be interested in Roman sewage systems and you can’t predict that, so read it now while you’re really keen on it. Use the energy of your desire to your advantage. Again, don’t make desire the only rule of your reading plan. I think that’s clear from what I’ve already said, but it should be part of it. Next, surprise yourself. You should sometimes read things that not only other people would be surprised to find you reading, but you yourself in the past if you could go into the future would be surprised to find yourself reading. You hate science fiction. You have no interest in science fiction. Every now and then pick up a science fiction book.
You don’t care for science. It seems to complicate a world which is otherwise pretty simple for you every now and then. Pick up a marine biology textbook just because it’s totally out of character. It’s totally different from what you normally do and therefore potentially a really valuable way to break out of your stuck old man-like habits. Sometimes you need to be shaken out of complacency a little bit. If you never take a chance on reading something which might turn out to be not worth your while, your reading is going to be really narrow and parochial and it’s not going to serve whatever goal you have very well. Occasionally you just need to break out of this. There’s a faculty colleague whom I discovered to be reading the same random western novel that I was reading recently. Well, not that recently. It was maybe a year ago or something and I had never read western novels before.
I had no idea whether I would like them. I did not have a high opinion of the literary quality as a genre and then I read one and kind of loved it and ended up talking about it and experiencing it with someone else who I would not at all have expected to be reading that kind of book either at that time and it was great and I would’ve missed out on that if I just stayed in my ruts worn by my wagon. Wheels always going in the same direction, so occasionally pick something that’s just out of left field totally out of the blue for you. I think that’s a really good practice. Not all the time, but every now and then, shake things up a bit. Reread, reread books. Have a few, some people call this the golden shelf concept. You should have a few books that you return to at various periods of your life.
I don’t know, maybe between five and ten, something like that. It shouldn’t be too many because these should be books that matter greatly to you that have been really important in your life and that will repay rereading. Not all books repay rereading very handsomely. Some you can go on rereading every year of your life for the rest of your life and you will not plumb to the bottom of the depth of the riches that you will get from them. Of course, we know that that is true preeminently of our Scripture readings, but there are other books too which God has seen fit to bless or authors whom God has seen fit to bless in one way or another that we can profit from for our whole lifetime. Note: some books like that start to—I haven’t really even fully settled on my own list yet because I find it hard to choose, but there’s a few things that I know are in there.
Paradise Lost. I’m teaching that this semester Paradise Lost Milton’s great epic poem. That’s one of them because every time I come to it, it thrills me, shows me new vistas, shows me new things about myself in the world. I haven’t thought of even about God’s scriptures and that’s a book I think I’m going to keep coming back to Shakespeare’s like that for me as well. The Aeneid, Virgil, Homer, those are books for me like that. It might be different books for you, but have a short shelf in your mind and every now and then make time for rereading. Don’t always be reading brand new things. Next, make some classifications. I’m going to steal from Sir Francis Bacon here who was a writer in the Elizabethan era, the first Elizabethan era I should say now I suppose after the events of the last week. He said—I’m paraphrasing more or less—some books are to be tasted merely.
Some are to be swallowed whole and some are to be chewed and swallowed slowly in the first category. Think he means some things. You’re supposed to just dip your toe in a little bit. You’re supposed to get some experience of it, but probably it’s not worth your while to go very deeply into it. Other things, and we might classify kind of paperback novels in this category like stuff that’s not terribly profound that you could swallow all at one bite. It’s mainly for entertainment or it’s mainly just for a little bit of harmless escape or a little bit of whatever. Some books you swallow whole begin to make classifications in your head of books you encounter in these three categories or others if you find them better and especially seek out as serious readers. Those books which are the chew and meditate on and swallow slowly kind of books, those are the ones which are going to best repay your effort.
That’s where your investment should be next. Invest in the in-between times. One of the books I read this year, which was excellent, where is it? What was it called? Pioneers, the Pioneers, David McCullough, great American historian who just passed away recently. Actually, this is about the people who first settled the Ohio River Valley and there’s a story about one man among the settlers, I can’t remember his name. I wish I could, and he lived this extraordinary life, like accomplished a dizzying variety of things. He was like a medical doctor. He did all this scientific research on the flora and fauna of the Ohio Valley. For the first time ever, nobody had ever classified some of these things. In his spare time, he had a huge family. He was a representative for the state of Ohio. When the state of Ohio took shape, he accomplished all these incredible things and people would ask him, how is it that you have led such a full life, and he just said, “I just use the in-between times really well when I’m waiting for things or when I’m traveling.”
The in-between times that we generally just consign to the dustbin and say, “Well, I’m not going to get anything done during those times.” Learn how to strategize to use those well, and you have to strategize in advance. Usually this connects to other things like leave pencils lying around so that you can use the in-between times or keep your phone on you if that’s what you use to record notes. Don’t use all of the in-between times. I think I need to caution you here we have the strong emphasis from our Puritan forefathers in the faith who said, redeem the time, redeem the time, redeem the time, and they’re always writing in their journals about how they wasted 15 minutes and they’re really worried about it. You can do this to excess to be healthy spiritually and mentally. I think we need breaks and we need time in which our minds are doing nothing but wandering or just watching the wind blow in the grass or seeing a chance encounter between people across the room. Like you need space in your life and in your mind.
Don’t use up every usable moment, but use more usable moments than you’re using now probably if you’re like me, you’re probably not doing this. Your problem is not, you’re too efficient. Nobody would say that’s your problem, so be a little bit more efficient and think ahead about how to use the time in things. Next, download a reference work. Learn to fall in love with a reference work. What I mean by this is there’s a particular kind of book which is sort of weird, an encyclopedia or even a dictionary, A dictionary of theological terms and encyclopedia of American history, something in a subject that you plan to make steady, repeated progress in your life, in growing in knowledge, adopt an excellent reference work made by credible scholars who knew what they were doing when they compiled it, which by the way excludes Wikipedia. Wikipedia occasionally can be a useful supplementary reference.
It’s almost never a really good reliable primary reference. Use something that has been vetted for quality by serious people who know what they’re doing. Pick one in your chosen field of study or just knowledge acquisition and get to know it lovingly. Look up hundreds of references over the year. Get to the point where you can open it to a random page and say, I’ve read this article before. I know I have because I had cause to look this up at some point. The article on Comanches and the Encyclopedia of American History. I know I’ve read it. I think I’ve probably read it several times because the Comanche tribe is important in American history, especially in Texas and down in that region.
Get to know a reference work. Think about that scene in the Matrix. I can’t believe I’m about to do this, but there’s a scene in the Matrix in which the main character downloads some useful knowledge immediately into his head. I don’t mean that you can acquire this all at once. I just mean gradually shift the contents of a reference book, one really good reference book from the page into your mind copy and paste it over the years until you’ve got a file on just about everything in your head. So if somebody says, “Dr. Flatt, in this Roman history class that we’re taking, can you tell me again about Cato the Elder?” There’s a process that happens now in my mind where I’ve read the same article in the same encyclopedia so many times to help me remember dates and the kinds of stuff that I forget.
Usually numbers. I can look back and say, well, he was consul in such and such a year. He did these things. This is his significance for Roman history. I haven’t actually read about him in a while, but I read the article about him, which only took me two minutes pretty recently and probably—sometimes I know to students this appears miraculous. There was someone who said to me the other day, how do you remember so many things, and I was like, is it appearing to you like I’m remembering things? That’s excellent. I’m so delighted to hear that. I’m giving you the impression that I have this big memory. My memory is terrible. I have to read things fifteen hundred times until it sticks in here. It’s like a sieve. It’s Swiss cheese, but the way that you achieve that is just repetition and it’s like training. Have that encyclopedia on your desk or as a favorite tab in your browser or whatever and just hit it again and again and again and again as a way of getting an overview of that big subject that matters to you in life.
There are great dictionaries like this. The Oxford Dictionary, what is it? The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Am I getting that right? That’s one I use all the time. For many of you that would serve a number of great purposes. That’s a great resource for pastors. Let me remember, what are the different stages in the career of Michael Servatus or something? I can’t remember that stuff. You don’t have to remember it. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church will remember it for you. It’ll take you three minutes to read that article on Michael Servatus. Boom, you’ve got that knowledge that you need. You don’t necessarily need to read books cover to cover all the time to get these things. Finally, tackle big reading projects. Determine that you are going to read all of the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare. Determine that you are going to read all of the Greek tragedies.
Determine that you are going to read Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is six volumes. Decide that you’re going to read Frederick Ton’s History of Western Philosophy. That’s one Dr. Baise has done and has told me about. There are many benefits here. Number one, some of you don’t realize that you can do this. You look at six or seven, you look at Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, and you think that is for another more heroic order of person than I could ever be. It’s really not rocket science. It’s just like if you can run a mile, you could probably train yourself to run ten miles, right? The principle is more or less the same. You just keep going. It’s true with reading. Pick something big that you are afraid to undertake that actually scares you a little bit because you’re afraid of the inevitable bitter taste of failure and determine with unshakeable resolution that you are going to get to the last page because the first time that you do that, the payoff in terms of self-confidence and your understanding of what you can undertake next as a reading project, it shoots off the scale.
You think, oh man, well, my professor assigned me this five hundred page book. Well, I just read the three thousand pages of Gibbon or whatever it is. I’m not going to sweat five hundred pages. I’m not going to sweat this project that I wasn’t looking forward to. It’s going to be hard. I’ve done this big thing. I’m going to do it again because I’ve decided to read all of Shakespeare next year or whatever, or Dante or whatever it’s that you want to do. Pick those projects, knock them out every now and then. Don’t be doing them all the time because they’re tiring and they take a long time, but pick one every now and then every few years. Master it and see how your confidence grows. You’re not going to be daunted by any reading project after you do something like that and you will remember fondly when you read those pages again, someday you’ll remember where you were, what you were doing, what was going on in your life. It becomes part of the fabric of your life in a beautiful way.
Four killers of a good reading experience: screens. I’m not even going to say anything about that because it’s so blindingly obvious from your own experience. Watching Netflix is always going to be more appealing than reading a book. It doesn’t matter how much you want to read the book. We are just hardwired to want to see exciting images. You have to know that and you have to have a plan to fight it in advance. Monomania, don’t get too obsessed with just one area of learning. This is a real temptation for me all the time. I would probably contentedly read about Roman civilization every day for the rest of my life and never learn about anything else that would make me poor company at parties and not a very well-rounded person or certainly teacher. So recognize, hey, I have an obsession with Western novels, but I probably shouldn’t read only Western novels all the time.
Resist the impulse to because that can also kill your desire to read. You can actually make yourself sick even of the things that you love. Don’t let that happen. Keep the flame burning by setting it aside. Every so often, if you plow the same plow and plant the same field too many times, you’ll exhaust the nitrogen in the soil and you won’t be able to grow anything in it. You have to let it lie fallow, every now and then. Duty can kill your reading life, saying all the time to yourself, well, I’d really love to read this, but I don’t have time. Have to work on my assignments. This is hard. As students, I know I have to work on this. I need to get this done. I need to get this project done. If you never allow desire to intervene, to just say, Hey, what the heck?
I’m just going to read this random book because I feel like it. It’s going to kill your reading life over time. You need to leave space for stuff you want to read, even if there’s no great overwhelming, spiritually profound reason for reading it. You need to leave room for those things. Too much duty, too much work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, right? Dissipation. This is another problem. I’ve made a reference a couple of times now to having a bunch of books on the go at the same time. This is always something that’s a temptation for me. I think that’s okay. One of the features of my spreadsheet is I pick a list of books and I say, I can be reading all these at the same time, but the number is limited, and before I start a new one, I need to finish this list.
I have to do that because what happens is otherwise my home is littered with the wreckage of my broken reading dreams. That is I walk around and I see a book with a bookmark fifty pages into a seven hundred page book, and I just think I really wanted to read that. I don’t even remember now the fifty pages that I have read, so I’d have to start again. That was kind of a waste of effort. Don’t go and say I’m going to build a tower. These should be familiar words to you before you undertake to find out how much does it cost to build the tower and do I have enough money? Okay, so don’t dissipate your reading effort in eighteen different directions. You’ll not get anything read. You can read more than one thing at once, but limit it. The wider a river is, the slower the current runs, and you want the current not to be stopped.
Not necessarily to be a torrent, but you want it moving swiftly and merrily through the banks. Pro tips: buy used books. I don’t know why people think they need to buy new books all the time. Use abe books.com as one example. You can save incredible amounts of money buying books. When I first got really seriously interested in reading, I never bought new books for a while, actually looked down on people who bought new books. I don’t do that anymore. I buy new books too, but for most things, buy a used book, buy a used book, use your library as a tool. What are trophies for nothing? Once you’ve received them, their purpose is fulfilled. They’re objects of display. Don’t make your library an object of display. I think that’s foolish, like morally foolish in the sense of the word fool in the book of Proverbs. Use your library if you’re a serious reader as a toolbox.
Reference works, stories, all sorts of different genres that you actually use to accomplish specific purposes in your life. Even if that purpose is pleasure and recreation, that’s okay. They don’t all have to be deadly serious purposes, but don’t just have books for the sake of having nice decorations in your home or in your house. That’s foolish and spiritually dangerous. Audiobooks, when I started using audiobooks, the total volume of my reading doubled in a year. My annual reading doubled. There are only certain kinds of things I read as audiobooks because it’s a different kind of reading and usually I’m driving or brushing my teeth or something, so if it’s really important that I pay close attention to the contents of this book, I don’t listen to it. I read it with my eyes, but if it’s a historical work that’s not super important or a novel or something like that that I’m not particularly attached to, I listen to it.
I get way more done. That’s one of the ways I make those in-between times more efficient. Nighttime is the right time. I think there’s probably some variation, but it’s nearly a universal rule for human beings late at night or very early in the morning. In other words, when everyone else is asleep (if you’re single, this doesn’t matter greatly to you now, but once you have a family and especially small children it will matter a great deal when everyone else is asleep). Best time to read, very few distractions, very little noise. You can squeeze some extra time out of there. Again, nighttime at the beginning of the night or at the end of the night, best possible reading times. I try to read in the afternoon all the time. I just fall asleep. Completionism: don’t get stuck on always having to finish everything. Remember what Bacon said, some books are to be tasted merely.
That’s why I read just chapters. Now. I give myself permission. I didn’t use to do this. I used to have this rigid habit of saying, if I start a book, I have to finish it. It’s all or nothing. It doesn’t count if I don’t finish the book. I came to realize that was kind of stupid. There are certain books in which it’s really profitable just for me to read one or two chapters or selections and be content with that. Give yourself permission to do that. Take inventory of your books. Keep a list. I’ve been told, actually, that’s great for insurance purposes. If your library burns down, you can actually get some money from some insurance agencies if you have a list, but you should know what you have so that you can lend it so that you can refer to it and use it effectively.
That’s part of the toolbox metaphor, and you should mark books that you haven’t read yet that you own, but you want to read. I’ve started doing this. I bought those little circle stickers that they use in primary school classes, and I stick a certain color of sticker on books in my library that I think I bought this at some used book sale a year ago. I forgot that I even have it, but I really want to read it someday, so I put a big, bright yellow sticker on it to say, Hey, don’t forget you have this. You should read it instead of going out and buying a new book. Next time you’re hungry for something new, read what you’ve already got in your library. Make use of what you have. Finally, what’s true of greed for money is also true of greed for books. One of the blind spots I think sometimes in our community is believing that you can be sinfully greedy about everything except books, because books are knowledge and knowledge is theological and theological things please God. You can be too greedy for books as a theology student or as a Boyce student. Books are like any other kind of wealth. You can have a lot of useless wealth lying around just because you like to finger it and feel it the way a miser fingers his coins. Okay, don’t be like that.
The best antidote is the same as it is for the miser. What does Zacchaeus do? When Jesus visits his house? He restores fourfold what everyone needs from him. He gives it away. Give away books sometimes even give away books that you would not like to give away. Give away books that it’s kind of painful for you to give away. That’s good for your soul to let go of those possessions. Sometimes, by the way, inscribe them. Whenever you give a book to somebody, write a message in it with a date saying, “With admiration and affection from your friend Tyler.” That’s a great memory. When you can look through your library and say, oh yeah, this person, this friend of mine gave me this book—calls the whole scene, calls that human connection back into your mind. That’s a beautiful thing you can incorporate into your reading life.