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.

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.)

barth

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.

lewis

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?

Sentilles

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

Chapman

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?

Sherwood

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:

9782895075592

I’m not sure what the title is but…

At any bookshop customers have odd requests that we just cannot help with. They are looking for a green book, or a book with ‘Tree’ in the title. At this bookshop, a theological bookshop, the book descriptions that make us giggle come in slightly different flavours.

This month a customer who’d never been to our shop before came in and asked for our religion section. Not wanting to laugh at the poor man’s honest question we pointed out that the whole store was basically one big religion section. Did he have something more specific in mind? He looked confused as well. We suggested he give us the title of the book he wanted so we could tell him which of our sub-sections of religion it would be in.

Another customer came in. She didn’t remember the title of the book she was looking for, but assured my colleague that it had Jesus and God in it.

Today a student came in looking for a recommended book in his course. Again, he couldn’t remember the title, but it was about Roman Catholicism. He looked expectantly and trustingly at my colleague who had to tell him to go away and find the title on his syllabus as his description didn’t narrow it down sufficiently.

Books Everyone Should Have

Crux serves the theological colleges that make up the Toronto School of Theology. This means many of our customers are future priests and ministers. Part of the fun of being in seminary and close to a great bookstore is building a good personal theological library! Book collecting continues after graduation, of course, but the foundations are laid while in school. Here are some books that the Crux staff think that everyone should have in their library.

Alain: Jesus and the God of Israel by Richard Bauckham

Andrew: The book we should all read and own is Augustine’s Confessions. The Confessions is a beautiful example of what an exercise in patience looks like. In it, Augustine finds God’s own patience, so I would argue, to come to bear upon his own life. The God so encountered is not a “god” to re-assure us, but the God of Jesus Christ and, as a result, is the God who sanctifies us in the fire of God’s own love. Augustine, confessing such a God, can only find his own life (re)narrated according to God’s own love given to us in Christ.

Carolyn: A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. If you want a reading challenge, pick up a copy of renowned Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s masterful journey through Western history. Taylor looks at the pervasive secularity of the modern West and traces the historical trajectories of ideas and beliefs that have led us to this place—trajectories that lead to some surprising starting points. Ultimately Taylor hopes to open space for transcendence and religious life in the midst of our secular age. Admittedly the book could have used some editing, but no one can deny Taylor’s vast historical knowledge, the keenness of his insights, or the sympathetic respect with which he engages each viewpoint along the way. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Bonus: at 896 pages, this book can help you out with any weightlifting goals you might have.

Cindy: A Bible Atlas of some kind. This helps you understand the importance of places in the biblical narratives. Geography is important in understanding what happened in different stories.

Connor: From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. This work of cultural history, tracing the patterns of the last 500 years (the Modern Era), is both an excellent read and erudite account of the timespan. Written by Barzun in his later years, it shows the polish of writing that comes from a life spent discussing these topics.

Heather L: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. This book speaks to the eternal human condition. It also makes you a more interesting person if you read it. (Especially if you teach yourself Elvish.)

Heather W: An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis. This small book is an extended essay on reading critically and what makes a book great. It will shift the way you look at literature. According to Lewis great writing supports, and even compels, re-reading. You should read this book. You should own your a copy to re-read it.

Sheila: The book everyone should have is the Oxford English Dictionary.   I know that many who read this are going to say that you can look up any word that you like on-line; you can even use the OED on-line resource.  And this is true. However, there is something to holding a dictionary in your hands and looking up a word. For one, the tactile sensation of looking up the word can help you remember the word better.  Another reason? Every time I look up a word, I put a little pencil dot beside the word (this works well for those of us studying foreign languages, too!); when I reach five dots, it is time to fill out a vocabulary card.  A third reason: the undiscovered word.  I cannot tell you the number of words which I have found on the way to looking a word (abligurition and waulked are too of the most recent ones).  My favourite definition for grace (“unmerited love; strengthening influence”) comes from the Oxford.  When you look up a word, you can start to see the story behind the word, its import.

More thoughts on Christmas Music

Crux staff have had a few discussions about Christmas music in the store in the past couple of days. Connor and Carolyn don’t have any specific non-favourites, but they are both against versions of well-known songs that they deem to be “over the top.” The example that I suggested to both of them was “O Holy Night” — a beautiful carol if well done, but difficult to do well. Yes, they agreed, that is a good example.

Andrew wishes we could put together our own Christmas mix. He’d include “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the two Christmas albums Sufjan Stevens has recorded. Sheila never wants to hear “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause” again. Pam is happy to be at home with a new baby instead of in the store counting the number of times “The 12 days of Christmas” is played in one day. And I’ve had enough of “Santa Baby” for this year.

Textbook Season, part 1

Things staff at Crux like to hear during the textbook rush:

  • “Thanks for all your help.”
  • “I just read one of Crux’s recommended reads and I loved it. Thanks.”
  • “You’ll call me when that comes in? That’s great, thanks!”

Things staff at Crux are not fond of hearing (multiple times) during the textbook rush:

  • “I am going to call every day until my book arrives. Can you make it come any faster?” (No! We can’t control distributors and courier companies!)
  • “But the professor said you’d have that book!” (This is especially irritating when the prof didn’t place a class order for the book in question.)
  • “Don’t you order enough textbooks for everyone in the class?” (Drop/Adds give us all problems.)

Smile at your local bookseller and always remember to say Thank You.

What Does Summer Reading Mean to You?

Recently Crux staff discussed the idea of summer reading. For some people, summer is vacation time, a time to take a break from assigned books and catch up on all the things you really wanted to read when you were studying Greek. For others, summer is the perfect time to dive into a challenging read and learn about Greek verbal aspects. If you have a look at the Crux Staff “Next Five Reads” series you can see some books we hope to read in the next few months in all the sunshine and heat. Some of us are going for the challenging reads, others are hoping for a break from Greek.

What does summer reading mean to you?