Over the course of his years of study at Portland Seminary, my friend, John Ray, would stay with us during his times of face to face learning. Each time, without fail, he’d ask me two questions: 1) “Have you read_____________?” and he’d fill in the blank with the latest and greatest text or author he was reading for school or pleasure, and 2) “When are you going to apply to seminary?” My answers to these questions were the same each time: “No, I haven’t read________. I’m not a reader,” and “No, I have no intent in ever applying to seminary.”
Five and a half years later, my answers have changed. I am becoming a reader, and I am a seminary graduate. Two things I never would have elected to do on my own, but rather were Divinely chosen for me.
I entered seminary after being out of school for 20+ years. In this classroom setting, I was surrounded by many students half my age, who understood research methods and how to navigate academic technological advances. The extent of my recent reading experiences had been primarily in the mother-daughter book club my daughter and I belonged to, where we read books like The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, Iqubal,and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Furthermore, I had participated in Bible Study Fellowship for 13 years and had a deep appreciation for reading and studying scripture. But listening to and participating in my first few biblical studies courses caused me to wonder if the bible I’d been studying in my “intensive” bible study, was even the same bible we were discussing in class?
It was clear I wasn’t a reader and I wasn’t an academic, so to remedy that, I read every word assigned in each class.
For the first three and a half years of school my reading log was always 100% complete. Each assigned text was underlined and highlighted, with questions and notes written in the margins. I looked up words along the way, trying to understand this new seminary language that filled the pages.
This compulsion to take in the whole of a text stemmed not only from a deep desire to learn, but also from a deep “fear of missing out,” or FOMO. I was afraid if I didn’t read every word, I’d miss a key concept or idea, that I wouldn’t understand what others were discussing in the online forums, and that an opportunity to connect in that academic environment would pass by like a cloud moving swiftly is the summer sky. I was afraid that if I didn’t have all the facts or knowledge, others would realize what I believed in my heart to be true, that I really didn’t belong in those spaces of learning.
It wasn’t until I was in a church history course that a glimpse of freedom from FOMO came. I remember sitting in class and listening to the discussion regarding our upcoming research papers when my Oxford educated professor shared he did not read one full book for his doctoral work. Not one. His explanation as to why echoed that of Adler and Van Doren’s in How to Read a Book, specifically regarding the fourth level of reading: syntopical reading.
While analytical reading is great for a single book, when looking at a larger question and quantity of content, translation of material is more important than direct interpretation of material. Skimming through books in a bibliography, pulling out only that which is necessary, and crafting it into content to fulfill a specific purpose happens in syntopical reading. Here, instead of the author being the master of the text, “the (reader) must be the master of the situation,” meaning the reader “establishes the terms (of the text) and brings authors to them rather than the other way around.”This happens through five primary steps:
1) Skim pre-reviewed books for relevant passages
2) Formulate a neutral terminology thread from various authors’ material
3) Establish clear questions and neutral propositions
4) Define the issue, including affirmations and oppositions
5) Carefully order questions and issues so as to maximize issue visibility and clarity.
Though I still have much room to grow in this skill, great freedom from FOMO came in knowing that even academic greats haven’t read all the words. Instead they have searched for and utilized specific words to answer specific questions in specific ways.
After earning my Master of Divinity, it is safe to say that I am slowly become a reader, not because I had a technique to implement, but simply because I was a learner first. In the becoming, I’ve realized it is impossible to retain all the words I thought I needed to read. Indeed, I’ve learned that “many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly; and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension.”
As I move forward in this lifelong learning adventure, knowing where to find the information is more important than knowing all the information. When I have questions like how to read a specific text, or what questions would be appropriate to ask of a text, I know to pull How to Read a Book off the shelf and utilize the tools within.
So, now when John Ray asks me his standard questions, I can answer, “No, but I’d love to read_________” and “Yes, I have applied, graduated, applied and am attending seminary again…because I love all the learning and all. the. books!”
Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading(New York, NY: Touchstone, 1972) 310-327.
Adler and Van Doren, 327.
Adler and Van Doren, 39.