J.R. Briggs

Attempting to behold the miracle long enough without falling asleep

  • Tips on reading well

    January 18, 2010

    2168836714_c25ca2eee6 A few weeks ago I saw my friend Jason Salamun, a church planter in South Dakota (yes, there are church planters there!) posted on Twitter a few tips on how to read well. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

    I take reading very seriously. I’ve been accused by friends – many who are quite serious – who say that I read too much. They ask repeatedly, “Why do you spend so much time with your nose in a book?” Two reasons:

    [1] I know I’m a nerd and I’m okay with that, thank you.

    [2] Because I have so much to learn that I need/want to! That’s why I take reading so seriously!

    On the surface, the statement I made earlier sounds quite silly, doesn’t it – “taking reading seriously”? Don’t most adults in the US know how to read? some have asked. But on a deeper level, its amazing how so few people see reading as a gift, a discipline, a tool, an opportunity and an invitation to friendship.

    I highly recommend two books that deal with reading. The first on is Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read A Book. When this was first recommended to me by another avid reader I said to him – only half-kidding – “You’ve got to be kidding me, right? A book on how to read?” And then I read it. Its a fantastic book. If you have a gift card to Borders, Amazon or Barnes and Noble, spend it on this book. It will change and sharpen the focus of every book you read the rest of your life.

    The second book I’d recommend has just a chapter actually from J. Oswald Sanders’ book Spiritual Leadership. His chapter on The Leader and Reading is worth the price of the book itself. It’s been said before that leaders are readers. I’ve wondered if someone can be a great leader without enjoying or participating in reading. I’m sure its possible – God’s Spirit can use anyone – but I have never met – or heard of – a great leader who didn’t read regularly.

    I am not the world’s best leader or reader (I can’t even claim that title in my neighborhood) but I do intend to read intentionally and formatively. Here are several practical reading tips that I live by when I read:

    • Always have a pen when you read. Always. Always. Always. (Sorry Kindle, this is why I don’t know if we will ever be close friends).
    • Earmark, draw, underline, write in the margins, dog-ear the pages – do whatever you need to do to create a “filing system.” There will be times where you’ll want to go back and find that concept, thought, story or quote when you need it. You’ll be glad you marked it. My wife accuses me of “butchering” books. I take that as a compliment…
    • Don’t read what’s popular. Read what is – or will be – lasting.
    • Ask people you trust what they are reading. And write down what they recommend so you don’t forget.
    • For the most part, avoid ‘how-to’ books. It takes out the element of critical thinking.
    • If you must read fiction, save it for vacation or a holiday/summer break. (I know I’ll probably take some heat for this one, but I don’t care: I’m sticking with it!)
    • Make the Bible the most important and primary book you read this year – and every year.
    • Read outside your field. Allow yourself to be stretched in new areas.
    • Borrow books from friends and check out books from the library (but be mindful of using a pen and earmarking its pages, especially from the library!)
    • Always bring a book with you. It’s amazing the little moments throughout an average week that can be redeemed with a few minutes of good reading (i.e. line at the post office, waiting for a friend to pick you up, a few minutes between meetings, etc).
    • Read good biographies of women and men whose lives are worth emulating. As Martin Luther King Jr Day is approaching I checked out his autobiography. Its fantastic. It’s moving me to respect Dr. King even more than I already had in the past.
    • Read in order to be become wiser rather than to become smarter. Don’t read for your personal benefit; read so that the world benefits from what you read.
    • When you read the book always be asking yourself, “If I could sit down for coffee with the author, what would I want to ask him/her about what I’m reading?”
    • Log what you read so you can look back at the end of the year and see how you’ve grown.
    • Turn off your TV and read. Your nights can be more fulfilling if you did this, at minimum, just one night a week.
    • Read a book out loud. Megan and I are reading Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years out loud to each other, then stopping and discussing what sticks out to us. It’s a fun way to grow together as a couple, too.
    • Have a shelf of favorites/classics that you refer to often – and re-read them every year or two. Just because you read the book doesn’t mean you’ve retained all of the information.
    • Read things that will stretch you. It’s good for the mind – and the soul, as it keeps us humble.
    • Have a dictionary handy. Never go onto the next sentence until you can comprehend every word in the sentence you’ve just read.
    • Read books written by dead authors. Classics – regardless of genre – are classics for a reason.
    • Visit used bookstores. You can find some incredible deals on some fantastic books.
    • Read newspapers sparingly (with the exception of the Sunday New York Times). The best thing to do is scan these for key concepts. It’s amazing how much I can learn when I read the in-flight magazine on plane rides.
    • Read reviews of books before purchasing them.
    • Join a book club. They’re everywhere if you look: Barnes and Noble, the library, local organizations, neighborhoods. I noticed the other day the local supermarket that has an upstairs cafe hosts one! If you can’t find one, start one.
    • Read magazines. Well…not all of them. Some of them Many of them will turn your brain to mush. But it’s amazing what you can learn from some good magazines.
    • Write 1-2 page reviews of good books you read and save it in a Word document. It was a meaningful book, send the summary on to others so they can learn from it as well.

    Leaders: what other reading tips would you suggest?

    Posted in: Uncategorized

Recent Comments

  • Ethan Waters said...


    Great post! I’m a fairly young pastor, and I think I am just starting to understand the importance of reading as it pertains to leadership. I’m glad I read this, although I couldn’t write in the margins.

    p.s. – Totally random: By chance, did you speak at corporate Chick-fil-A a few months back? My wife, brother and I led the worship that day, and you look like the dude who spoke. Forgive the randomness. Be blessed.

    01/18/10 9:17 AM | Comment Link

  • Jeff Patterson said...


    Thanks for the summary here. I think reading outside one’s field can involve an emphasis in fiction — for it’s benefit, not just for fun. For example, my wife is a writer, and a avid reader, most often of fiction (and historical fiction and biography) and the classics — her thesis was on Jane Austen. As a pastor I rarely read fiction (or how to/pragmatic books). So, in our own family book club we often recommend our best reads to the others. I need to read good fiction (or true) stories to become a better communicator. Thanks again for you tips.

    01/18/10 12:39 PM | Comment Link

  • Jeff Patterson said...


    Also, spot-on recommendation of Alder’s How to Read a Book. The book changed everything about how I read, for the better. Cannot recommend it enough. That chapter from Sanders is great too. Good reminder to go re-read it — grabbing it from the shelf of books to revisit yearly.

    01/18/10 12:44 PM | Comment Link

  • DRB said...


    Excellent summary in defense of intentionally reading! I, as well, have never met a leader, someone who truly taught me something valuable … who was not a reader. People who do not read grow “smaller” with the passage of time.

    01/18/10 2:21 PM | Comment Link

  • esther said...


    JR – Last night I read this in The Forgotten Ways:
    “…because systems exist in a mass of disordered information, the task of leadership here will be to help select the flow of information and focus the community around it. … it is through the engagement with meaningful information systems will respond, change, and thrive. Missional leaders must know how to handle meaning in order to motivate a group of people from the inside out. Focusing the flow of information requires a good handle on theology and psychology, as well as sociology, because it will involve focusing information based on the church’s primary narratives (the scriptures, and particularly the Gospels), information about the core tasks of the church, and essential data about our cultural and social contexts, etc.”

    So when I read your post today I could not help but think this lines right up with what you were saying about leaders being readers. In order to lead others, one has to be well versed in a variety of information so as to know how to encourage others to grow and move forward in life.

    Thanks for the great tips. I especially appreciate where you encouraged us to write a review after reading a book. Often times I have found myself saying a book is “great” but I have not really taken the time to formulate more coherently what are the take aways.

    By the way – it’s nice to have you blogging a little more these days. You have so much wisdom to share and I am always thankful to catch a piece of that wisdom when I can!

    01/18/10 3:46 PM | Comment Link

  • jason salamun said...


    Hello from South Dakota. We just to the internets up in these here parts. :)

    Some great tips. I really liked the one about the questions you would ask the author. I hadn’t thought of that one.

    I would add, “Marry someone who thinks reading is sexy.” It will add some incentive.

    01/18/10 4:22 PM | Comment Link

  • J.R. Briggs said...


    Ethan – unfortunately I was not at chik fil a corporate to speak – although I’d love that privilege! Let me know if you you can get me a speaking gig there!

    Esther – that’s cool that Hirsch wrote about that. He’s one that I like to read frequently, but I honestly didn’t remember reading that part (which means I need to re-read it!) 😉

    Jason – I love the marriage advice. Fortunately, I married wisely…

    01/18/10 5:11 PM | Comment Link

  • john chandler said...


    From one person who “reads too much” to another…great stuff. A couple thoughts:

    1) Don’t be afraid to quit reading a book you can’t engage with. (I’ve had a sicknesss where I felt like I needed to finish every book. Jon Tyson talked me out of that.)

    2) I think you already know I disagree with you about fiction. Fiction is art, especially when it’s done well. Art wields a greater power to move and shape us than raw information. Put another way… http://www.somestrangeideas.com/2009/02/04/a-thousand-splended-suns/

    01/18/10 6:14 PM | Comment Link

  • geoff holsclaw said...


    JR, great post.

    I totally agree about that chapter in Spiritual Leadership. I really changed how I thought about reading when I first read it.

    do you have a role for the “classics” of literature, of fiction? Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc?

    01/18/10 7:58 PM | Comment Link

  • J.R. Briggs said...


    John: good suggestion about putting the book down. Its hard to do, but I agree!

    John and Geoff: I’d rather just watch the movie 😉

    Seriously though, I am pushing myself to read a Hemmingway story some time in 2010. Some time…

    01/19/10 1:37 PM | Comment Link

  • DougG said...



    One I use, especially with history and/or a critical look at a subject, try to read countervailing arguments (aka if the book has a certain political bent, try to read something with the opposite bent). I just finished Niall Ferguson’s “Colossus: The price of America’s Empire” (2004) which bashes alot of historical orthodoxy (from his view), uses alot of references/stats (which were in and of themselves fascinating), and was amazingly accurate about current events now 5 years later. In my study of the OT and the Exile of Judah, I have read many “liberal” historians (many deny God) and once I get over my anger over certain things, I do learn new things about the era.

    Thanks, DougG

    01/19/10 9:19 PM | Comment Link

  • Tom Meyer said...


    Hey JR, It’s great to see something like this shared outside of my profession. I just want to add,

    Read to your children and let them see you reading.

    Perhaps you’ll consider joining one of our book discussion groups at the library.


    01/20/10 11:15 PM | Comment Link

  • J.R. Briggs said...


    Tom: that’s a great one. Thanks for adding it to the list (though you are probably not happy that I don’t read fiction, right?) 😉

    I’ve considered joining a book discussion group at the library in the past. I’m just waiting for the right time – and the right book! – to come along.

    01/20/10 11:17 PM | Comment Link

  • Tom Meyer said...


    I’m not unhappy that you don’t read fiction. I’m happy that you love to read and are willing to share that love. It’s important to read what you like otherwise you will not enjoy reading. I think you are a bit too adamant against fiction. I think in some cases, fiction can communicate an important message better than non-fiction. I want to share three titles at this time.

    Midworld by Alan Dean Foster It’s science fiction. I read this book when I was 13 and again at 36. Loved it both times. A story of good vs evil and the power of nature and love. I’ll loan you my copy if you’d like to give it a go.

    The Soloist by Steve Lopez, you’ve probably heard of it about the homeless violinist. I was enthralled with this story and the movie is nowhere as good as the book. The book discussion group will be discussing The Soloist on Feb 10 at Super Foodtown.

    Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow, Another story I couldn’t put down. It is fiction based on true events. The story of two brothers who lived in a brownstone which was filled to the brim with the things they collected over their lifetime. The men’s book discussion group will be discussing this book on Feb 8 at the library.

    01/21/10 10:23 AM | Comment Link

  • Jason Sheffield said...


    I’ve found that I must find a successful way of reading. So I can’t have 3 deep theological books going at the same time. You have to find a good rhythm and mix of books.

    For me it a a spiritual formation, historical, fiction, mixture. This helps me finish books. If i get bogged down in one I can switch over to the next,

    But thats just me

    01/22/10 12:41 AM | Comment Link

  • Jason Coker said...


    I took a ton of flack from my pre-teen daughter a few years back when I was reading Adler’s book. “If you don’t know how to read a book, how are you supposed read a book about how to read a book?”

    She was so bothered.

    It’s one of the best books ever. Mortimer Adler FTW!

    01/22/10 9:48 AM | Comment Link

  • Barbara said...


    I will have the joy of facillitating a book cafe’ in a local used book bookstore in Sept. Thanks for the summary. It is very encouraging and I will be encourages to think out of the box.

    08/17/11 12:03 PM | Comment Link

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