IVP - Addenda & Errata - "I Read It"

August 20, 2009

"I Read It"

Lately on a local radio station I’ve been hearing an ad for a course that will increase your reading speed and comprehension by tenfold or better. I was reminded of the Evelyn Wood program that was popular when I was a college student. I never took it but I had friends who did. This led me to think about what we mean when we say, “I read that book”?

Did you read every word? Every sentence? Every paragraph? Every chapter? Did you perhaps scan through some sections and more carefully read others? Did you do an Evelyn Wood speed-reading of the entire book? Or did you do a Mortimer Adler (How to Read a Book) reading of it? Is it good enough for you that you’ve spent an appreciable amount of time with the book? Even with your eyelids at half-mast? Did you hop-scotch around in the book, following your interests (with the help of an index) in a nonlinear fashion?

I must confess that I am generally not a speedy reader. It’s not that I can’t read fast. I do it with newspapers, blogs and the like. But it’s not my default mode, and I don’t regard it as a great virtue. I’m happy to read Barth at five-pages per hour if that’s what it takes, and in the fine-print sections it well might. (If you are reading Barth at the rate you read Grisham, you need to stop and reconsider why you are reading.)

I used to be a very compulsive reader—compulsive in the sense that the book had to be read in its honest entirety for it to be called “read.” Several days ago I came across David Bentley Hart commenting on his “completist” compulsion running up against Edward Upward’s novels. (Hart’s article is worth reading in full.):

I am, by nature, a neurotic “completist”; I feel I must finish any book I begin, no matter how great a torment it turns out to be. But I have to confess that, in two attempts to get through The Spiral Ascent, my will has proved unequal to the task. On both occasions, there came a point (and roughly the same point) at which the poor laboring beast of my attention span lay down in the dust and mulishly refused to move forward another inch, no matter how savagely I cursed and flogged it. Thereafter, I merely skimmed through the final pages, simply to confirm for myself that life—even a life as protracted as, say, Edward Upward’s—is not long enough to make room for such an ordeal.

Hart appears to be a most stalwart and enduring member of my tribe!

For me one of the effects of this still latent compulsion has been that when people ask me whether I’ve read this or that, I have an impulse to strive for a modest level of honesty in my answer. I might say, “ninety percent of it” or “half of it” or “just the parts that interested me.” But I’ve concluded that this level of precision is not common currency among readers, and that precise answers are about as welcome as considered responses to a casual “How are you?”

But back to the speed question. One can’t—or at least I can’t!—strictly say that “academic” reading is always slower going than “recreational” reading. The more I am familiar with a topic, the faster I can move. The better the recreational reading, the longer I might want to linger. In a well-worn topic such as Paul and the law, there is necessarily a good percentage of material that is rehashed from book to book. If this is familiar territory, you will not need to hang on every word of an author’s reiteration of the views of a Cranfield or Sanders or Dunn or Wright. At the same time, you don’t want to miss nuances that are significant to your author’s “fresh approach” (and you hope there is one).

This whole question of reading rates and the demands of various types of even theological literature leads me to a practical academic point. I have taught seminary courses in which the institution requires that I, the professor, assign a certain number of pages of reading. For a four-hour course in the quarter system (ten weeks), that burden has amounted to as many as a thousand pages. I believe I understand some of the reasoning behind this. And being in the publishing business, I should be happy for big reading lists. But in terms of actual learning, I don’t think it’s practical. To boil the reading component of a course down to number of pages read is arbitrary. With a modest course load, a student can be saddled with 3,000 pages or more of reading. It tempts—no, it nearly requires—them to cut corners. It does not promote digestion and thoughtfulness but indigestion and regurgitation of ideas. And yet … and yet there is so much that a student really should read! And if you are a teacher, you know what I mean.

So I’m curious. If you are a professor, how do you approach this issue of the length of assigned readings? If you are a student, how do you cope with big reading lists?

Posted by Dan Reid at August 20, 2009 8:57 AM Bookmark and Share



Have you read this book?

Comment by: Jeff Reimer at August 20, 2009 1:31 PM

I've said for years the reason most people read Barth is because they think they should. And once they do, they have to talk about how much learned from him. I have preferred his smaller, lecture-type books -- but, brother, 5 pages an hour is not the sign of good writing.

The same goes for Augustine's City of God.

Comment by: Scot McKnight at August 21, 2009 7:32 PM


Comment by: Pastor Matt at August 22, 2009 7:10 AM

Hey Scot - no Barth bashing here! :-) Seriously, I find reading Barth to be so rewarding and enjoyable that sometimes I'll spend hours reading over and reflecting on a single paragraph. It's not that he's a bad writer, but an extraordinary theologian - he looks at things in ways that no one else does and it requires time to get your mind around it all. So I agree wholeheartedly with Dan's choice to read Barth slowly - it's not worth speeding over all that insight just to "get it done."

Comment by: Kristie Berglund at August 22, 2009 8:06 AM

Reading for me is like running. The more I do, the faster I can do it, and the longer I can sustain focus. It takes a few months to really pick up steam after a long break from academic reading, but once I do, I can read and absorb pretty quickly--if I have my trusty four-color pen handy to underline as I go. Forces me to quickly pick out the inherent outline structure and key points, so that when I go back to the book it's fairly easy to find or understand parts I went through too fast.

The trouble with non-completist assignments for any class is that a lifetime of this--at every level--means students never ever get a sense of a whole argument, or whole system of a particular writer. A big contrast to me comes to mind. As an undergrad I had early church history. We were assigned to read all of volume 1 of the ante-nicene Fathers. Reading that, as a whole, was transformative for my 20 year old mind and faith.

Five years later in a well known west coast seminary, I had early church theology. Readings were provided, and they were largish passages from particular authors from the same text. Go beyond the assigned reading, as I did, and the TAs didn't know what to do with the extra material that showed up in papers. Other students who had no exposure to the church fathers thought this was itself a huge reading task. But, I thought that the excerpts were somehow the more boring bits, and no doubt contributed to a whole lot of students doing well in the class, but never getting any kind of love for reading the early church writers.

Making me a big fan of assigning complete texts of primary sources, with secondary sources more optional. Unfortunately, the trend is just the opposite. But, the original authors are often easier to read and significantly more interesting than those who comment on them.

Interesting that DBH would be noted here. I include his Beauty of the Infinite as one of those books I forced myself to finish, mostly because I had a presentation on the book. Took me a week, a terrible week, but I do appreciate the sense of accomplishment of getting through all those pages of convoluted, page-length, "look at me I'm a profound writer", sentences.

Comment by: Patrick O at August 22, 2009 8:38 AM

I teach in an accelerated adult learning program at college. Each course is one night a week for four hours for five weeks. I am constantly pressed by the amount of reading that should be digested but simply cannot be. This almost makes the issue of what it means to have read books "completely" moot.

Comment by: don bryant at August 22, 2009 6:25 PM

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