On the Reading of Whole Books — The Reading Process

CS-Lewis-on-the-Reading-of-Old-BooksIn the pref­ace to a trans­lat­ed vol­ume C.S. Lewis wrote an essay on the impor­tance of read­ing old books, bemoan­ing the lack of appli­ca­tion that many peo­ple of his era had for the read­ing of old­er books, instead pre­fer­ring to read sec­ondary lit­er­a­ture. While Lewis’ essay still speaks pow­er­ful­ly to us today, with the trend of pri­ori­tis­ing sec­ondary lit­er­a­ture over the pri­ma­ry sources hav­ing scarce­ly abat­ed, I think there is anoth­er chal­lenge afoot. Namely the chal­lenge of read­ing whole books. For many the process of read­ing and absorb­ing infor­ma­tion and research is a thank­less and ardu­ous task. So this task is short­ened and con­densed as much as pos­si­ble, until most of what is read is mere snip­pets of the infor­ma­tion. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and so this skills post is ded­i­cat­ed to the art and process of reading.

Welcome to the sec­ond post in the Friday pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and study skills series.

Our mod­ern cul­ture has con­densed the infor­ma­tion gath­er­ing process into a series of bite sized snip­pets, in part exac­er­bat­ed by the sheer vol­ume of infor­ma­tion that is acces­si­ble to us at any giv­en time. News arti­cles have been con­densed from the long-form essay, to short columns, then pithy snip­pets, shared on Facebook, con­densed into 140 char­ac­ter tweets, and sub­se­quent­ly regur­gi­tat­ed as 2–3 sec­ond sound bites. This reduc­tion in our atten­tion span severe­ly impacts how we read and research as well. Several essays, papers and arti­cles I have read over the years have quot­ed sec­tions of an author with­out real­is­ing that the fol­low­ing para­graph con­tra­dict­ed their entire argument.

One of the solu­tions for this is to sim­ply read whole books. 1 While read­ing a sin­gle chap­ter, or skim­ming through a cou­ple of pages of a book may glean required infor­ma­tion, read­ing the whole book sets that infor­ma­tion with­in the crit­i­cal con­text of the argu­ment. Reading a book from start to end gives the read­er a sense of where the author is head­ing with the infor­ma­tion. How the author is build­ing their case to sup­port their the­sis, and whether that the­sis is valid­ly sup­port­ed. It allows the read­er to see pro­gres­sion with­in the mate­r­i­al, and shows how the infor­ma­tion that is sought after is inte­grat­ed and relates to a big­ger argu­ment and sphere. The art of read­ing whole books leads to an appre­ci­a­tion of oth­er people’s argu­ments and also serves to high­light some of our own cog­ni­tive bias­es. It also helps us to devel­op the patience and ret­ro­spec­tion required to more ful­ly analyse ques­tions and argu­ments on the fly, with­out hasti­ly respond­ing to our own inter­nalised straw-man of someone’s argu­ment. In short: read whole books!

cartoon_reading2Nevertheless the read­ing process can be hard, books can be too long, too dry, and plain old bor­ing. What do we do with that sort of chal­lenge, do we sim­ply slog through a book because we start­ed it? Actually I don’t think that this is a pro­duc­tive or healthy way of going. While I think we need to read more whole books, I am hap­py to acknowl­edge that not all books need to be read from cov­er to cov­er. Some are best used as ref­er­ence works, even if they are not designed as such. Others are help­ful to skim read through, for a gestalt pic­ture of the argu­ment, while extract­ing cer­tain por­tions. Others are indeed best read cov­er to cov­er and pored over as you go. So how do we dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the dif­fer­ent types of read­ing? Tim Challies dis­tills the read­ing method into sev­en cat­e­gories: Studying, Pillaging, Devotional, Skimming, Stretch, Rerun, and Failed. 2 I think his broad cat­e­gories are use­ful in think­ing about our read­ing process and his blog post is worth a read. But here I want to focus on just three: Studying, Stretch and Failed.


For most stu­dents and aca­d­e­mics the default mode of read­ing is study­ing. Quite com­mon­ly when I sit down to read some­thing I have this strong urge to pick up a pen or high­lighter. I’m sure many can empathise with this urge. However, there are many books that don’t need to be stud­ied, and it can be quite cathar­tic to read some­thing where you con­scious­ly make a deci­sion not to study it; I have to do this peri­od­i­cal­ly. Generally I pick biogra­phies or unre­lat­ed his­to­ries for this.

For gen­er­al study­ing there are many meth­ods to make your read­ing time more effi­cient, and as per usu­al not all will work for every­one. One key ele­ment of most study­ing method­olo­gies is being able to mark up the text and then syn­the­sise sum­maries. Personally I use two meth­ods for markup, one for per­son­al books and one for bor­rowed books, but the schema is the same. I use a four mark sys­tem for scheme for Important, Agree/Quote, Disagree/Investigate, and Bias/Presupposition. In books I own these gen­er­al­ly take the form of scrib­bles in the mar­gin, a com­bi­na­tion of lines, dou­ble lines, ques­tion and excla­ma­tion marks, usu­al­ly with a sin­gle colour post-it tab to mark the point in the book. Borrowed books get a series of small reusable and non-mark­ing post-it tabs at appro­pri­ate points in four dif­fer­ent colours, gen­er­al­ly yel­low, green, red and blue respectively.

At the end of read­ing a book it is good to syn­the­sise a sum­ma­ry of the infor­ma­tion. Not only does this rein­force the learn­ing, but also serves as a use­ful ref­er­ence for where ideas and quotes have come from lat­er. I gen­er­al­ly syn­the­sise per chap­ter, the book as a whole and tran­scribe the quotes I am after. If a quote stands out as being par­tic­u­lar­ly per­ti­nent I com­mon­ly archive it off sep­a­rate­ly in a ‘quote data­base’ for easy access. The sum­marised syn­the­sis of each chap­ter gets archived with­in Zotero for lat­er access, more on that in the tools day on Zotero. The prac­tice of syn­the­sis­ing sum­maries is invalu­able for rein­forc­ing the mate­r­i­al, and if archived well helps for lat­er access. If you are read­ing mul­ti­ple books on sim­i­lar top­ics then a syn­the­sis matrix may be an option. I have used var­i­ous matrix schema in the past, and have recent­ly come across this one from NC State: Synthesis Matrix.pdf. I think I will use this matrix for an upcom­ing lit review, it may be use­ful for you too.

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 8.38.39 pmStretch Reading

Often I feel that we don’t think big enough in our read­ing, and this is where stretch read­ing can come in. When is the last time you picked up a book that real­ly stretched your read­ing habits? Personally my stretch read­ing is a goal based read­ing and usu­al­ly I con­duct it over a whole year. I pick some­thing that I wouldn’t oth­er­wise have the time to read cov­er to cov­er, and sim­ply set the goal of read­ing it over the course of an entire year. A few years ago I read through Calvin’s Institutes in their entire­ty, and over the last two years I have read through Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Now with works of this size you inevitably can­not study them thor­ough­ly and med­i­tate on each sen­tence, but the act of push­ing through and read­ing them cov­er to cov­er over a longer peri­od not only broad­ens the read­ing sphere, and increas­es your knowl­edge base, but also gives good dis­ci­pline in sit­ting down each day or week and just read­ing some­thing. I find it a very enjoy­able long term goal. Next up is N.T. Wright’s Christian Origins series. It may take a while, but that’s ok. After all it’s not called ‘stretch’ for nothing.

Failed Reading

Sometimes a book is just so bor­ing, unin­ter­est­ing or irrel­e­vant that you just can’t sum­mon any will pow­er to go on. Sometimes you just need to put a book down and admit defeat. It can be hard to do, espe­cial­ly if you are an avid com­ple­tion­ist. But I think it is an impor­tant skill to learn, and espe­cial­ly to dis­cern what the appro­pri­ate point to shoul­der arms is. Giving up too ear­ly can be prob­lem­at­ic, as some books take time to reach their stride, while giv­ing up too late sim­ply wastes time. What is the appro­pri­ate time? I’m not sure there is any spe­cif­ic rec­om­men­da­tion there, but per­haps just to acknowl­edge that set­ting a book aside incom­plete is not a ter­mi­nal fail­ure, but rather a tac­ti­cal surrender.


Those three cat­e­gories are the ones I think are the most use­ful for our train of thought in the read­ing process. In addi­tion there has been some inter­est­ing recent dis­cus­sion over the ele­ments of read­ing on screen or on paper, and per­son­al­ly I’m unde­cid­ed. Some books and arti­cles are bet­ter on paper, while oth­ers are invalu­able dig­i­tal­ly. There is an inter­est­ing arti­cle by Oxford University Press on this top­ic here: http://blog.oup.com/2015/02/reading-on-screen-versus-paper/ and while I note that they focus on uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents they don’t seem to con­trol for the type of writ­ing. They do note that even the smell of a book invoked an emo­tion­al response, but I cant remem­ber the last time the smell of a bor­ing text book made it any less bor­ing. Nevertheless I sus­pect that is a debate that will con­tin­ue for a while.

But there is one aspect of the read­ing process that I haven’t cov­ered, although I have hint­ed at it: Writing. It may seem some­what non-sen­si­cal to lump in Writing as part of the Reading process, but I think it is a crit­i­cal part. However, that expla­na­tion will have to wait for next Friday.

Do weigh in on the com­ments below as to your thoughts on the read­ing process.

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  1. Thanks and HT must go to Rhys Bezzant, who con­stant­ly empha­sis­es the need for this in his class­es
  2. http://www.challies.com/articles/7‑different-ways-to-read-a-book