How to Read and Beyond

I pulled three paper backs off the third shelf of our bookcase along the western wall in our living room at 2:00 a.m. this morning. Bodily discomforts of various sorts had awakened me. Sometimes I can return to sleep, but other times my body insists, “Forget sleeping!” My mind was immediately at work on a subject that has been toying with me for a number of days. Reading. What to read, how to read, when to read, and why read — all danced in my thoughts.

Quietly, I shuffled out to the living room, intent on not awakening my Paul. To the bookshelves. Taking the three volumes, I slumped in my leather, La-Z-Boy, covered myself with a blanket, took a colored pencil and a regular pencil, and opened the first book.

Jews and Christians are called “The People of the Book.” The Bible. We  wear that label with great pride — both good pride and bad pride, I suppose. Books agitate. Whether you agree or disagree with an author, writing stirs up thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and can influence perspectives and decisions. Books and people’s responses to books (and to any sort of writing) impact me on a number of levels.

First, I love good books and like to recommend books to others. I’m like my mother in that way. Second, I love the holy Scriptures; this is the book I most want to recommend, but like an aged grandfather, it needs to be handled appropriately. The Scriptures require the skills of respectful listening and interpreting and the art of respectful appreciation.  Third, I write. Writing is the big outlet God has left in my path. If I don’t write and share some of it, I contribute little to the world. (Of course, I always contribute by taking care of my Paul, but it seems he takes care of me more than I do of him. No wonder we wear wedding rings: the giving cycles round.) Anyway, I’m being squeezed by a prenatal book that is paining me to be born. What niches can my book and various writings hold and what blessings can they offer?

Recently, I’ve been struck by the divergent opinions we Christians hold regarding certain books. One book is seen by some as a beautiful picture of Christian growth while others see the same book as suspect, promoting some unbiblical way of thinking and living. Now, there is no perfect book or example outside of Scripture and the Lord Jesus Christ. Flaws are to be found in books (and not all flaws are equal), so readers need to be observant and analytical, asking the Holy Spirit to infuse their thinking with spiritual discernment.

I do not want to tell you the names of books yet. It’s not the time to agitate that much yet. Instead, I want to note that I observe that one reason for broadly differing perspectives by Christians is a misunderstanding of a book’s genre and purpose. If I think a book is a hammer when it is a screw driver, I will reject the book in frustration.

What three books did I turn to this morning at 2:00 a.m.? The first, by James W. Sire, is How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind.* The second is How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom. The third is the classic, How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler** (1940; revision with editorial help from Charles Van Doren in 1972).

The third book may be the one I’d recommend first to Christian readers, even though this book was not written by an evangelical Christian. Adler shows you how to approach many kinds of books.

In Howard Hendricks’ classic text, Living by the Book (subtitle: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible), he describes the influence of Adler’s How to Read a Book upon his own education and life. Claiming that the book had “changed my education for the better,” and predicting that the book “will revolutionize your life,” Hendricks then tells his story:

“You see, I graduated from high school with honors. I even received the English award. Then I went to college. Unfortunately, I’d never studied in high school . . . . So after arriving on campus, I took an aptitude test, and they put me in the lowest English section in the school. This, despite my English award. Pretty humiliating. (It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened, because they gave us remedial students the best professor in the place.)”

After six weeks of study and questioning whether he could make it in college, Hendricks approached his professor. “He was very straightforward with me: ‘Howie, your problem is you don’t know how to read.’ And he introduced me to Mortimer Adler’s book. I read it, and it transformed my study skills. In fact, it changed the course of my life. And that’s what it can do for you in terms of Bible study.”***

Hendricks goes on to explain how Adler’s book helps a reader approach any piece of writing. If this master Bible teacher, Howard Hendricks, found this book to impact his reading and studying so much, it’s a book worth exploring. (Of course, a short cut may be to read/study Hendricks’ Living by the Book. His was not one of this morning’s three books. I thought of it later today. It lives in another bookshelf with Bible study books in another room.)

So, I’ve been thinking of developing some tools (and/or finding some existing tools) to help us place each piece of writing we pick up into specific categories based upon purposes and usages, so that we can make better judgments about what to read, what not to read, and how to think about (observe, interpret, evaluate, and use) what we do read.

I don’t know if you are interested in this. I’ll try to break it down with some charts or lists. If you have some ideas or resources, add your input in the comments below! This topic relates to my own work of re-writing my dissertation into something you can appreciate. I’ve read and am reading many books on my subjects of suffering and joy, and I’m trying to place them in categories, so that I can discover where my writing fits and doesn’t fit. Writing demands design as well as expression. And the good reading of the Good Book and good books involves design — intent and purpose —  to stir us to change — to grow, to be transformed, to move us beyond.

God is the God of words. In the beginning, God spoke and it was so.

“In the beginning was the Logos. . . and the Logos was God” (John 1:1).

Thank You, Lord God,  for blessing us with language, so that we may commune

with You and be the Body and Bride of Christ. 


* James W. Sire, the first author mentioned above, is an author worth investigating for the serious reader who wants to invest in understanding worldview issues from the vantage of a Christian worldview. I hope I can write about him and a few of his books someday.

**Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001) was  born into a Jewish family in New York City. He was an American professor, philosopher, and writer who was an academic traditionalist and promoted the study of western civilization ( one of the developers of the Great Books series as well as working with Britannica Encyclopedia). Of course, he was a voracious reader. Adler’s studies of Christian philosophy (especially the writings of Thomas Aquinas) led him slowly to Christian faith. Late in life he became an Episcopalian and by the end of his life he embraced Catholicism.

***Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks. Living By the Book. Chicago: Moody Press, 2007, 68-69.


Categories: Spiritual Growth | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “How to Read and Beyond

  1. Rick Shepherd

    Hi Karen!…..You certainly write well at 2:00am……Maybe that’s why a good nap helps restore body And mind!

    I’m an occasional bible reader having read it through as best I could twice in my life……I listen 24/7 to the Words of God guiding my life.

    I have been so physically busy in my life, and tired from that, I am not a prolific reader……I tend to read things I am interested in from my daily life like hiking, archery, bicycling, motorcycling, travel, etc……Many forms of literature or news are so biased and/or political that I shy away from them……I trust in God and my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!….. Not so much mankind……That tends to make me more solitary than social.

    I enjoy your writings and perspectives……I hope your pain can be mitigated through prayer because I do pray for you and Paul!

    Thankfully…….Rick and Mary

    • kltolsen

      Thanks, Rick, for your comments and prayers! By the way, I did not write all of this at 2:00 a.m. I read for several hours from these three books. Then I returned to bed for a few hours. I wrote the post during the day. I also made meals, listened to some news, and took a walk with Paul, enjoying the sunny afternoon. I posted the article at around 7:00 p.m. It was a quiet day, and I thought and read more (adding the Hendricks book) and wrote. My mind was percolating, but I tried to reduce my thoughts to a starting point of a conversation. We’ll see where this takes us. God’s blessings on you and Mary!

  2. Carolyn

    I assume that authoring a book would be the same as any other form of communication for a believer in that it would include one’s spiritual gifting. I’m not going to reach the same people in the same way as a believer with a differing gift. Of course all wisdom must be based on the Word of God, but our life experiences will also dictate how that wisdom is communicated.

    Suffering is different for everyone and only one book will give me the ultimate hope of understanding, knowing that there is One who understands full well. However, I praise that same One that He gives me earthlings that come along side and share their stories because then I know I’m not alone in my suffering. Thus…many different kinds of books for many different kind of readers. Just my thoughts.

    • kltolsen

      Thank you, Carolyn, for your precious insight: “many different kinds of books for many different kinds of readers,” based on God’s giftings and God’s Word, and as you say so perceptively, “our life experiences will also dictate how that wisdom is communicated.”

      When I wrap together what you have said, it seems that you are saying that books are like friends — “earthlings that come along side and share their stories.” (I really like your description.) One author’s story doesn’t need to say everything (be a theological treatise), but each book, like a friend, has a God-gifted contribution to my life.
      Am I interpreting you correctly? I appreciate your insight!

  3. Marty and Brenda Zuidervaart

    Thank you, Karen, for the helpful information about Adler and Hendricks. I have read both men but was unaware of their contributions to the art/science of reading, nor did I know that Adler’s book mentored Hendricks. Your blogs enrich me similarly. They are a strong contribution to my world. Thank you, friend.

    • kltolsen

      Thank you for this encouragement!

      I tell my students that learning to read and study the Bible well will aid them in all of their studies and make them better students. “People of the Book” should be more alert, observant, and analytical readers, thus becoming discerning thinkers. What the schools often call “critical thinking,” we call discernment.

      However, Christian discernment is based upon more than logic, science (requiring interpretation), perspective, and clear articulation; our logic (essential to thinking) is directed by the data base of Scripture. We have a truth plum line, while secularists (materialists) and spiritualists of various stripes construct meaning from the warehouse of their personal and collective experience. Thus, they only have “my truth” and you have “your truth.” So, as in the days of the OT judges (pre-kingdom), everyone does what is right in his/her own eyes, and we have increasing chaos.

      By becoming better students of God’s Word and letting that Word transform from the inside out, the next generation can become ballast in our cultural ship to keep the winds of chaos from sinking us. This is a part of what it means to be salt and light to others. Just some thoughts.

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