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.):
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?