Reading Well

It is easy to read without getting much benefit. Our eyes can skim over lots of pages and barely take much in. And so we can easily be able to say “I've read that book!” without having learnt anything from it. 

Andrew Murray realised this, and so, at the beginning of a book he wrote for new Christians, he gave some advice for how to read a Christian book well and profit well from it. “The great bane of all our converse with Divine things is superficiality,” he wrote. “When we read anything and understand it somewhat, we think that this is enough. No: we must give time, that it may make an impression and wield its own influence upon us.”

So what was Murray’s advice in order to give a book this needed time? Read everything at least three times! 

Why read three times? Well, not just for the sake of repetition or slowing down — Murray has some specific thoughts about each of the three readings. 

Reading One: “Read every portion the first time with consideration, to understand the good that is in it, and then see if you receive benefit from the thoughts that are there expressed.” The first reading isn’t a quick skim; it’s a thoughtful reading. It’s not enough for our eyes to see the words on the page; we have to think about them carefully. Meditation and reading go together. 

Reading Two: “Read it the second time to see if it is really in accordance with God's Word.” In our first reading, we might have thought about the ideas and the logic and the argument and got carried away in our reasoning, without testing it by Scripture. But Murray wants to remind us to go back to these ideas and think them through Scripturally, testing them by God's Word, and allowing Scripture to correct and guide and redirect our thinking. As we do, this second reading should also be an opportunity to meditate upon Scripture: “Take some, if not all, of the texts that are adduced on each point, and ponder them in order to come under the full force of what God has said on the point. Let your God, through His Word, teach you what you must think and believe concerning Him and His will.”

Reading Three: “Read it the third time to find out the corresponding places, not in the Bible, but in your own life.” It's not enough just to consider if an argument is in line with Scripture, or even to meditate on relevant Scriptures. We are not reading simply out of curiosity about ideas or Scriptures, but rather we want to read in a way that allows ideas and Scriptures to shape our lives. Reading should not merely be the passing of words and sentences before our eyes; reading should be a transformative experience. And so it helps to consider our lives carefully in light of what we read. 

If reading is to be of spiritual benefit — if reading is to be transformative — we should not only read carefully, but read thoughtfully. Spend time with what you read. Let it linger in your thoughts. Allow it to help you meditate on God's Word. And let it help examine and shape your life. 

Murray’s triple reading isn’t the only way to read carefully, thoughtfully, and effectively. But it certainly helps us think about what we want to get out of reading and to consider the best ways to read to that end. 

P.S. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every book. (I’m not going to read a Miss Marple mystery this way!) There are different types of book and different types of reading, and it’s good to recognise the rightful place of each. Matthew Mason has some helpful thoughts on four types of reading here. And while you’re at it, you might like to read what Matthew has to say about reading less as well

P.P.S. All the Andrew Murray quotes above are taken from the Preface to his book, The New Life (London: James Nisbet, 1906).

P.P.P.S. As a young man, I was told of a highly regarded, godly preacher in the Apostolic Church who always applied a method of multiple readings to Scripture. Only he chose seven times instead of three (after all, seven is the perfect number!). He would read every chapter seven times, every paragraph seven times, every sentence seven times, and every verse seven times. I think he might have been onto something...