7 Tips for Reading Old Books

By Andy Reeves

Old books are difficult to read. It’s just a fact. Have you experienced someone recommending an old author, say a Puritan or a Church Father, and then you decide to pick up the book and dive in only to end up thoroughly confused, frustrated and bored after 3 or 4 pages? This isn’t unusual because older authors thought, wrote, and spoke in different ways than we do now. I hope these tips that I’ve learned on reading old books will be helpful to you.

1. Read slowly. I’m sure you’ve noticed older authors write with a different flow and style than modern writers and it can take some time to pick up on the flow of the book.

2. Don’t be afraid to reread. Rereading something makes you wrestle with the text and hammer out what the author is saying. Rereading also improves comprehension and retention of the text.

3. Stick with it. Older authors rarely put their thesis and methodology statement at the beginning of their work, so it can take time to get the main idea behind what the author is writing. Persevere in reading the work because older works have stood the test of time for a reason and often are of more value than modern books.

4. Take notes. Taking notes further improves retention and helps you get a grasp on the author’s main points.

5. Read aloud. Older authors like Augustine did not sit down and hand write their books, they dictated their books to a scribe. This means that they composed their book not through writing but through speaking. Often older books read as if the person is having a conversation. Modern readers tend to struggle in following along because conversations progress in a different fashion than a written work. Often, I have found that if there is a section of a book that isn’t making sense, if I take the time to read it aloud it makes more sense. Plus reading aloud to yourself further improves retention and comprehension. (Try reading the Confessions aloud sometime, you will find it enriching!)

6. Read the introductory material. Most old books come with an introduction by a modern scholar. I highly recommend you read this introductory material. For one, the modern scholar can help you locate the main idea and flow of the book faster. Second, the modern scholar can explain difficult grammatical constructions and unusual vocabulary that is no longer in use.

7. Read old books. Seriously, you need to read them to actually get good at reading them. The more old books you read the better you get at reading other old books.

What books should you start with? I highly recommend starting with a book like Augustine’s Confessions or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. These are two classic works that you will not regret reading. Start out with well known Christian classics and work towards more difficult texts. You should follow this same principle with specific authors. Starting out with an easier work by an author gets you adjusted to their mindset and method of thought. This will prepare you to read one of their more difficult books.

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Andy Reeves is an Arkansas native who is currently living in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

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