I like to have an agenda when I pick up a book, goals that I can set forth to accomplish in the reading of it. Your goals might be different from those of all your friends who are reading the book, but the important thing is to be aware of what you personally want to get out of it.
For example, let’s say you’re reading a popular book on leadership that’s making the rounds at the office. People keep telling you that it’s the best book they’ve read for a long time, that it’s changed the way they think about the workplace. You want to join the discussion, so you read it. But your goals might be different from your co-workers. They might want to read it to learn how to get to the top with minimal effort. You might be more concerned about how to find talking points that have a biblical connection. But you also might be interesting in reading it to figure out what the worldview being advocated by the book, to better understand what your officemates value most.
And you accomplish these goals by setting out with questions from the start, and you constantly revisit those questions as you read, answering them in full when you’ve completed the book. I often have separate goals for each chapter (for non-fiction books).
Here are a couple questions that I like to ask of all the books that I read:
- How can the ideas in this book transform my life?
This is the practical question, the one that makes you consider how you might apply what you’ve learned from the book. You might completely disagree with the book, but that still doesn’t mean you won’t be changed by it. Let’s say the book presents a worldview that is completely different from the biblical one. You likely won’t be adopting a new worldview, but there are always practical tips that might work well in your own life, ones that don’t fully conflict with your values.
A great example is when I read the Four-Hour Work Week (which Dan and I joke should be called the 4-Second Work Week). Everyone was talking about it, and I read it partly to make people stop singing its praises to me. I admit, this is a common reason for me to read books. I was absolutely shocked by the worldview the book embraced, more about living for oneself and pursuing luxury and leisure than pursuing righteousness. If you ever want a study in contrasts, read this book alongside John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life.
But, even though I largely disagreed with the book, there were some productivity tools that I found useful and could use in a way that would glorify God in my own life. And I also took from it tips on how to relate to the culture in large that was buying into this worldview. Bestselling books tell you that authors have struck a nerve, are meeting a core need, and are speaking at a common level. If you see yourself as a lay missionary, put into culture to be Christ’s representative, books that speak to the culture can be useful tools for learning how to relate to people you want to reach.
2. What would Jesus say about the ideas in this book?
I suppose this is the WWJD of reading. I find great value in keeping a biblical lens in place for my reading. If you forget to put ideas in the light, you might fall victim to ideologies that conflict with scripture. It’s ridiculously easy to pick up a trendy catchphrase without considering if it’s in line with what you know of God.
For example, here’s an interesting quote I recently picked up: “How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don’t think.” It makes sense on several levels, especially in our culture where we’d rather watch TV than do just about anything. But it assumes and underlying stupidity of the populace, not exactly in line with believing that we are made in the image of God. Plus, what pride in one’s own brain this statement assumes! And it also implies that the government knows better than the people who elected them, allowing for all kinds of justification for abusive totalitarian actions. By the way, Adolf Hitler said that.
You might have questions that apply to specific people in your life, perhaps the people who asked you to read the book, or people you want to serve. Also, you can have very specific goals for the book, depending on the subject matter within it (in a book about fishing, you might want to learn how to catch a specific type of fish). But the important thing is that you start your books with clear goals and end them answering the questions that you hoped to answer. Don’t forget that writing in your books as you go is a great way to answer these questions along the way.