I recently just finished my first book in the New Studies In Biblical Theology series and posted a picture of the finished book on social media. Within minutes, I had a couple of people asking me about my approach or regimen to reading. The book in the picture looked little like what it did when I started. The spine is bent, the pages have tabs sticking out all over it, the pages are full of highlights, notes in the margins and stick it notes. Rather than trying to answer this question on a social media thread, I figured I would write a post on it for all the fellow book nerds out there and explain my approach to reading through answering some common questions I get.
Do I read one book at a time or multiple books?
At any given time, I typically am reading between 3 and 5 books. This might seem overwhelming but there is a method to it. Key to this is I don't feel the need to read through a chapter at a time. If I was to only read when I could devote serious time to it, I probably wouldn't be able to read as much. Because of this, I started reading in categories. I have 4 categories I work in.
The first category is books that I could pick up and put down quickly. More often than not, these are books on a wide variety of topics and tend to be non-Christian books. With these books I can read a few lines, a few paragraphs or a few chapters as time allows and put them down until I can pick them up again. For example, right now I am reading a book called Defiant: The POW's who endured Vietnam's most infamous prison, the women who fought for them, and the one who never came home by Alvin Townley. That is a book where I can pick it up and put it down and not really lose anything I would benefit from just reading it straight through. These are typically Kindle books or in audiobook format. I will pull these up when I am in line at the store, when I have a few moments to myself between appointments, or as I am in bed.
The second category is books I need to read to bone up on a specific topic. These are books about a topic that is interesting to me or one that I need to read to strengthen an area of weakness. These are books that take energy to read. They aren't the kind you can just pick up and put down mid-sentence. For these, I will typically spend about an hour a day reading them, sometimes more. I am a night owl, my wife is not, so a lot of this happens after she has gone to bed.
The third category is what I would call professional reading. These are things like commentaries and books on languages that I need to be in on a weekly basis to be able to preach, teach or shepherd. These again require devoted time, but I am not so concerned with making it through the whole book so much as through the section or topic that deals with the text or idea that I need to preach or teach. For example, when our elders were working through the role of deacons, I spent a lot of time reading all I could get my hands on about deacons and elders.
The final category is what I would call devotional reading. I don't mean devotional reading as in Bible reading. This post is focusing exclusively on reading outside of regular Bible reading. These are books, many by contemporary authors, which are easy reads and I can get through them pretty quickly. An example of this would be Shepherding A Child's Heart by Ted Tripp. I can read a chapter in a short amount of time and they are working in areas I am already familiar with so new concepts, ideas or applications can be placed quickly within an existing framework and the insight, while new, is quickly grasped. In other words, they don't require a ton of hard thought and labor.
What's your system for note taking?
This has evolved over the years. Right now, when I sit down to read in the second or fourth category i will have a few things with me. First, I have a pen (fine point TUL black and blue) and highlighter (Zebrite). I use these because they write well and don't bleed through. I am a writing instrument nerd too. The Zebrite highlighters have a chisel point on one side and a fine point on the other which is very convenient. I typically use yellow but will use other colors for things that I really want to be able to find fast . I also have Stick-It Tabs with me along with some mini Stick-It notes. Here is how the system works:
The Stick-It tabs are used to mark out themes, ideas or concepts along the long side of the page. Tabs on the top are for specific Bible references. So for example, I might want to know what Ephesians 5 has to do with sanctification (the most recent book that started all of this was Possessed by God which is on that topic) and so in the section that deals with Ephesians 5, I put a blue tab labeled "Eph 5" at the top of the page. When there are extended treatments of the role of the Spirit in sanctification for example, I will use a red tab along the long end of the page that is labeled "Sanct. and the Spirit". This allows me to find themes and specific treatments of Scripture equally fast.
How do you mark your books?
When it comes to marking books I use a lot of highlighter. I will highlight things that are really important or that really stand out. Because of that, I might highlight an entire paragraph (or large portions of it), a sentence, or just specific words that are key in a sentence. This allows me to quickly pick up on main themes or key insights if I need to go back and reference. As I said above, I will typically use just one color (yellow) but if something really needs to stand out, I will use blue or pink. I hate green highlighters. I don't know why... I just do.
As far as writing in the book, I will underline certain things that are important or insightful, but don't warrant a highlighter. So for example, the big important idea might be highlighted and then that idea restated in different terms might be underlined. I will also circle or square out key conjunctions. Circles are for coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but, nor) and the rest are boxed. This helps me identify the grammatical flow of the argument better. I don't always do that, but in complex arguments or arguments where those conjunctions are essential to understand the point, I do.
I also write in the margins. I use a big star for important things I want to find quick, I underline the star once for really important things, and underline it twice for essential things. When I come across the key to understanding a conclusion or argument, I will write "key" in the margin and underline it. I also "thought vomit" in the margins as I read. I will write questions I have, my own cross references for other places I see this theme or idea (whether another book, author or Bible reference) and will write thoughts or insights I have as I read. In addition, if what I want to write is too long for the margin, I will use a mini sticky note, write it on there, and stick it in the margin. I even write disagreements with what I'm reading and why I disagree.
Why do you write in your books?
Books for me have become a journal of the development of my thought process. By writing in the margins, I am able to go back and see how that book has shaped my thinking, challenged me in different areas, or where I got key insights that helped formulate my thoughts on a specific area. It is a log of growth for me. It is a way to remember where I have been and how I have been changed. It also helps me see where questions I had earlier in the book are answered later in the book. When that happens, I will typically take a minute and go back to the question in the margin and make a small note of the page where that question was answered. It might be dumb, but I even hope that my kids one day will be able to know me better through reading my books. They will be able to see how I grew, where I struggled, breakthroughs that happened, and perhaps, they might even still be able to learn from me after I am gone. For me, it is a way to teach my kids, or someone else who happens to buy the book for 10 cents at my estate sale, what I have learned and give them the experience of reading the book with me. Like I said, I'm a book nerd.
Hopefully that answers some of the questions. If you have more, leave them in the comments.
Jon is husband to Carlee, Papa to Finleigh and Ainsley, a pastor at Arbor Drive Community Church in York, Ne, and co-host of The Pastor Discussions Podcast