How to Read a Book - Read to Increase in Understanding

Reformers Resource: How to Read a Book -- Series by Thomas Eglinton

I got excited at the start of the next section as Mortimer gives the reader the first ‘rule’ of reading: ‘spot the most important words the author uses’. But then it turns out that he really just wanted to explain one of the important words in his book – ‘reading’.

This was not a bad thing. It is worth thinking about what reading is and what makes good reading as opposed to bad reading. Two things stood out to me in this section:

  1. That reading is active. Mortimer uses the analogy of a baseball game. Reading, he says, is like the batter and the fielder. The batter actively writes a book and hits it out into the field. The book (or ball) is the only passive thing in this story. The fielder seeks actively to catch the ball. And so, we can not see reading as a passive action but must engage with the book we are reading actively in order to work out what is being said.
  2. That there is a goal in reading. Mortimer puts it this way: “The book consists of language written by someone for the sake of communicating something to you. Your success in reading is determined by the extent to which you get all that writer intended to communicate.”

Again, through all of this I couldn’t help but think of reading the Bible and how we should be seeking to engage well actively seeking out what God intended to communicate. And Mortimer continues to make me consider how best to read God’s Word as he discusses two different types of reading; reading to be informed and reading to understand.

Reading to be informed occurs when you understand clearly everything in the book. Nothing is unintelligible for you.

Reading to increase in understanding occurs when you push yourself. When you pick up a book that contains concepts that are beyond you – that you need to work to understand. But importantly, it is not enough to realise that you don’t understand it and so find some commentary or blog article that explains it to you. To Mortimer, we really start to read, we really start engaging with a book when we don’t understand it and then sit down with the book and study it until we do understand – or at least until we understand more.

The encouragement here is to not just be satisfied with reading the material you already understand – don’t just read to learn information. Read writers who are superior to you. “We can only learn from our betters”. And when you do read something you don’t understand, don’t immediately reach for commentaries and don’t just ignore it. Learn the skills that Mortimer will hopefully teach us and apply yourself to really reading the book so that you may learn and grow in your understanding.

In an age of social media snippets and blog posts, pick up a book you don’t understand. Read the Bible and really read it. Find a book by someone better than you and increase in your understanding.

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