Reading the Bible: Psalms
The Psalms may be the most read book in all the Bible. People find them very inspiring, poetic, and short making them a possible minute read. For devotions people enjoy them because most months there are 30 days, and there are 150 Psalms, so if you read 5 a day, you read through the book in a month (of course Psalm 119 makes that hard). Whether reading for fun, or digging for inspirational truth a few helps in reading the Psalms will undoubtedly make your time in there more meaningful.
Know Your History
Again, a key to reading the Psalms is knowing the historical context in which they were written. If you just read the Psalms it's like turning on a movie, such as the Wizard of Oz, and listening to Dorothy sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and then turning the movie off. You have no idea who she is, why she is singing, what has happened to her, nor what happens when everything is over. Sure the song may be nice to listen to as it is a quality song in its own right, but in order to understand it who have to watch the movie. The same with the Psalms. Knowing what is going on when they are composed lends the significance.
Unfortunately finding the specific history of each Psalm is nigh impossible. Some Psalms start off with headings such as "When David was morning for Absolon" and "When David was being pursued by Saul." That makes it easy. But these Psalms that have the specific histories embedded are the exception not the rule. For the rest, we really have nothing to go on to know the specific histories.
Although we may not be able to know the specific histories, we can know the general histories of most all of them. If a psalm says that it was written by David, we know general speaking what is going on. Chances are David composed the bulk of his psalms while he was a shepherd. When you are a shepherd you have slightly more time on your hands then when you are the king of Israel. We know GENERALLY speaking what is going on in David's life, and also the nation of Israel. We also know God's role.
What Are They?
Psalms is another word for a song. The entire book was a type of hymnal in a way that was used in temple worship and undoubtedly other religious activities. I imagine David walking around the palace humming one of the ones he wrote, but that's just a guess. The music to these have long been lost, but they are still songs none the less.
So that being said we have moved into a new genre of Scripture: song. The book of Psalms is not the only place we find songs in Scripture. They are found in Exodus when Mariam sings a song when they cross the Red Sea (Exodus 15:21), and Deborah sings a song that includes celebration for killing a guy (Judges 5:2-31). Songs are supposed to be interpreted similar to prayers: they are the deep emotional response of a person to God in regards to a situation. It's because of these deep emotions that people are so drawn to the Psalms. They remind us that David had a soul and questioned God, doubted whether promises would be fulfilled, he danced on a mountaintop for joy in the good and wallowed in despair in the bad. It's important to remember however that these are emotional responses to a situation. I believe they are all divinely inspired and hold absolute truth in their message, but it needs to be remembered what they are and what they aren't. These aren't David's lectures on the realities of life, they are what he feels right then and how he is responding.
More than One Kind
As I will demonstrate in the hubs to come, there are several sub-genres of the Psalms, all of which should be approached a little differently. They'll become obvious to you once you are exposed to them, and you'll be able to identify them on your own with very little difficulty. The big ones are:
I would recommend "How to Read the Psalms" by Tremper Longman. I am not aware of any other book that just gives you general principles in reading the psalms without offering devotions and personal commentaries. This book prepares you to read them yourself and let the text speak to you without outside influence.
If you missed my other hubs on reading the Bible check out where I began the series with How to read narrative.