Thursday, January 5, 2012

On (Not) Being a Good Reader: Making Goals, Resisting Bad Habits, and Re-Reading Good Books

I am not a very good reader. Though my chosen career entails a life of reading, reading itself does not come naturally to me. Or at least, not always, and not in the same way.

For example, I am an extremely poor reader of novels. I just did not learn the requisite skills in high school, and more or less degenerated in college. Since then I have been trying to recoup what I lost, and gain what I never had.

Furthermore, I am an extraordinarily slow reader. My wife, if "hooked," can finish a 400-page novel in a day, two or three at most if other commitments override. That sort of loss of self, that forgetfulness of the painstakingly slack page-turning rate which swells up in my brain in perfect proportion to the amount of pages staring me down -- it's near impossible to imagine.

However, I do enjoy reading, and have always enjoyed it; moreover, I love my subject of study, so I enjoy reading theology in particular -- and that is fortunate, given that my vocation consists overwhelmingly of reading theology before doing anything else.

Setting aside theology, then, my stamina, and speed, and (at times) motivation have for some time been sorely lacking, alongside a paucity of diversity in both my literary interests and reading skills. I have, therefore, for the last few years made annual goals with attendant strategies in order to slowly address these areas of weakness (or, in PC parlance, "potential growth").

To begin, in 2008 and 2009, which included the end of college and my first three semesters of graduate school, I remained stuck at around 50 books per year, which averages out to a mere book per week. In 2010 I was able to increase that to two books per week, and this past year up to three. Part of that was simply the greater demands of Master's work; another part was intentionally reading more; and still another was introducing variety into my theology-only reading diet. Two genres in particular proved especially appetizing: poetry and essays. I discovered both that I could read these fairly quickly and that I derived great pleasure in doing so.

My newest genre of interest is memoirs (or biographies, though less so), closer to the DNA of a novel while for various reasons containing more appeal as well as an easier dynamic of entry, sticking with it, and finishing.

This year I have three goals: to increase from three to four books per week (or at least somewhere in between); to read at least one novel per month; and to begin the practice of re-reading especially beloved or formationally foundational books.

This last goal is a new one to put into practice, but one I have been working toward for some time. I've heard it said that being an academic means never having to read the same book twice. That may be true in some ways -- for example, as a description of the intellectual capacities of the truly great scholar, or as a prescription of the limited time available to lifetime readers of ever-increasing publications -- but I see it as a mistaken impulse. The life of the mind, the life of reading, ought to be precisely that of refusing to "finish" books once for all before moving on to the next thing. Books, or at least those most worth reading, are there to be chewed on, digested, meditated on, memorized, internalized. For the very few who can recite lines from once-read books, perhaps this is unnecessary. But for the great majority of us who are consistently forgetful of what we have read, in a lifetime of six or seven or eight decades, how can a once-read book actually do the work it is capable of if placed on a shelf forever thereafter?

For that reason I see the practice of re-reading as the height and fulfillment of the academic life, even as it is an active resistance of the institutional habits encouraged by the academy today.

So I chose 12 books to re-read this year, from various genres and of disparate lengths and ages, books which were either important to my development as a thinker or person, or worth re-reading and so knowing well just because.

In poetry: A Timbered Choir by Wendell Berry; Sinners Welcome by Mary Karr; and Walking to Martha's Vineyard by Franz Wright. These are collections of poems which I would be delighted to read annually for the rest of my life.

In fiction: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (already read twice, each time broken open anew); The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (in preparation for the film this December, as I haven't read it since middle school); and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (no explanation required here).

In academic theology: The Priestly Kingdom (because I want to re-read a different book by Yoder every year); Death and Life by Arthur McGill (because it's that good); and Confessions by Augustine (again, because it's worth it -- and because I've never read Books 11-13).

In pleasurable or formational works: Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton (because it's been a while); The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen (because this book fundamentally reshaped my practice of spiritual disciplines); and Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community by Wendell Berry (because reading this book four years ago radically transformed my way of thinking and living for good).

I'm sure others -- including even the most scholarly of scholars -- have similar stories with regard to reading or other related challenges. The felt expectations (to read everything, to remember everything, never to be out of date) combined with their patent insurmountability (no one has or will ever have read everything, much less remember it all or live a meaningful life besides) can prove isolating, suffocating, even brutal. Consider this my small contribution, in via, to the possibility of a common sanity in this odd way of life called academic.


  1. MacIntyre says somewhere that we read too much and too quickly in the university: it would be far better for us really to absorb one good work than quickly to cover five of whatever quality. He surely means better for us as people and not as academics -- but isn't part of the attraction of theology that being a good theologian requires being a good person?

    This is to say: good on you for reading slowly, and re-reading; and be careful about wishing too many books upon yourself.

  2. Amen to MacIntyre, as usual.

    Re: too many books, point taken; but also, my reading more is almost always replacing TV or Google Reader, and almost never time with people or similarly meaningful things. And my slow reading speed means I'm more or less always doing a "close reading" rather than reading faster just to be fast! So that's one advantage.

  3. Thanks for this!

    I have been reading theology & philosophy for the last 1.5 years, and have found it is hard to remember what I have just read. The problem doesn't seem to be comprehension of what is read, but more retention. Do you have any helpful strategies for reading this kind of material? (I'd imagine that loving the material helps...)

    As far as staring down a long novel and not wanting to hang in there for the rest, I would recommend something: maybe you could try reading a long long novel (Infinite Jest, War & Peace, etc) that makes you commit to it regardless of how much time it will take? Then the quantity remaining will come as no surprise?

  4. In the spirit of Ross' comment, have you read "How to Read Slowly" by James Sire?

  5. Cutter,

    Unfortunately, no helpful strategies other than some kind of note-taking and annotating the book itself.


    No, I haven't read Sire's book. I take it you recommend it?

  6. It dawned on me recently that part of the reason why I am drawn to 'difficult' reads might be because I can justify my inability to read more quickly.