Over the last decade, many people in the publishing world have been wringing their hands with anxiety that people may not be reading as much as they used to. I don’t share these concerns. While the ways in which we read have certainly changed in important ways, today in the age of the smartphone, we are reading as much, if not more, than ever.
I do believe that the most innovative world-changers today are readers, as they have been for many previous generations. So, if we are reading more than ever, what sets apart these world-changers from everyone else? The answer to this question lies not in quantity of reading, but in the quality of what is read and how it is read. Here are a few ideas on how to read more transformatively, not only for your sake, but for the sake of your church, your neighborhood and the world.
Learn to read for reasons bigger than yourself.
We tend not to think much about why we read, but the vast majority of what we read is self-focused. Whether I read for entertainment or read to learn things, my focus in reading is mostly on me. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with either reading for entertainment or self-improvement, it is good for us sometimes to read for the sake of the transformation and well-being of the communities to which we belong: our families, our churches, our neighborhoods, our states, etc.
Does your community (or someone else in it) face an exciting opportunity or particular challenge? Read stories of how others in similar situations have responded, or read for a deeper understanding of the historical and cultural dynamics that are at play in your situation. We will act more transformatively when we have a fuller understanding of the situations in which we act. Although we all need to take an entertainment break occasionally from the harsh realities of living in this broken world, we also should read things that draw us into deeper engagement with the realities and struggles that our communities face.
Read well-written works that deepen your understanding and spur your imagination.
If you have a topic in mind that you want to learn more about, don’t just read anything on the subject. Do a little research and find out from trusted sources who the experts are, and seek out their writings, which will inevitably lead you to read other things that they recommend. After I graduated from college, I stumbled upon Richard Foster’s classic book Celebration of Discipline, and it rather unexpectedly led me into several years of learning about church history through the many diverse books and writers that Foster recommended.
Read a broad range of genres. For almost every situation, you will find not only nonfiction works, but also lively novels and poems that help us to see our situation in new ways, and a little online research can easily help you find them. Read stories of people in other times and places that remind us that things don’t have to stay in their present state forever and that transformation is possible.
Read long-form works.
Although we are reading more than ever today, the pieces we read are increasingly shorter. The habits of attention needed to read longer works will undoubtedly help us to be more attentive to, and transformative in, the real-life communities to which we belong. Even if it’s only 20 minutes a day or an hour or two a week, devote some time to reading longer works—whether long-form reflections on contemporary issues, biographies or novels.
Read in community.
Of course, we read Scripture together in our churches and work to understand it, but similar practices of reading and discussing other books in our churches and neighborhoods can form and strengthen bonds between us and transform our community and how we live and work together (and interact with other communities, locally and around the globe).
When you do have opportunities to read with others, pick books that are relevant in some way to the common life of your community, and discuss them in connection with the realities that you live within. In our highly charged age of social media, the art of learning to converse with others—and especially others with differing convictions—can itself be powerfully transformative.
Teach others to read carefully and well.
Although basic literacy rates have climbed sharply over the last century, readers who read carefully and transformatively are still astonishingly rare. Don’t just practice the reading habits described above, but teach and encourage others to do the same, whether your own children, or young people in your church or neighborhood. Promote habits and cultures that reinforce thoughtful reading, reflection and conversation.
For instance, do all you can to build and support libraries in your church and neighborhood: they are a powerful ally in the work of building deeper literacy. The medieval monks of Ireland, Thomas Cahill has famously argued (see reading list below), saved Western civilization by their work in building libraries and teaching people to read well.
Reading carefully in ways that draw us deeper into the life of our communities will undoubtedly help our communities to flourish, and in the process, will radically transform the world as well. Here’s a few books that will be useful in helping us all to read more transformatively.
How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler
Although originally published almost a half-century ago, this book is still the gold standard on how to read carefully.
Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics
Mikics argues that, in contrast to most of the fast reading that we do, we also need to learn to read slowly and to ask good questions of the texts we read. (Read a summary of this book’s key ideas)
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
The fascinating story of how medieval Irish monks’ practices of reading and writing, along with their efforts to teach others to do the same, saved Western civilization as we know it.
To Know As We Are Known by Parker Palmer
This energizing little book invites us into the journey of learning about the wonders of God’s interconnected creation.
Reading for the Common Good by C. Christopher Smith
OK, so this is a biased choice, but in this book, I explore in much greater detail why we should read transformatively, and how we can do so.
C. Christopher Smith lives and writes as part of the Englewood Christian Church community on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis, where he is the Senior Editor of The Englewood Review of Books. Chris is co-author of the award-winning book Slow Church (2014), author of Reading for the Common Good (2016), and is presently finishing a book manuscript with the working title, Conversational Bodies: A Field Guide for the Journey Toward Belonging.