Relearning the Joy of Reading

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Seminary broke my love for reading.

But over the last few weeks, I’ve experienced a resurgence in my joy and excitement for reading. I want to explain how my thinking has changed in the hopes that it might help you as well.

Before attending seminary I was a voracious reader, regularly consuming 50-100 books each year. No one was telling me to read, I just read for the joy of it. This turned out to be a helpful skill going into seminary, because they really piled the books on. And while, for the most part, the books that made up the required reading lists were good, something about being forced to read books not of my own choosing messed with my love of reading.

I’ve heard this is actually a fairly common experience for grad students in any field. In fact, students who graduated before me warned that this might happen. But it’s been over three years since I graduated from seminary and I’ve still had trouble relocating that love for reading I once had.

I’m not sure exactly why this happens. But I think a large part of the problem was that in my mind reading moved from “pleasure” to “duty.” I came to think of reading as a chore; something that needed to be done. I stopped reading what I wanted, and started reading what I thought I should read.

I am happy to report, however, that I have had two breakthroughs recently that have gone a long way in restoring my joy of reading. If you struggling to recover your love of reading—or maybe you’ve never loved reading to begin with—hopefully these observations can help you.

1. Read whatever you want

After graduation no one was making me read certain books anymore. But I kept thinking I was failing to redeem the time if I just read for pleasure. I’d go down this thought-vortex where I’d start thinking how many books I would read before I die. If I didn’t make sure they were all the best possible books it would mean I wasted my life in some way. So, I’d get hefty academic works and joylessly slog through them thinking I was redeeming the time.

The predicable result of this cheerless approach to reading was not that I redeemed my reading time, but that I just read less. Obviously, there is wisdom to being choosy about what you read, but not if it paralyzes you from reading at all.

I got so fed up with this routine that one day I finally decided that I would just read whatever I wanted. And the moment I did, the joy of reading started flooding back. I let myself read anything that tickled my interest, fiction and non-fiction; books on architecture, brain science, and wizards; new books and old; and of course lots and lots of theology books (you can take the seminarian out of seminary…). That small mental shift was enough to break me from that sense of obligation I had that was stealing my joy in reading.

2. Read the good stuff deeply

The second observation about reading that has restored my joy came more recently. This one has kicked my reading into overdrive. I decided that there were some books or articles that I wanted to drink more deeply from, works I didn’t just want to have go in one ear and out the other. And for these works I decided to adopt a note-taking and review strategy. This might sound like I’m moving in the opposite direction from my first observation and turning reading back into a chore, but the way I’m taking notes is not labor-intensive at all. It’s actually quite fun!

So, the way I’ve been reading deeply is a method I learned from Tiago Forte, something he calls “progressive summarization.” It’s basically an approach to reading and note taking that takes multiple passes over the same work to reduce it down to it’s principles. Throughout the process you are digesting the information and ideas more and more thoroughly. And eventually you are able to synthesize it. Forte suggests four layers of reading and note-taking in progressive summarization.

  1. Notes
  2. Bold passages
  3. Highlighted passages
  4. Mini-summary
Source: Forte Labs

It’s not as though you’re reading the same book multiple times. The whole process is very “light touch” meaning it’s not onerous. Forte compares his process of bolding and highlighting to knitting not studying. You’re just kind of casually revisiting material and trying to whittle it down. Each layer takes less and less time. And as you revisit the material, you’re marinating on the ideas and concepts much more deeply.

I’ve done this progressive summarization method with the book When People Are Big and God is Small by Edward T. Welch and I’m looking forward to sharing the fruit of this effort with you on the blog and podcast in the coming days. But I couldn’t wait to tell you about this strategy since it’s been such a help to me. And I’m already thinking of ways to apply this method in a way that would combine daily Bible reading plans with deeper Bible study.

But more importantly, this method of reading deeply has restored my joy in reading in an unexpected way. I no longer feel like I’m reading just to read. I actually can see how the books I’m reading in this way are changing my life as I deliberately think on and apply what I’m reading. It has helped me to get more from the books that I really want to devote myself it and have joy while doing it.

Join the discussion

  • This was such a good read, and I look forward to hearing what you’ve been learning. As someone who loves to read, always looking to what I can do to better retain information and apply the things that I’ve been learning.

    While I am not a seminary graduate, over the past year I had been doing book reviews for publishers. Reading stopped being fun, because I wasn’t really reading what I *really* wanted to read, but rather decided to read whatever new book came out, even though I was just reading it for reading.

    It was freeing to decide that I would read what I want to read, and I am enjoying reading much more now.

    Thanks again for your words brother.

  • Hi Reagan

    Thanks for your article. It prompted me to recall C.S. Lewis’ introduction to ‘On the Incarnation’ by St Athanasius.
    There Lewis wrote about reading Christian books, his points were, firstly, you need to make sure that you read the original sources, so not a book about an author’s writings. Lewis makes the point that students think they will not be able to understand the great writers whereas, precisely because they are great writers, they are more intelligible than their modern commentator. Secondly, linked to the first, Lewis argues against reading things that are exclusively contemporary. He advocates the reading of old books. Newer ones, he says, are still on ‘trial’. Lewis’ rule was that after reading a new book you were never to allow yourself another new one without having read an old one in between! Ooops, I for one have not done that!
    Your comments on reading deeply is a great ‘how’ to read. And boy Reagan, you have found a detailed approach in Forte’s ‘progressive summarization’. That fourfold approach sounds amazing, I plan to give it a try, it will certainly keep me from being too quick in my reading.
    Finally, I finish with where you started, with the motivations for reading. I hear you, for too long I read for information’s sake, on all sorts of subjects, I enjoy research! But that, as Eccl 12v12 warns, can become wearisome. How much better it is when we read for joy. Especially when our reading is of the LORD, where, in addition to joy, our love for Him and worship of Him pull us forward.

    Thanks again,

  • This was refreshing! I’ve been stuck on #1 for a while now and know I need to revisit that mindset because I find myself getting bored and not feeling free to move on to another book that would strike my fancy more.

    I think it’s going to be awhile before I nail the note taking aspect, though. That still feels like a chore to me, although I know it’s hugely valuable and will save me time in the end.

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