When I was younger, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies were releasing, and I remember someone recommending that I should try to read the books because they were far better. I (much to my later chagrin) responded, “Why read a book when you could just watch a movie?” For shame. For shame.
If you know me now, you’ll realize how ironic this is. I love reading now (and Tolkien’s novels are my all-time favorite). But I was not born this way, nor raised this way. I sat in front of a lot of TV when I was a kid. I didn’t begin reading seriously until I was in college. Therefore, I have a soft spot in my heart for people who just don’t enjoy reading; I can relate.
Why does this matter? Not everyone is a reader, nor does everyone need to be. I never want to give the impression that all Christians must read Shakespeare and Tolstoy, must sit in leather chairs in jackets with elbow-patches, a pipe in their teeth discussing Chaucer with one another. That isn’t for everyone (or most people). But Christians are at a minimum obligated to read their Bibles. And we do live in a time where, more than ever, we have an abundance of technology and entertainment options that make sitting and reading any book, let alone challenging books, difficult. I fear that our regular rhythms of smartphone use, social media, and internet streaming has so fractured our attention span that sitting in front of physical book of any sorts–let alone one written thousands of years ago–is nearly impossible.
So, if you would like to become a better reader, whether that be of your Bible or in general, but find yourself easily distracted or overwhelmed, consider a few tips:
- Make time. Set a consistent time devoted to reading. I read my Bible in the morning when I wake up and I always read a book before I go to bed at night. Build it into your schedule.
- No devices. Don’t read on a computer or a phone. Don’t have those things nearby. Move them into another room altogether if need be. You will be psychologically more free to focus without the ambient reminder that you could grab your device in a second.
- Take notes. Read with a pen in your hand. Underline, write reactions or questions. Go to the flyleaf of the book and write page numbers of places important in the book. Make a Goodreads account and write a short review of each book you read. Writing it out will help galvanize your memory of what you read.
- Talk about it. This is especially important if you are reading a book with a challenging concept. Having to verbalize the argument of the book to someone else will help ignite other parts of your brain that will not only help you remember the book, but in articulating you may unravel something that had been unclear.
- Ghost trace. If you are reading a particularly difficult book, or just find yourself being easily distracted, or want to improve your speed of reading, take a capped pen and trace the lines as you read. I learned this trick from Mortimer Adler. This will help you stay focused, keep forward momentum, and (if you want) you can move the pen slightly faster than your eyes alone normally would read, increasing your speed.
- Be okay with confusion. Too often people will drop a book–be it the Bible or any other book–because they hit a part that they cannot understand. There can be benefit in pausing and contemplating. But if no understanding comes, don’t give up. Just keep reading. If you feel dumb while reading a book, that’s okay. I can’t tell you how many times I have been perplexed by a book, but continued to read, and then uncovered something else later on that shone light back on what I was reading earlier.
- Stretch yourself. If you never read books that challenge you, that present complex ideas or intricate narratives, then there are ideas and beauties and stories you will never get to enjoy. Develop a capacity, a grit for reading books that push you a bit. This isn’t always true, but usually a “classic” has continued to be read by people for a reason and therefore is worth at least attempting.
- Learn when to drop it. Not every book needs to be read, nor deserves to be finished. If you have slogged your way through half of the book and get nothing from it, then drop it. Move on. There are lots of other good books to read.
- Set a goal. How many books do you want to read this year? Consider setting a goal that is both attainable and stretching. Tell someone else about it, or go in on a “reading challenge” with someone else.
- Use audiobooks. Audiobooks are a wonderful help to read more. You can fill your daily commute, lawn mowing, or walks with a book. I often will listen to an audiobook and, if I found the book particularly intriguing, will go buy a physical copy of it to review parts I liked.
By far, the best way to become a better reader is to just keep reading books. Don’t give up on reading!