Five Tips for Reading Books, PhD-Style

by Hans on November 29, 2015 in Seminary

I don’t like reading. I usually have to force myself to read. At first, it was by setting bets with my friends or by making other people read books with me. I had a bet with Evan to read The Lord of the Rings. I had a bet with my friend David that I’d finish The Hunger Games before him and, if so, he had to buy me lunch. He did, and it was Chick-fil-A.
photo-1431608660976-4fe5bcc2112cI’ve also simply asked people to read other books with me. I led a men’s group and had five books be part of the curriculum (they were five books I wanted to read). Jonathan and I meet almost weekly and have a book we are discussing (since coming on staff it has been this one, this one, this one, and this one—soon to probably be this one).

Now the pull is school, with each semester requiring twenty books or more (this semester is twenty-seven). The reading is different than my previous bets. It is non-fiction, and it is more academic (some of you might call that more “boring”). While on Thanksgiving break with the fam I had to slam four of them just to try and finish the semester’s reading on time (which still isn’t a slam dunk).

It’s more books than any human should have to read. And it’s cruel and unusual punishment by our professors (who I think do this to us because they had to). But it must be done, so this is how I survive it . . .

  • Read With a Pen: You can’t assume when you finish the book you are finished with the book. I mark it up because I assume I’ll use it again and need to be able to make some quick references. There isn’t a huge rhyme or reason to the types of marks I use (unlike some super nerds). I write down what impresses me, I star passages that make a lot of sense, circle page numbers I want to come back to, and put reminders on the pages as to what I was thinking about at the time. This makes reviewing the book better (in cases where I might re-read the book, I’d try and go through with a different color pen). For my first run-through I’m a Pilot G2 0.5mm blue pen guy. (You’ll also notice that it is the pen that is usually in my shirt when I preach and pull it out when I get up on stage.)
  • Read Introduction Closely: This is the bread and butter of a book. Academic writing (at least good writing) will clearly say in the introduction what the goal is. Look for things like, “The argument of this book is . . .,” or, “My aim in writing this is . . . .” Those are dead giveaways. Mark those to high heaven. You’ll also likely get a run-down of how the book is going to flow. Be familiar with it.
  • Follow Flow of Thought in Each Chapter: If the writer is a good one, then she or he will march out to do just what the introduction said. Swift movement through the chapters is good here. Don’t expect to remember everything. Look for key points in the argument, things that are contrasted, etc. Continue marking and slow down on the chapter introductions and conclusions.
  • Be Realistic: If you have a stack of books to read (like a twenty-seven book stack) then you must have a pace of 2 books a week just to finish the semester.  You’ll spend all of your time reading. I have never been able to keep a pace like that. I try to, get behind, and then cram a dozen or so books into the end of my semester. My goal: remember one or two impactful things from a book. That way, when talking about a book I can say, “This book said this idea and it made this impact on me.” That’s better than trying to remember everything.
  • Set a Time Limit: I stink at this part, but it is very helpful when I can stick to it. When I say, “The next two days will be dedicated to this book,” then I can usually knock it out. When I say, “I need to read this book” it takes me forever.

So, for the none of you who were asking, that’s how it is done (at least by me). Now, I have to go finish this book.


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