Intellectual Depth – Healthy Rhythms pt. 3

(This is part 3 in a series on healthy rhythms that I began before Jeff’s surgery. I’m continuing it now. Part one, where I introduce the series is here and part two, where I write about the value of good conversation is here.)

Thinking deeply is a bit of a lost art. It is not that people don’t think about big topics or devote large amounts of time to personal study anymore. It is just that it is so easy in our culture to take in lots of information without digesting it. There is so much of it out there. Something is always next and competing for our attention. And our schedules are so full! There is little time to fully grasp all that comes across our radar.

In the course of a normal week, a Christ-follower might hear a sermon (maybe 2 or 3 if they listen to podcasts), maybe a small group lesson or discussion, maybe an outside book and reading the Bible for themselves at least, hopefully, a few times a week. That alone would be a lot to process. (And I’m not saying most Christ-followers should intake this much by the way. But some do.)

But then throw in the normal diet of news, texts, YouTube, surfing the internet, Facebook, email and hours of tv and entertainment. Then there is the daily visual and audio onslaught of living in our world. There is always a screen in front of us. Traffic to navigate. An advertisement tempting us. Background noise filling the void. And I haven’t even mentioned the more important time-consuming practices of building and maintaining family and friend relationships that takes time every day. What about the normal chores like laundry, dishes, helping kids with homework, shopping or maintaining things that occupies hours of our lives every day?

All of it competes for our attention and intellectual bandwidth.

We are busy people, taking in a lot of information. It is so much in fact that a lot of it marches in the front door of our minds and walks right on out the back. We don’t have room for it all to stay a while. We remain acquaintances with people we just say hello to and we become friends with those we spend time. It is true of people and it is true of ideas.

Therefore, it can be a healthy thing to set aside time, to narrow the scope of our intake and to challenge ourselves intellectually with one topic, rather than many. To slow down and focus, to think deeply about one topic. To intentionally choose what gets our intellectual attention rather than letting the world, culture, our smartphones or twitter choose for us. To intentionally read a challenging book, not rushing past it, but digging deep into its contents until we feel like we own it. To explore something off the beaten path of the everyday and mundane. To do some research, reading and pondering, instead of wasting our thought time by not really thinking. 

I’m not sure the topic itself is what is important, but the discipline, the rhythm of kicking my brain into gear and choosing what I think about, is. And periodically, I need to exercise the practice of not moving forward to whatever is “next” intellectually, until I feel I’ve fully digested whatever is “now”. 

This can look different depending on the person, their learning style, the season of life, the interest and/or the reason for consciously deciding to take one’s intellect deeper rather than wider for a while. For some, it may look deciding to turn off the tv for a weekend and using that time to read. For others, it may look like figuring out a hole in your education or the practice of your faith and deciding that you want to shore that up with some study 0r seeking out a conversation with someone who knows more about it than you. Maybe it is a trip to a museum or historic site.  It could even be reading your facebook or twitter feed more slowly and actually clicking on a link or two that a friend recommended – and then dialoguing a bit with them on why the topic is important, challenging or thought-provoking. Or maybe it just involves paying attention to when you might need to park and get of the intellectual car instead of just driving on by.

For me, sometimes my study time feels like the equivalent of eating a bag of potato chips while watching tv. I ate it, but don’t always remember doing it, perhaps feel a bit queasy and I’m not entirely sure I would do it again if I were paying closer attention. I don’t like it when I do this, either with chips or reading…so I am learning to practice a rhythm of greater intellectual challenge.

Holding On To What I Read (Reading Well pt. 4)

For those who love books, it is an easy (and potentially destructive) temptation to skim and try to finish a text without really owning its contents. Here, the goal is to make a mental check and be able to say, “I read that,” without really, really reading it. Because I enjoy reading so much and because it is almost effortless for me to just let my eyes scroll through pages…I am guilty of this sort of mindlessness all the time. And then saying, (ok, boasting) “I read that.”

I used to enjoy reading for quantity… reading as much as possible, often as fast as possible. Honesty alert – I still do this sometimes. Especially when I come across something I feel like I’m “supposed to have read”.  And for the record, this isn’t always bad. We can all sometimes grasp the gist of a book quite well with little effort – and sometimes our time is more valuable than a wrestling with the content. As I age however, I realize the importance of reading for quality. When I take the time to pick up a book I feel has something to offer me, I need to give it the time and attention it deserves. Therefore, I find myself reading less … but in a weird twist, actually reading more, if you know what I mean.

The goal of reading shouldn’t be just to finish the work, but to engage with it – whatever that looks like for you. Sometimes it looks like … acquiring information. (Sometimes just because it has been assigned or would be something good to know.)  Other times it looks like a conversation between two friends as they warmly discuss something they mutually love. It may resemble a wrestling match at times when the author and reader disagree over something, each trying to best the other. Or it may be an experience where the reader is introduced to something totally new, their imaginations pushed to new and wider places – and it takes a while to figure out what the book is doing to their mind and heart. At least that’s how it looks for me sometimes.

With this as an introduction, I want to address potential ways one can hold on to what one reads. While reading a lot of text, a lot of material and a lot of pages, how do I ensure that I retain the important information in a way that changes me? Or at least so that I am open in such a way that there is the potential for it to change me? Or that I can access important points later if I need it? Books have been written on how to read books (sort of ironic…) but here are my thoughts on it and practices with it.

1. It’s not all important.  A while back, I heard Rick Warren talk about his reading habits. He said, “Not all chapters are created equal.” The point was that even though he is a voracious reader, he doesn’t feel obligated to read an entire book, because some of its content is more important or more applicable or more relevant than the rest. So he picks and chooses often. I took this to heart. When reading a book, sometimes I go cover to cover and dig in. Even if I have to make myself, because I think the material is important.  Sometimes I skim the parts that I think aren’t as important. And I’m totally ok with this.

2. Read with a highlighter. Yes, I’ve heard that reading with a highlighter isn’t always a good way to retain information.(Especially if it is a black sharpie:) But it sort of works for me. It allows me to slow down when I recognize an important concept or sentence. It allows me to combine being a visual learner (using the eyes) with being a kinesthetic learner (using the body and movement), hitting two different modes of learning. And it gives me a way to later find what I thought was important as I was reading it. Sometimes I will make notes in the margins, but because I often sit or lay down comfortably while reading, my physical position makes this difficult. I’ve gotten quite good at highlighting a book while flat on my back.

3. Blogging. No secret here…if I find an idea intriguing…I often write about it on the blog. I think of it as an ongoing discussion with the material…and a way to invite Jesus into the conversation as well. If I can articulate an idea in writing, I own it at a completely different level. If I didn’t blog regularly, I suspect writing key ideas, quotes or thought-provoking questions in a journal would do the same thing – create another opportunity and mode of learning with which to filter the information. But I know not everyone blogs, so I also make…

4. Journal lists. I don’t always have time to sit down and formulate a whole blog post on something I’m thinking about. I don’t always have time to sit down and journal an idea thoroughly when it hits either. So sometimes I start a list in my journal. It can be of ideas, concepts, questions, phrases…things I want to remember for later. It is a shortcut that doesn’t take much time and allows me to revisit something later if I want. For instance, a list for me might be, “What I’m Thinking About Right Now…” or “Things I Would Like To Talk Over With A Friend…” or “Scriptures to Re-read When I Get More Time…” or “This Author/Book Has Made Me Think About…” These lists often have their genesis in the books I’m reading.

5. Conversations. One of the easiest ways to more clearly remember something I’ve read is to talk it over with a friend. I often carry what I’m reading around, to coffee or lunch dates, to church, etc. If I get there first, I nonchalantly place it on the table to see what sort of response it gets. This allows me an easy conversation starter. Or…I ask someone else, “I’m reading something and thinking about it ________ could I get your opinion on it?”

6. Trust God to bring to mind what I will need when I need it. I know that pastor types often have intricate filing systems to store what they read for later sermon prep. I’m not a pastor. I’m just type A housewife who loves to learn. And even though I publicly speak occasionally, the idea of a filing system seems to duplicate material – because the material is sitting right there in the book on my shelf  (or in my Kindle). Instead, I read, keep the book handy, and trust that if God wants me to revisit the information at some point – either for myself or for teaching prep, then He will jog my memory. So far, He’s been very reliable:). And then, I am free to enjoy reading something rather than stressing too much over, “What if I forget this?”

The reality of course is that we forget much of what we read. Which is ok. Even if I remember just a bit of what I read, it is still more than if I’d never read anything. And, the practice of actively reading something is incredibly valuable. It keeps my mind sharp, creates opportunities for God to speak to me through it and inevitably changes me.

Letting God Lead, Reading Thematically and Being Brave (Reading Well – pt. 2)

Reading for me is a deeply spiritual thing. How could it not be? The ideas and topics I choose to allow into my heart and brain stay with and shape me long after I put the book down. So, as a follower of Jesus, I sometimes pray about what I should read. Not all the time. I sometimes read things for no other reason than I am interested in a topic -and I often read just for pleasure. (Rachel Ray’s magazine is my guilty pleasure)

But I have also learned to listen for a bump in my heart when I come across certain titles and topics. I recognize that during different seasons of life, I am more tender and open towards certain topics. Therefore, I let Jesus have some say in what I choose to read, as it becomes a very important place of spiritual interaction for me. As I interact with powerful ideas and new vocabulary, of course they work their way into my prayer life. I don’t want to be the person who goes to the nutritionist for help and then tells them what I am going to eat, regardless of their advice. I want Jesus to have a place to speak into those things that speak into my life. How could the books I read not be included in this?

In light of this,

4. I tend to read thematically. I get interested in a topic that captures my imagination and will often read several related books in a row. In fact, my bookshelves are arranged thematically, because that is how I tend to read.  Sometimes the author is the theme and I’ll read several by a particular writer. When this happens, I am learning to recognize it as God’s way of getting my attention and asking me to focus for a while. Maybe the topic is prayer, or a biography, or missions, or marriage or a particular spiritual theme related to something in my life. Maybe it is a topic way way outside of my comfort zone or knowledge base – and I need to be aware of it. Either way, sometimes, though not all the time, I will spend a few months (or longer) exploring a particular topic. It is like my intellect itches – and I read till the itch is scratched.

This does a few things for me. One, it allows me to interact with a topic for a while, and some topics need time to be properly absorbed. Second, I don’t read books that just say the same thing. I read different authors on a topic, different sides of a discussion, different views and perspectives. This means that…

5. I am willing to read authors I don’t completely agree with. A while back, I hosted a party where a guy I didn’t know (he came with a friend) walked over to my (beloved) bookshelves and said, and I quote, “I wonder what sort of heresy you have over here.” I sort of hope he got his undies all in a bundle over some of the titles I own because he was a jerk. How is one expected to have any intellectual heft if one only reads one side of an argument? How can one come to their own deep-set theological convictions if they never have to defend them or think deeply about them? Just because one reads authors from the metaphorical other side of the fence doesn’t mean I agree with them. It just means I want to know what they know, to be open to discussion, because it helps me figure out truth in a deeper way, owning it in my heart in a deeper place. And who knows – I am open to the fact that I may be wrong. One thing I know is that I don’t know everything. Heck, I am willing to admit that I don’t know much. So while I definitely weight my reading within the stream of Christianity in which I comfortably swim, I don’t live in an intellectual ghetto because I am afraid of what others may think of me . Or alter my reading because I am afraid I am not smart enough to recognize truth when I read it. Or live in fear that God won’t speak to me about the truth of a topic if I explore alternate explanations. If iron sharpens iron, I think reading across the spectrum, carefully and with wisdom, can do the same thing. But it requires a willingness to be brave. As I discuss books with others, unfortunately, I often find folks who read from fear rather than courage.

Talking and Planning (Reading Well – pt. 1)

If you’ve read Intersections previously or know me personally, it should come as no surprise that I am a reader. An avid reader. I love books and am constantly reading something. I have for as long as I can remember. On the blog, I write reviews every summer to highlight some of the most impactful books I’ve read over the course of the year. I quote them often. And I am periodically asked about the books I read and which I would recommend. I believe it was Howard Hendricks who said that one of the greatest things that can shape who you are is the books you choose to read. I am living proof of the veracity of this statement.

In light of how I love books, I wanted to spend a few posts and discuss how I choose the books I do, how I interact with them and their content and offer some suggestions on how to get the most from them. Full disclosure – I am a devoted follower of Jesus and primarily a non-fiction, spiritual topics reader. While I do read across the spectrum of topics, genres and themes – and believe that good reading habits apply to all sorts of books – the majority of the reading I will be talking about in the next few posts will center around books of the faith – those written by fellow followers of Jesus describing some aspect of how to know and love Him more. Of course I read the Bible regularly, but it is in a category all by itself. How to read It is a topic for its own blog series at a later time.

1. I talk with people about books. A common question discussion starter for me is to ask people what they are or have recently read that they found particularly interesting or helpful.Especially those whom I respect and look up to. (It doesn’t always have to be a book either. In today’s world, what we read online can be just as impactful.) When I go into people’s houses or offices and there are bookshelves, I inevitably find myself walking over to have a look. The books I am reading percolate in my head and heart for a while. They change my vocabulary for a season as I absorb and interact with their content. So it is only natural that the books I am reading enter my conversations. It is a great way to move from talking about nothing to talking about something, revealing something of who I am and what moves my heart, while sometimes opening a beautiful window into who someone else is and what moves their heart.

2. I keep an active “To-read” list on Amazon. As different books come across my radar through my conversations and interactions with other readers, I make a note of them. Then I research the book on Amazon, read reviews for it or peruse it at Barnes and Noble. If I want to stay aware of it, I put it in my queue on Amazon. It allows me to remember those books I want to read later, when it is time, when my heart is receptive to its content (more on this later), when I have the intellectual space to spend with its content. The recommendations I receive from others about the books they’ve read are too important to me to lose track of on the back of an envelope or receipt. (Often, my normal note-taking material.) And there are many wonderful books out there that will never appear on best seller lists or get highlighted at a store. The only way I will find them is through the recommendations of others (including Amazon’s recommendations) – and the only way I will remember them is by listing them somewhere. Amazon is my tool to do so.

3. I often map out my reading months in advance. This practice came from my time in Europe, where my access to English books was limited. I visited America once a year, so my trips to the bookstore while stateside needed to be well planned out. I would spend months sometimes researching what books I thought would be most beneficial, which authors I needed to read to be current, what topics I would enjoy or find useful. Evenings on Amazon, doing research, is sort of fun for me. (nerd alert) As such, I spent time thinking about my reading months ahead of time. While I have relaxed this a bit now that I live back in the states, I still think through my reading ahead of time. I typically buy my books 3-5 at a time and spend a few months working my way through them. Towards the end of that time, I begin researching what direction to take my reading next.

Life is too short to read bad books. And there are so many of those out there. I don’t leave what I will read to chance, so I am intentional – inviting others into the process of helping me choose which direction to take my reading time.