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How to Become a Better Reader

One of the most frequent questions I get is how to keep up with culture. My stock answer is to read voraciously. Then the follow-up comes: How can I become a better reader?

Borrowing a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, Susan Wise Bauer rightly maintains that any literate man or woman can become a reader. "All you need are a shelf full of books... and a few 'chasms of time not otherwise appropriated.'"

With the scent of a savvy, real-world reader, Bauer gives the following suggestions:

  • Morning is better than evening: Why fight the fatigue?
  • Start short. As with physical exercise, work your way into shape starting with no more than 30 minutes a day.
  • Don't schedule yourself for reading every day of the week. Aim for four days, giving yourself some days off for the inevitable interruptions of life.
  • Never check your email or social media right before you start reading. You know how it distracts the mind and commands your time.
  • Guard your reading time. Set it, keep it and protect it.
  • And take the first step now.

I might add three more to her list:

First, do not attempt to read a book – particularly a significant one – in the context of chaos. Blaring music, kids running amuck and interrupting you every five minutes, getting up to answer the phone... such distractions are insurmountable. Guarding your reading is more than setting the time itself aside; it is protecting its quality.

Second, do not become discouraged if you read slowly, resulting in only a few books a year. The more you read, the faster you will read. The same is true with comprehension. Your mind is like your body; you should not expect to run a 4-minute mile the first day or complete a marathon after two weeks in the gym. Speed and increased abilities in reading comprehension come with time. And they will come.

Finally, reading is served by knowing the degree to which individual books should be read. Not every book qualifies for a cover-to-cover journey. Long ago, Francis Bacon gave this wise counsel: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Read each book to the degree that it deserves, and no more. A classic text that will help in this area is Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book.

Most people would be amazed at what can be accomplished with such practices. Will Durant, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of the famed 11-volume The Story of Civilization once listed "The One Hundred 'Best' Books for an Education." As if he anticipated the reaction to such a program, he writes, "Can you spare one hour a day? … Let me have seven hours a week, and I will make a scholar and a philosopher out of you; in four years you shall be as well educated as any new-fledged Doctor of Philosophy in the land."

He's right.

James Emery White


Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).

Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had.

Francis Bacon, Of Studies.

Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book.

Will Durant, The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time, compiled and edited by John Little.

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