a woman in blue denim jacket reading a book
a woman in blue denim jacket reading a book

I received an e-mail asking how I go about my reading. Over the years I’ve developed a system that works for me. I’m not saying it’ll work for you, but perhaps my system might help you tweak or develop your own.

To be clear, I’m talking here about my theological reading. I do a lot of other reading for leisure and I don’t usually apply my system to those books.

Unless I absolutely have no choice, I don’t read electronic books. Here are some reasons why:

Additionally, I write in my books and I like the possibility of sharing them with others.

When I’m reading, I usually have a highlighter handy. I’ll highlight sentences or paragraphs that stand out to me. If something is especially noteworthy I’ll put an asterisk beside it in the margin. If something is dubious, I’ll put a question mark. If something is funny, a smiley face. If something is outright wrong, a big bold X. I’ll also circle typos. Moreover, from time to time I’ll take my red pen and write a comment on the top or bottom of the page. This is how I proceed through the book.

When I’m done reading, I begin making my notes. I have a folder on my computer, “Reading Notes.” It’s subdivided into years. For each book, I’ll have a set of notes in a Microsoft Word file. In that document I’ll include all the items I marked with an asterisk in my reading, along with the questionable and the incorrect. If I’m going to write a review of the book, I’ll sometimes put a number of exclamation marks besides items that may be worth mentioning in an appreciative way. A number of question marks go beside the items that might be mentioned negatively.

I print off the notes. If I’m writing a review, I like to have a hard copy to refer to while I’m writing. After I’m done with the notes, the hard copy goes in the front of the book for future reference. The file is also on my computer, of course, and I can always find items easily with a quick search.

Finally, I read also for the sake of my preaching. So sometimes as I’m preparing my notes on a book, if I find something that might be useful as a sermon illustration, I’ll make a separate note of that and put it in my “Sermon Illustrations and Ideas” folder. If it has some direct correlation to one of the doctrines found in the Heidelberg Catechism, I may also make a written note of that in my Book of Praise under the relevant Lord’s Day.

If you don’t have your own system (yet), you might consider elements of what I’m doing. But you might also want to read Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. They’ve got a plethora of great tips.