“Reading is my favorite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.” Anne Brontë
Reading. It’s the bread and butter of a pastor-scholar-theologian’s life. The chant that inspired Augustine’s conversion to Christianity, tolle lege, tolle lege, reverberate across the centuries, encouraging Christians of every age to take up and read, seek truth to know it for themselves, that they might in turn share it with their communities.
Students may feel daunted by the required reading they receive each semester and be tempted to lament, resist, or even assign nefarious motivations to their professors for onerous reading assignments. However, reading is not assigned for busy work or torture. Reading is critical to our understanding and there is no better way to immerse students into a larger conversation regarding the topic or subject for which they are studying.
Opening a book and reading the pages therein is to enter a conversation with not just the author of the book, but also the company of authors past and present who contributed to the formation of the author and their ideas. The conversation continues and expands further as others who read the book—e.g. fellow classmates, the professor, and those to whom we recommend the book—are similarly drawn in. This is why, as pastor-scholars, our reading lists are never complete. The conversation about the truth of God’s love is never static and always ongoing. There is always another book or series of books to be read. So how does one tackle their TBR (To Be Read list) when time, that one non-renewable resource, will always be limited?
Certainly, there are speed-reading classes and workshops that offer some helpful coaching in order to read faster. These techniques aside, there is a certain skill to reading a book — or prereading a book — for the pastor-scholar-theologian that can direct the reading process before beginning on page one. By examining the constituent parts of a book—e.g., introduction, table of contents, index, etc.—it’s possible to discover clues about what motivated the author, who else is involved in the conversation, how the book’s thesis is held together (logic, not glue!), and its importance so that the reader might continue to carry on the conversation with their own communities.
The introduction offers insight into a host of concerns that can help the reader understand the construction of or the genesis behind a book. The author, or editors, often narrate presenting questions they’ve been wrestling with and have sought to respond to in writing their book. They may share scenarios that describe their chosen methodology and the rationale for proceeding as they have. It is common for many introductions written today to include an explanation of how their chapters or major sections flow from one to the other. Whether the text is written by a single author or an edited volume with a host of contributors, the introduction typically includes a thumbnail sketch or teaser of what the chapter contains and how that contributes to the structure of the text. Sometimes, but not always, the introduction may include acknowledgments or dedications—a way of thanking those family members, friends, and colleagues who inspired and helped sustain them with necessary distraction-free writing time, thoughtful feedback and editorial advice, the opportunity to decompress, or a steady stream of caffeine and chocolate chip cookies—all valuable assets contributing to the writing process.
If the book has a forward written by a colleague, it may rehearse similar ideas as the author’s introduction, but from a different vantage point. A forward might be considered an extended endorsement and will lay out reasons why the author’s voice is worth paying attention to.
The table of contents in most books offers more than a handy numerical page guide. Chapter titles in and of themselves may border on the prosaic, but when placed in sequence, a certain logic or structure to the book begins to emerge. Some tables of contents can be elaborate, indicating that the chapters are grouped into larger, thematic sections and typically, in the case of edited volumes, provide the name of the contributing author.
Prereading a book involves examining the materials inside the back cover. The inclusion of any appendices, indexes, and bibliography—along with their level of detail—is an indication of the extensive nature the author attends to as well as their respect and value for their sources. Likewise, endnotes, which may follow each chapter and aren’t always at the end of the book, or footnotes at the bottom of pages, attest to the richness of the author’s conversation with others,
With some practice, helpful information can be gleaned from prereading a book. But it isn’t the same as actually reading the book itself. Still, knowing more about the wider conversation helps the reader to locate the author and themselves within the conversation, that they as readers might speak into the conversation, contribute to it, and possibly take it in new directions.