Thursday, September 1, 2011

How I Read a Book

I am a word aficionado. Not a word-snob, but a lover of words and language.

There's power in words. Beauty in words. Grace in words.

Words create movement. They craft nations. They seal a marriage. They cast vision. They make us laugh. They expand our horizons. They script our possibilities.

Few things fascinate me like the power of words. So it's no wonder I read a lot. Recently I asked readers here to tell me if they tend to be book finishers or book abandoners. And I promised to tell how I read, so here it goes.

I'm fairly picky on the front end about what I'll buy or bring home. There's too many options and too little reading time for me not to be discriminate. If I have access to the Internet, I often check reader reviews before deciding on a title. But a book doesn't have to get 5 stars for me to read it.

With any book I pick up, I see the title, note the author, read the back cover, and then note the publisher. Before entering the publishing arena myself I didn't pay much attention to the publisher, now that info tells me something about the book, particularly in the case of Christian books. Different publishers can have different bents, or theological leanings.

Next I open the book and scan the table of contents. I want the chapter titles to intrigue me but also to give me some sense of what the chapter contains. Next I flip through and spot read on various pages throughout. This is often the biggest determinate for me. I have to be intrigued, pulled in. I have to find at least two places during spot reading that make me want to keep reading.

It might be compelling content, brillant analysis, the author's voice, or the beauty of the wording that pulls me in. But it's got to pull me.

Once I officially begin reading a non-fiction book, I read with a pencil in hand. It must be a pencil, not a pen and not a highlighter - strong color visually divides and messes up the pages for me.  It tends to prevent me from engaging with the non-highlighted stuff on a second or third read through. That's a problem because at different times in my life different things will speak to me.

I underline sentences often. I sometimes write the topic of a great passage at the top of the page. And I occasionally make short notes in the margin.  If a question gets raised in my mind, I'll put a question mark in the margin beside it. If an action is suggested that I want to do, I'll draw a to-do style check box in the margin. If something is a key point, I draw a key shape to the side.

Being a busy woman and a lover of words with many interests, I'm sometimes tempted to stop reading a book before the end, even if I've been enjoying it. I might get restless, or distracted by another title I want to read.

On a case by case basis I decide if I will push myself to finish it or let myself move on to another book. If I decide to move on, I also decide not to feel guilty about that. It was an intentional decision.

Some books make their argument for me or teach me their premise well enough in the first several chapters. And sometimes the author runs out of new things to say before they meet their mandatory word count (shhh, don't tell them I told you that). And once in a while, a book just fails to deliever or resonate with me. If that's the case, I put it down and move on.

Life is not college, (beyond the Bible) there is no manditory reading list. Still, I can't imagine life without books. My life is better for having read a great many of them. And for having finished most of those I started, and consciously abdanonded a few to move on to what will move me.

Chances are you are a book lover too. Feel free to share your reading tips and tendencies.  And if you're looking for a Christian non-fiction book to read, or even half-read, you can try mine here.


  1. So glad you are back Rachel. I was a bit concerned that the winds had blown you away.

    Thanks for sharing your method of reading and discovering books. I myself have to read a couple of chapters before I can make the decision to keep reading or put it in the "unfinished" pile that gets donated to someone else. I also limit how many books I have laying around that are waiting to be read because it stresses me out trying to find time to read them.

    I love books like "Bittersweet" and "Cold Tangerines" filled with short stories since sometimes "short" is the length of my attention span.

    I did however, love your book and read it the whole way through!

  2. V - that's a relief to hear you found my book finish-worthy. I'm glad. And I totally love Cold Tangerines too. She's a gifted writer.

  3. I have found that some non-fiction Christian books translate well as quiet time books-- I read a chapter each morning during my quiet time. That's been a good way for me to go through some non-fiction books I would not have time to read otherwise. I went through your book that way, Ann Voskamp's 1000 Gifts, and am currently going through Emily Freeman's new book Grace For The Good Girl. When I get a chance to read I am usually reading fiction, but there are nonfiction books I don't want to miss and this is a good way to get them all in!

  4. Love the picture! Beautiful library -- and it goes great with your blog style!!! :)

    So relieved to hear you - the book aficiando - finishes almost all the books you start!

    I do the same as you, except with purple pen rather than pencil.

    Like Marybeth, I incorporate non-fiction Christian study books into my morning quiet time after I spend time in the Word. "Beyond the Bible", I pick non-fiction Christian Bible studies or topical studies to help me examine my heart and grow. I didn't get to as many as I wanted to this summer, but I did get through a few!


  5. Wonderful post - I do a lot of those things, too. :)

  6. Rachel, I loved everything about this post. Being an avid reader myself, and a word nerd, (I still read and write with an old, hard copy of a beat up, thick Webster's beside me), my thoughts echo yours.

    I'd love it if you would post your favourite 5-10 non-fiction books. I can't get out to shop right now, so don't have the pleasure of holding a book in my hand and letting it speak to me before purchasing. I trust your recommendations and would appreciate having a list of some books to chose from that have ministered to your heart. I then could order on-line during this season of required rest.

    Happy reading.

  7. I love that picture at the top of your post. If it's not, it certainly looks similar to the Library of Congress which we visited just a couple of weeks ago in D.C. Viewing the library from the observation tower up above it, my youngest one said, "Mom, how can we get down there? I want to go down there," as his little finger was pointing down below! Okay, so maybe one of my boys will love books as much as me!

  8. I found a book-mark at Borders that has a set of sticky flags. I like to underline and comment, but these sticky flags help me find the most important passages again in a book I feel I'll want to reference in a talk. My latest Philip Yancy book has become very colorful around the edges.

    I've also started keeping a book journal. My daughter's literature class requires her to keep a daily response journal as a record of their reading. I started in solidarity with her and ended up valuing the process for itself.


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