I read…a lot. It often doesn’t feel like I read enough, but compared to normal people, yes, it’s a bit obsessive. (What can I say? I’m Reformed.)
In any case, while there have been a number of pieces of advice on reading that I’ve received over the years, three in particular have shaped my reading habits and formed me for the better as a reader and a thinker.
1. Read Your Favorites’ Favorites – The first bit of explicit reading wisdom I remember getting was from one of my future groomsmen, Scott Buttes. We were both at the gym and I was telling him how I excited I was about listening to podcast sermons by my pastor because I learned so much from them. I was particularly ecstatic because he had brilliantly gone into the 1st Century history to show how the Roman Imperial theology was behind so much of the NT proclamation of Christ as Lord, and so on and so forth, and even more excited that his new book was coming out.
At that point, Scott stopped me and said, “Derek, what you need to be doing is reading the guys that he reads and going to the source.”
Scott pointed out that Charles Spurgeon was a great preacher, but the commentator he read was J.B. Lightfoot. In the same way, I should look for the people that my favorite preachers read, and read them. So that’s what I started doing and it’s been crucial for my intellectual development since.
What does that look like? Mostly, it’s raiding the footnotes of your favorite authors. So maybe you’re a Tim Keller fan. Do you like the philosophical point he just scored in The Reason for God? Looks like you should check out Alvin Plantinga. How about his Christ-centered exposition of the Scriptures in Preaching? Guess you should read some Edmund Clowney. The list goes on. Basically, his books’ footnotes are a treasure-trove.
Of course, this starts to have a snowballing effect. When you start chasing the footnotes in the authors cited by your initial favorite authors, your literary and intellectual world keeps expanding. This is good because it keeps you from becoming too narrow. It’s good to have favorite authors, but as you expand your range, you begin to do your own synthesis, which keeps you from simply being a mini-me of your favorite thinker.
2. Read Stuff That’s Too Hard For You – The second bit of advice that follows is to try and read stuff that’s too hard for you. Sometimes your favorites’ favorites are not easy. They’re not always quick reads. But if you’re always looking for easy reads, even if you consume a lot, you’ll never fully work your intellectual muscles to stretch and grow.
Right after I finished college, I asked one of my professors which good history of theology I should check out. She recommended Jaroslav Pelikan’s 5-volume classic, even though she knew I was clearly not up on the subject. I love that she did that. She knew I was just arrogant enough at the tender age of 21 to tackle them anyways.
Now, I definitely missed a lot of what was going on. Nevertheless, the impression it left on my mind of the breadth and depth of Christian orthodoxy and tradition throughout the centuries has never left me, and, on top of that, prepared me for later theological engagement. (Not to mention humbled me a bit. Just a bit.)
This holds true in almost any area of knowledge or literature. Honestly, it’s okay if you have to pull out a dictionary or constantly Google new terms you encounter. That’s about the only way to get through anything by David Bentley Hart. I’m not saying you should only read hard books, just some more than you might naturally attempt.
3. Read What Interests You – I can’t remember where he says it, but C.S. Lewis has a marvelous comment about reading the books that interested him instead of the books he “ought” to read.
I think my dad understood this intuitively. He used to take us to the library when we were kids and he’d pick out one book we had to read before we returned, but he then let us pick the rest based on our own interests.
Yes, it’s important to read broadly, even those books that aren’t initially appealing. And yet, when in doubt, read what’s interesting to you. If you pick books on subjects you’re interested in instead of ones you think you should be interested in, you’re more likely to read even the hard books.
This is why I have more books on the Trinity and the atonement than on ecclesiology in my theological library. I happen to think they are theologically prior to ecclesiology, so it makes sense for me to read about them first. But I’ll just say that I initially preferred them because they were more interesting to me. Now, realize, I am interested in ecclesiology, even more than I used to be. But really, it’s only because of the training I’ve had disciplining my mind in the areas that interest me, that I’m able to approach the thicker material in subject matter that wasn’t initially appealing.
The bottom-line is: when in doubt, choose what’s interesting.
Hopefully these tips serve you as well as they’ve served me over the last few years.
Soli Deo Gloria