Editor’s note: an updated and improved version of this post is included as a chapter in The Complete Seminary Survival Guide.
Seminary requires a massive amount of reading. Often the workload for even a single course can go over a thousand pages. Multiply that by four or five, and it becomes daunting, especially if you’re not a natural reader. The numbers of people who struggle with reading seems to be growing, and I’m sure that’s the case in seminary, also.
So, as you’re assembling your massive stack of books for the coming semester, I want to share an approach to reading that should save you some time and help you learn better.
Never read a book from cover to cover (unless you really want to).
The Pareto Principle applies here as elsewhere: 80% of the value of a book can be found in 20% of its pages. That means that reading most of the book will be a low-value use of your time, your professor’s insistence to the contrary notwithstanding. So unless, you really like the book, don’t read any book from cover to cover. Try this instead:
The Basic Approach
(courtesy of Richard Koch, The 80/20 Principle, p. 25)
Read the introduction and opening chapter or two, to get the general thesis of the book.
Then skip to the end, and survey the author’s conclusions. Once you have a feel for the main theme, go back to the table of contents, and look for where the most valuable content should be. Often, an author takes a few chapters to establish background for his main point—these chapters can be skimmed or even skipped entirely. Look for what appear to be the most relevant chapters, and give your attention there.
To read a chapter: read the opening paragraph or two, then the closing paragraph or two. Then scan through the headings, if the book has them. (If the book has no headings, use the opening sentence of paragraphs instead.) You can dip in and read the full text anywhere that the content seems rich or relevant to you. Feel free to skip around if you want.
(Incidentally, this is why I use headings and bullet lists in posts at SSG: to help you scan for and quickly find the material that will be most useful to you.)
Read with a pencil.
Reading, done well, is not a passive activity. It should be interactive. You should be thinking actively about the content, and challenging and asking questions of the author as you go.
To do this, read with a pencil (or pen, highlighter, etc). Underline key phrases and main points as you go. If question occurs to you, write it in the margins. Recognize an idea from another class or book? Make a note of it. This will help you when you come back to review later.
Why does this work? Underlining requires you to think about the material and make a definite choice about what is most significant. Writing the margin forces you to express that vague objection to the author’s idea in specific words. Writing encourages clarity and specificity.
Now some people have a deep reverence toward books, and feel that writing in them is a sacrilege. Get over it. Those books are not there for you to worship and preserve; they are there to help you learn. You’re a student, not a librarian. (Aside: you’d better be writing in your Bible, too, by the way.)
Discuss the reading with other students.
Again, this is about the importance of interacting with the material. Discussing what you’ve (mostly) read with other readers will help confirm and enrich your grasp of the material. You might even compare your understanding of the reading with others who slogged through the whole thing, and see how much (if anything) you’re missing.
Since you’re not slogging through the entire text, you can use some of the time you save to come back to the text, and re-read. This will help when reviewing for exams. Or if you’re not satisfied that you’ve gotten everything you need, then you can come back to sections that you skimmed earlier and read more closely.
Don’t be cheap.
I’d like to anticipate two complaints about this approach to reading:
“I paid a month’s salary for these books! I’m reading all of them! I have to get my money’s worth!”
That’s fine. Read all of them. But remember why you bought these books: to serve you and help you learn. If you insist on reading every word, you may find that you become a servant to your books, rather than the other way around.
“If I write in my books, I won’t get as much for them when I sell them back.”
Again, suit yourself. But is the extra three dollars you’ll get at resale really worth it? If you’re not convinced, then experiment: try writing in just a couple of your textbooks, and see if it helps you. Then get the real figures on how much money you’d save at resale, compare to how writing in the book helped your learning, and ask yourself if the “savings” is really worth it.
Bonus: Learn to speed read. This free manifesto has a basic introduction to key speed reading concepts. Download the .pdf and look at page 13.
Not convinced? Try this approach with just one of your classes, and see if it helps you.