Active reading

  • Chris Metcalf
  • 23 February 2017

Christian books are an amazing resource that God has given us. Like most of you, I’m so thankful to God for the many authors that have shaped and strengthened my convictions and character—but as I read Christian books, I’ve oscillated between two extremes. 

The first is to take copious notes, to write down everything of value and importance, to highlight, underline, mark and record. The benefits are clearly seen but the negative side is that this becomes a very time-consuming process, and so in an effort to finish books in a timely manner I’ve moved to the second extreme: not doing anything. This involves reading for the sake of reading. Reading a Christian book like you would any other novel or work of fiction. I’ve found that I get through the book a lot more quickly, but I won’t be able to find that quote that I want to use in my next sermon, or that new process that I want to try, and I won’t have retained the information quite as well.

I was convinced that active reading (just like active listening) was the way to go, so I wanted a happy middle-ground between those extremes. I wanted to read, annotate and mark a book, journal article or document in a way that was helpful, intuitive, and that would allow me to find things easily when I returned to the book. But I didn’t want it to become some monumental task that took me away from the joy of reading and learning. So I turned where we all eventually turn… Google.

I found a few helpful suggestions, but eventually developed my own symbols to help me digest what I read. I write these symbols in the margins of the book I’m reading. This makes it easy to go back and find the relevant section (I’ve found that a simple underline is easy to miss if you’re quickly scanning a book). The symbols give me a reference point for when I return, and help me ‘actively’ read a book so I’m (hopefully) retaining more of what was said.

My symbols are:

  • ! = Sentence or paragraph that I want to highlight (I also might underline a specific sentence as well)
  • ? = Something I'm not sure about or don't agree with
  • △ = Definition or a change in thinking
  • ☐ = Summary sentence or paragraph
  • # = When the author disagrees with another view or critiques something

You might not like my symbols, or you may not want to use all of them. What is important is finding a method that works for you.

The final thing I do is number sections and subsections. For example, earlier in this article I spoke about two extremes and used the words: ‘first’ and ‘second’. Authors do this all the time, and I’ve found it helpful to put corresponding numbers (or letters) in the margin. This helps me follow the argument and the points that are being made. Some books will do this for you by numbering and labelling things clearly (e.g. The Vine Project), but there are many that don’t.

Books are an amazing testament to God’s grace, a gift given to his church. Let’s continue to read widely, learn well and reflect deeply on these gifts that God has graciously given us as we seek to build one another up in love.