Note from John Starke, editor at TGC: This week we are asking church leaders, Christian thinkers, and writers about their reading habits. We may not be able to read as much as them or even as wide, but we may be able to learn from them. Read Carl Trueman’s summary of his reading habits from yesterday. Today we continue our series with Fred Sanders, author of Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, teaches in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.
I told my wife I was going to write a few words about my reading habits, and she replied: “You should be able to do it in one.” I knew the word she meant: “Constantly.” After 20 years of marriage to a constant reader, she has the right to make that pronouncement.
The most important advice I can give about reading is to make decisions in advance about what you want from the book you’re about to read. You’ve got to stay in charge, and not just let yourself accidentally fall into the reading experience. Before you really engage the book, decide if it’s the kind of book you need to read slowly, repeatedly, taking notes, and pondering. Or is it the kind of book that covers familiar territory and will only offer a few new details? Is it a book you want to immerse yourself in and get lost in, or the kind you want to dip into for bits of information? Or is it a book that you need to figure out so you can put it on your shelf and know how to use it for reference later on? Some books contain analysis and perspectives that are brand new for you, and require slow assimilation. But others just confirm, deepen, or extend things you already know. And it’s fine to read for fun and entertainment, or even to read haphazardly. But you need to have made a decision that you’re going to do so. There are some books that I’m done with in 90 minutes, because I already knew what was in them before I picked them up, and I got everything I needed from them in a short encounter. I’m not an especially fast reader, but I do read strategically.
It’s especially important to keep your wits about you like this in reading theology. Oswald Chambers asked himself, “In my study, am I a woolgatherer, or like a man looking for his Lord?” Attention is a precious commodity: we pay it. We should pay it well, with the right currency for the right books.
By the way, this need for pre-deciding about your level of reading commitment is one of the reasons that our new and emerging habits of reading online are dangerous. When we’re browsing and scrolling and following links, we tend to make all those decisions about attention with less reflection. We tend to make them with our eyeballs, fingers, and central nervous system. These technologies make it easier and easier to fall into bestowing our limited reading time on things that don’t deserve it.
My reading is largely dictated by my teaching and publishing loads. Beyond that, with young kids in the house (third and fifth grade), I’m in a season of reading as much as I can of what they’re reading. I can’t keep up with them, but they’re reading good stuff: The Wizard of Oz, Where the Red Fern Grows, Greek mythology, anything about dragons, and classic comics like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes (though these are a controlled substance).
Right now I’m reading up on what I’m teaching next semester: Matthew and several recent commentaries on it (D.A. Carson, David Turner, Grant Osborne); books on the doctrine of Scripture (John Frame, Timothy Ward); Thessalonians. Next up are Augustine’s Confessions and On the Trinity, Boethius’ On the Consolation of Philosophy, Athanasius On the Incarnation, Hume’s Enquiry. I just finished binging on John Wesley’s works, and my umpteenth re-reading of Adolph Saphir’s The Hidden Life. The two books of new theology I’m reading, both pretty slowly, are Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologyzing Theology and Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key. Tanner’s book however, I would not suggest for good, edifying material.