7 tips for Difficult Reading

Sometimes it is difficult to read scholarly books. Language and concepts can both be dense and tangled, but only one of the two need be obscure for difficulties to arise. (See what I mean?)

We (Crux Staff) have read our share of difficult texts. Here are 7 strategies (see what we did there?) we use to wade through and find meaning when things get tangled and twisted.

  1. Fling the book in question across the room and against the wall. This releases the tension caused by obfuscation and may allow you to move on with reading. This also works when you find the argument vacuous or ridiculous. We have flung authors from Hegel to Harris across rooms. You can decide which of those is obtuse and which ridiculous.
  2. Use a dictionary or other reference tome that may shed light on the text. Regular English Dictionaries are very helpful, as are specialized dictionaries of theological or philosophical terms. Maps and diagrams can be helpful depending on the subject.
  3. Read slowly and in small sections. Sometimes summarizing a paragraph helps decode what happened in that block of text. Active reading includes taking notes and sitting at a desk or table, not sprawling on a couch or bed. Some difficult books must be read on hard chairs, no cushions allowed.
  4. While cushions are not allowed, breaks are allowed, and even recommended. Breaks help the brain digest the heavy rich food found in difficult books.
  5. Talking about a book with a study group can help untangle the threads of an author’s point. Of course, class discussions and professors can also make things plain, but the work of decoding a text yourself is far more rewarding in the long run. Really.
  6. A summary or précis can be helpful. Some authors realize this and produce their own summaries. Other times we resort to notes and summaries written by others. Be Selective in the summaries you use though!
  7. Speaking of selective, help yourself out by being choosy from the beginning. Pay attention to which English translation you use. Translators make a difference — are you reading the King James Version of a work or is it more like The Message?

Ask the Crux Staff — we sure do. We are here to help in any way we can, even when the reading gets tough.


An Interview with the unforgettable Dorothy Cummings McLean


photoPolitics, glamour, romance, terrorists, and a couple of Catholics trying to live their lives in a world that’s gone crazy? Dorothy Cummings McLean’s first novel, Ceremony of Innocence, has it all. This action packed novel takes place in Germany, 2008, and engages the politics of the day while hopping in and out of night clubs with the young and beautiful “Butterfly set.” It meets sweeping theological themes outside of the realm of abstract theology and grounds them in the all too real concerns of an ordinary woman living in extraordinary times – ours. The story is told in the voice of a foreign journalist: a conflicted Catholic with a handsome, younger, live-in (ex)boyfriend, and gorgeous hair. 

Ceremony of Innocence is not your average Christian Novel so it makes sense that when I got the chance to interview its author it wasn’t your average interview. I met Dorothy Cummings McLean – TST alumni and the author of Seraphic Singles – at the AGO where she was planning on spending the day. McLean was born in Toronto not far from the Art Gallery and her identity as a Canadian runs through her novel. We had breakfast at Karine’s (a place any downtown Torontonian should know) and chatted over massive plates of eggs and fruit like old friends. McLean is a captivating conversationalist which isn’t surprising given the dialogue in her book.

During the interview we covered everything from:

1) Influential authors: Graham Greene, Gordan Korman, and how we are taught to write by what we read.

2) Life overseas: culture shock and the unique perspective of a foreigner. Dorothy Cummings McLean is currently living in Scotland but also lived in Germany as a student. interestingly she relies heavily on this experience, even consulting her journals from her time in Germany, while setting the scene in Ceremony of Innocence.

3) The political shifts that have lead to wide spread cultural disenfranchisement the world over: “as if the certainties of their existence has been swept away.”

4) Her first book, Seraphic Singles, and how it has recently been translated into Polish. She will be leading workshops around singleness in Polish in the upcoming months.

5) Scottish Country dancing and the danger of flying into framed pictures of John Paul II if the reels get a little too enthusiastic.

to my favourite:

6) The fact that “even German’s cry when they have to read Rahner in German”

McLean’s action packed novel deals with some very controversial themes but her main hope – “Super old-fashioned and cranky” (her words not mine) as it may sound – is that her readers will come away with a deep sense of sin. For McLean, “remorse comes before the return of the soul to a state of grace,” and this reality permeates the pages of her novel. McLean unapologetically faces big issues head on which makes Ceremony of Innocence definitely worth reading.

Staff Picks for February: One of these things is not like the others!

Here are the Crux Staff picks for February. I’m sure you will love these books! Also, one of these picks is not like the others. See if you can spot the difference –it as a game to help the winter pass more quickly.

Ed: The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman


Cindy: Love Alone is Credible by Hans Urs Von Balthasar

What is divine love?  The topic has been explored and written about by a variety of authors, but in his book, Von Balthasar delves into the topic in a deeply insightful and thoughtful manner.  Our understanding of divine love significantly impacts our personal relationship with God and with others.   Read this book carefully, slowly and thoughtfully—you may want to have a reading partner so that you have someone to discuss all the ideas and questions that arise as you read together.


Heather W. (The Doctor): The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis

This reflection on the four greek words translated love is thoughtful and well-written. It prompts good thinking on language use as well as on relationships.


Alain: Love & War by John and Stasi Eldredge

(Alain forgot to pick a book for February. We selected this book for him. Aren’t we helpful?)


Sheila: The Communion of Love by Matthew the Poor

In preparation for Lent, I have been thinking about the habits and objects in my life over which I have acquired a certain Gollumesque frame of mind: “These are mine, my precious, and none shall touch them!” Some of these I have long battled with and some are more newly come by.  A friend recommended Matthew the Poor’s (a.k.a. Father Matta El-Meskeen) writings as a way to become open again to Christ’s re-forming me and for me to make God the centre of my life.   Here are some of the subtitles in the chapter on Repentance which drew me into the book: “Repentance can only end in union with God”; “Repentance is constant change”; “Repentance as an actualization of baptism”; “Repentance is a work of grace”.  There are some enticements – for you and for me.


Connor: God Is Love/Deus Caritas Est by Benedict XVI


Carolyn: Works of Love by Soren Kierkegaard

Love is so central to the Christian faith that sometimes it may seem that we already know a lot about what love looks like. This book will challenge that assumption. Indeed, Kierkegaard’s examination of the various works of love may cause you to wonder if you will ever be able to come close to loving your neighbour. But it will also fill you with hope in the unfathomable mercy and love of God and the ways in which that love can be manifested in human relationships. The opening prayer sums it up well, “There are indeed only some works that human language specifically and narrowly calls works of love, but in heaven no work can be pleasing unless it is a work of love.” This is my desert island book.


Andrew: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone


Heather L. (The Deacon): Revelation of Love by Julian of Norwich

Talk about love poetry! This 14th Century classic chronicles the soul’s quest for the divine and is well worth a prayerful read. If you take my advice it goes best with Rouge Provence Rooibos tea and a substantial helping of shortbread. Happy Valentine’s Day Cruxians!


January Monthly Staff Picks March

Possible Gifts for Theologians for Valentine’s Day

Here comes V-Day, where V is for St. Valentine. Hearts and flowers might be traditional, but there are some books that also might fit for Valentine giving. Here are some slightly tongue-in-cheek possibilities, selected by the staff at Crux. (Yes, this is what we talk about in the store.)


Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation. Reconciliation sounds good for relationships, plus there’s the pink cover. A winning gift for the Barth scholar.


C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. Ok, maybe it isn’t very romantic, but it might be just the thing for the Lewis fan who is single? Maybe?


Sarah Sentilles, Breaking Up With God: A Love Story. Nothing more need be said.


Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages has so many different editions that there is sure to be one for someone you know for V-day. Nothing says love like a gift? Isn’t that a love language?


Yvonne Sherwood, The Prostitute and the Prophet. Because nothing says V-Day quite like Hosea and Gomer?

And finally, the book for all couples on Valentine’s day: