For Love of a Good Book

  • Nathan Schneider
Bible on top of a picnic table

As I sit in my office writing these words, I’m surrounded by numerous shelves lined with books. I’ve accumulated my library over the years. Some of these volumes were texts I acquired during my years in seminary. Others I’ve picked up along the way. All of them are tools in one form or another to aid me in study, or to challenge me in knowledge, and expand my understanding of God’s word and the world he’s made.

My current routine on most mornings is the wake up at 6am to do some reading. That decision has come about as a bit of a necessity since the birth of baby #3. It’s pretty much a guarantee that once the 18-month-old wakes up, any opportunity to read evaporates. And it didn’t happen over night. I found myself waking up earlier and earlier in order to squeeze a little more time out of the morning.

But it didn’t use the be that way for me. I’d like to think I was a pretty typical kid. I liked to play sports, play outside with friends, and watch cartoons. What I didn’t like to do was read. Reading was a chore for me. It wasn’t exciting. Yeah, there were times when I got sucked into a good book. But for the most part, I wasn’t a bookish kind of kid.

That’s why I’m thrilled that my two older boys are insatiable readers. Both of them can rarely be found in the house (or the car, or the bathroom…) without a book in their hands. Admittedly, sometimes that book is just a Garfield comic strip. But other times, I find them reading books whose content would appear to be far beyond their level or their interest. And yet they sit there on the couch…in my spot…reading away.

You might consider yourself to be “not much of a reader.” Believe me, you’re not alone. I can well sympathize with the sentiment. But before you settle into that self-diagnosis and assume that that is simply your lot in life, consider a few observations about reading. It might not change your mind, but it might make you think a little deeper.

Reading is a skill and a gift

Let’s face it, some people are gifted naturally with a knack for and propensity toward reading. They picked it up at an early age and have been devouring books of all shapes and sizes since they were a kid. That seems to be the path of my boys. That certainly was not the path I walked as a kid. So in one sense, reading is a gift. Just like any gift, God does not dispense it to everyone in equal proportions. It comes very easy for some, and extremely difficult for others.

But don’t discount the fact that reading is also a skill. Like basketball or piano or yodeling, it comes quickly to some, but no one gets better at these without repetitive practice. It takes a certain amount of effort to read. Of course, it takes time, but it also takes mental energy. It takes practice at reading quickly. When I was first entering seminary, there was an extra course offered for students who wanted to learn how to speed-read. There’s so much reading to do…thousands of pages per semester…that developing the skill for reading quickly without losing retention of content is a hot commodity.

But you don’t need to speed-read in order to “practice” reading. I found that my love for reading intensified as I read more. I read more because I got better at reading, retaining what I read, and interacting with a book’s content. And I got better at all of that because I read. It’s a cycle that develops your “reading muscle.” If you never exercise your muscle, don’t be surprised when you don’t enjoy having to use it.

Reading is having a conversation

We tend to think of reading as a one-way street. We pick up a book and we consume another person’s ideas. They are talking to us, and we are simply listening. But that shouldn’t be all that’s going on. This is a point I hear quite frequently from Albert Mohler on his podcast Thinking in Public. A book is essentially a form of public conversation, where we enter into an exchange of ideas. Sometimes those ideas clash horribly. But there’s still an understanding of how ideas shape worldview, and in that sense the Christian has an opportunity to hear and understand the worldview of the people around them. So, as Mohler suggests, “Learn to have a conversation with the book, pen in hand.” Ask questions of it. Find points of agreement as well as disagreement. Find points and arguments that challenge your own assumptions, expand your knowledge, and invite further reflection. And also identify areas where arguments and assertions may be correct but haven’t been all the way fleshed out.

Reading makes you think beyond your comfort zone

There’s always going to be times when we run into uncomfortable situations. This is the reason for the old adage that when company comes for dinner, stay away from politics and stick to the weather. Some people have lots of opinions and they voice them (too) often. Others keep their opinions to themselves. Still others haven’t thought about things deep enough or carefully enough to feel comfortable talking about them publicly.

But that’s life, and it’s true of in-person situations like conversations with dinner guests as well as with reading books. Sometimes you’re going to interact with ideas that challenge your own. This isn’t a bad thing. The goal of reading isn’t to conform to the ideas of the book you’re reading but to interact with those ideas and, hopefully, solidify your own convictions and the worldview that shapes how you think and live. Not every book is worth reading. But I can guarantee you that there will be some books worth reading that will put you out of your comfort zone in terms of the topics and issues that you have yet to think deeply on. That makes reading a book a good opportunity to begin to think about those issues, even if the views you’re reading don’t align with a biblical worldview.

Reading makes you be intentional

Life today is extremely busy. Time is easily swallowed by other things. At the beginning of a day or the end of one, a thousand things are vying for our attention. More than that, the entertainment culture of our time continuously invites us to leave it all behind and lose ourselves in TV or social media. Very often reading is the first thing to go. If you have to choose, I’m going to make a wild stab that unless books are very important to you and you guard your time with them, then reading will always lose out. That’s why becoming an active reader makes you be intentional about your time. That’s what I found in my own personal reading experience. The hustle and bustle of getting kids ready for the day drove out all my time to read. So what are my options? I could just neglect my kids (not good on the marriage). Or I could not read. Or I could do both…but it meant being intentional about getting to bed a little earlier so I get up and read before the kids wake up. We do that with everything we hold in high priority.

Reading makes us think

I know this seems like a repeat of an earlier point, but it’s actually a different point I want to make. Way back in 1985, Neil Postman published a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death which has become a classic commentary on our entertainment and amusement culture today. We are extremely consumeristic, and we are also easily swayed by the power of visual media. We are drawn in by the images on the screen, which speak to our emotion and our desire for amusement. We think we’ve “caught up” on the news after watching a few brief headlines, when in reality we haven’t stopped to think about anything we’ve just learned.

Books operate in an entirely different way. Sure, there are emotional aspects to books. I love a good Tom Clancy novel as much as the next person. But books require us to do for ourselves what television does for us…think about issues and fill in the gaps. In other words, books make us think deeply about things. And I think that’s why folks who aren’t accustomed to reading find it so hard to pick up the habit. When you’re used to someone else doing all the visualizing and all the thinking for you, it’s hard to take over that task. Books force you to pull your own weight, to think for yourself, and to enter into the creative process. Why would anyone want to do that? Because the rewards are worth it.

I can’t recommend Neil Postman’s book highly enough. Even though he wrote it nearly 40 years ago, in a time before the internet and social media, his thoughts on entertainment and consumerism still remain highly applicable to us in the 21st century.

If you want a little more direction on getting into reading books, I’d recommend this helpful post by Albert Mohler: Some Thoughts on the Reading of Books. While my post is a bit more philosophical, Mohler gives some very practical ways to get into the practice of reading books and reading them well.

And finally, if you really want to nerd out on reading, consider reading a book about reading books. And there’s no book on the subject more classic than Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s book How to Read a Book.

Until next time, happy reading!