Monday, August 30, 2010

The Important Discipline of Difficult Reading

For a number of reasons I have been giving some thought this week to difficult books. We all appreciate it when we find an author who is able to simply explain difficult ideas and clear, well written books are a great blessing but then there are also those other books. The other kind of books are those that require a lot of work and discipline to finish and even more to understand.

There is a general intellectual reward for working through difficult reading materials in that it trains our minds and builds up a discipline in our thinking that enables us to think more clearly and rigorously. In addition to this there are benefits to stretching our attention spans. Sometimes modern readers find some authors hard to read simply because we are so accustom to being bombarded with stimulation that we have lost the ability to concentrate. We want all of our problems solved in 30 minutes minus commercials but there are certain depths of understanding that can only come by painstakingly working through a complex argument to its conclusions. Challenging reading can provide the mental exercise necessary to this kind of growth. In addition to this general benefit it is also a great blessing to read an author who so thoroughly handles a biblical doctrine that when we fully understand their argument we wonder why we had not seen the truth so clearly ourselves.

It is true that there are many cumbersome books that have little or no payoff for the hours that must be invested in them. There are writers whose moments of brilliance are so sparse that wading through their writings is probably not worth the effort unless you have a compelling reason to do so. I’m convinced that some writers obfuscate in order to protect themselves from criticisms of weaknesses in their arguments. It almost seems as though some academics try to intimidate others with their style and vocabulary in the hopes that nobody will boldly announce that the emperor has no clothes! Many others are likely just poor writers.

There are, however, many authors that are not easy to read but whose work I think is well worth the effort. It may not be the easiest thing to do, but challenging oneself with substantial authors such as Jonathan Edwards, Francis Turretin, and John Owen will be a great benefit to many Christian’s who are ready to tackle them. There are few modern authors who can match the depth and breadth of these older writers and yet they are too often neglected. There has been a revival of these older authors of late but still many people read books about their books rather than tackling them directly. Older authors aren’t necessarily better than newer ones by virtue of their age but the ones that have held up over centuries deserve our attention. You won’t necessarily agree with everything that these authors say (at least I don’t) but if you can acclimate to their style you will certainly be challenged to think deeply about the subjects that they are writing on.

1 comment:

  1. You nailed it. It's the 30 minute mentality to solve issues and get answers to tough questions. You're too generous KG. I wouldn't even give it 30 minutes. I call it "The Big Mac Syndrome". I want it fast, I want it now.

    Reading for understanding is just plain old fashion work, simple as that. I'm not impervious to BMS either. I've been struggling with it for years. Discipline is the key word for me.

    As far modern authors who make things difficult, "It is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane" - Eric Blair

    A relevant and timely article, especially with what I'm up against.