The motto for the United Negro College Fund sends chills up my spine whenever I hear it: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." This simple sentence is foreboding—yet it offers a worthy challenge.
From a Christian worldview the stakes are even higher. The Bible teaches that humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). Thus, we could say that a mind patterned after the mind of an infinite, eternal, and triune God is a fortiori1 a terrible thing to waste. Because the human soul survives death, cultivating the life of the mind to the glory of God takes on an eternal dimension. The scriptural imperative is to love the Lord your God with all of your being (Matthew 22:37)—this includes your mind.
My five practical tips on reading—influenced by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren's How To Read A Book—are designed to help you use and develop God's gift of the mind.
Tip #1: Challenge Yourself
People often complain when they have to read books that are beyond them—but the maxim "No pain, no gain!" applies as much to mental exercise as to physical workouts. "You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity," Adler and Van Doren explain. "Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn" (p. 339).
Tip #2: Set a Daily Time Goal
I'd recommend dedicating at least two hours a day to serious reading. If this seems unrealistic, consider how much time you spend on entertainment. Instead of watching television and movies or listening to music or surfing the web, devote some of that time to serious reading. Growing in genuine knowledge and wisdom as an intelligent reader takes time and commitment—so get going!
Tip #3: Get Up Early
Consider reading in the morning when your mind is well rested. Physical fatigue impacts your mind's ability to concentrate and to push through challenging reading material. Going to bed earlier and then getting up earlier will allow you to read when your mind is refreshed. You will be surprised how much reading you can do after a good night's sleep.
Tip #4: Ask Questions
Read actively by getting in the habit of asking basic logical questions as you peruse a book. Adler and Van Doren recommend asking questions "that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading" (p. 46). What is the book about? What central claims (conclusions) does the author make and what support is given as justification (premises)? This kind of analytical reading is what will lead to an increase in knowledge and wisdom. (Check out evidence from a Stanford study that highlights the mental benefits of analytical reading.)
Tip #5: Make the Book Your Own
Adler and Van Doren say a person should always read with a pencil in hand (unless, of course, you are reading a library book). Underline key ideas, key vocabulary, and key arguments. Summarize the conclusions and keep a list of critical points. Careful and logical note-taking not only enhances a first read, but also makes future interaction with a book more efficient. It should allow you to review the book's notes without necessitating a complete rereading.
Put these reading guidelines into practice for six months and then evaluate your progress. In the comments section, let me know how you're coming along.
For an entire book filled with wisdom about reading and thinking see Adler and Van Doren's How To Read A Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.
1. Latin: "with greater force," "all the more"