When I read a book I want to understand the whole of the case that the author is presenting. Chapters, sections, paragraphs all have a place within an overall structure. To understand any part truly I want to know how it fits into the whole argument.
I want to understand an author’s argument accurately; I do not want to misrepresent it. This involves getting into the structure of the case the author is presenting, delaying evaluation until one has understood what the author is trying to say, not reacting too quickly but allowing a fair hearing. A full, deep response is only possible following the effort to truly understand. Otherwise a response will be superficial
At the same time, it is often sections, or paragraphs, sentences or phrases that strike home, that spark off some sequence of thought or so forth. The most productive reading can be when one grabs, ponders and interacts with some smaller unit of thought. In John Piper’s words, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences… My prayer is that God might be pleased to take the short readings of this book and set a sentences or a paragraph on fire in your mind.”
How, then, does one interact with a book? At different levels, surely. I can seek to get a grasp of the whole, to understand fairly the overall theme which the chapters and sections and paragraphs are developing. In this case I may want to review and evaluate the whole. But equally I can interact with a phrase or sentence or paragraph or section, to allow a spark to set on fire another whole chain of thought, to develop it, argue against it, bring it into contact with other thoughts from other authors.
5. Assimilation and Assessment
The goal of learning is living; the goal of learning is loving. Reading is food for growth. And ultimately, when I read I need to take on board, put into practice that which I read, having evaluated that which is true and helpful.
Two alternative forms of interaction with a book:
Here, I am seeking to a) accurately summarise the main thrust of the book b) evaluate its strengths and weaknesses c) think through ways in which I need to respond and change. ‘This is what the book says – this is where he is right – this is where he is wrong – this is how I need to respond’
Here, I am picking up on themes, ideas, thoughts from the book that have particularly impressed me (for good or bad). I examine that thought, interact with it, challenge it, pair it up with other thoughts, draw implications from it etc. I am not seeking to present ‘what the book says’ but interact with one idea.