Reading More by Reading Less

Reading More by Reading Less

I love books and I love reading.  I love both so much, in fact, that I try to own as few books as possible and to read as few of them as I can get away with.  Before you think I’m somehow being sarcastic in either one of those two statements, I can tell you I’m quite serious.

In the past, my love of books resulted in the accumulation of many books.  Whether I acquired them in my studies at college and seminary, at the bookstalls of conferences, as gifts from friends and family members, or as clearance buys at Barnes and Nobel, I used to collect books twice as fast as I could read them.  Which meant the bigger my stack of “read” books got, my stack of “unread” books equally got.

My dilemma took on a new dimension when I started to see the benefit of re-reading certain books.  Though I didn’t feel that everything I was reading was worth a second pass through, there were some books that I felt very much deserved not only a second pass through, but potentially a third and fourth.  And so, it became apparent to me that not all the books in my library were “equal” in their impact and that the gap between my read and unread stack would never stop growing.

It struck me that in the time I could spend trying to get ahead of the tide of my unread reading list, which may or may not end up benefiting me in the end, I could be re-reading the books that had already proven themselves beneficial, and which seemed to have more wealth to offer.  I also realized that if I was to buy any more new books, I should stop compulsively bringing home whatever titles merely sounded good, or whatever bookbinding looked the best, and I should be deliberate to learn what volumes truly have a reputation for being deep wells to draw from, by whatever author and in whatever genre that happens to be.

Eventually, I made the decision to purge my bookshelves of all the books I didn’t realistically see myself reading or re-reading.  Instead, I started to narrow my library to some of the best titles I had already discovered or had recommended to me.  My motivation to stay the course with this new “concentrated approach” to reading was bolstered by the encouraging advice of men like Mortimer Adler and Charles Spurgeon.

Mortimer J. Adler

Charles H. Spurgeon

In his classic guide to intelligent reading titled “How to Read a Book,” the respected philosopher of education, Mortimer Adler, argues that the key to good reading isn’t a broader reading quantity, necessarily, but a deeper reading quality.  He writes,

Being well read too often means the quantity, too seldom the quality, of reading. It was not only the pessimistic and misanthropic Schopenhauer who inveighed against too much reading, because he found that, for the most part, men read passively and glutted themselves with toxic overdoses of unassimilated information. Bacon and Hobbes made the same point. Hobbes said: “If I read as many books as most men”—he meant “misread”—”I should be as dull-witted as they.” Bacon distinguished between “books to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be digested”…

When we speak of someone as “well read,” we should have this ideal in mind. Too often, I fear, we use that phrase to mean the quantity rather than the quality of reading. A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised, for so much effort has been misguided and profitless.

In one of the chapters of the book “Lecture to My Students,” the great preacher, Charles Spurgeon, addresses ministers who have what he calls a “slender apparatus.”  By “slender apparatus,” he simply means the situation of owning a relatively small number of books and study materials due to whatever budgetary limitations may constrain them.

While Spurgeon’s main remedy to a lean library is a weightier budget to grow it, he does reflect on how it’s possible to maximize and truly focus one’s efforts with a relatively small number of books.  He makes the point:

If a man can purchase but very few books, my first advice to him would be, let him purchase the very best. If he cannot spend much, let him spend well…This age is full of word-spinners—professional book-makers, who hammer a grain of matter so thin that it will cover a five-acre sheet of paper…Forego, then, without regret, the many books which, like poor Hodge’s razors, of famous memory, “are made to sell,” and do sell those who buy them, as well as themselves…

The next rule I shall lay down is, master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and re-read them, masticate them, and digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times, and make notes and analyses of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed, lapping at them, as the classic proverb puts it; “As the dogs drink of Nilus.” Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading. Books maybe piled on the brain till it cannot work. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. They gorge themselves with book-matter, and become mentally dyspeptic.

Books on the brain cause disease. Get the book into the brain, and you will grow. In D’Israeli’s “Curiosities of Literature” there is an invective of Lucian upon those men who boast of possessing large libraries, which they either never read or never profit by. He begins by comparing such a person to a pilot who has never learned the art of navigation, or a cripple who wears embroidered slippers but cannot stand upright in them. Then he exclaims, “Why do you buy so many books? You have no hair, and you purchase a comb; you are blind, and you must need buy a fine mirror; you are deaf, and you will have the best musical instrument!” — a very well deserved rebuke to those who think that the possession of books will secure them learning. A measure of that temptation happens to us all; for do we not feel wiser after we have spent an hour or two in a bookseller’s shop? A man might as well think himself richer for having inspected the vaults of the Bank of England. In reading books let your motto be, “Much, not many.” Think as well as read, and keep the thinking always proportionate to the reading, and your small library will not be a great misfortune.

There is very much sound sense in the remark of a writer in the Quarterly Review many years back. “Give us the one dear book, cheaply picked from the stall by the price of the dinner, thumbed and dog-eared, cracked in the back and broken in the corner, noted on the fly-leaf and scrawled on the margin, sullied and scorched, torn and worn, smoothed in the pocket and grimed on the hearth, damped by the grass and dusted among the cinders, over which you have dreamed in the grove and dozed before the embers, but read again, again, and again, from cover to cover. It is by this one book, and its three or four single successors, that more real cultivation has been imparted than by all the myriads which bear down the mile-long, bulging, bending shelves of the Bodleian.”

I am still working on rebuilding my library into a leaner, more robust, collection of “the very best” works Spurgeon talks about.   Considering the millions of books that are out there to sort through, the process of decided what is or isn’t a worthy addition isn’t easy.  After all, what criteria does one use and whose opinion does one listen to in decided what is or isn’t a great work.  But, I am determined to try, even if I’m only able to scratch the surface.  As long as I’m scratching in the right place, I will consider my efforts a success.

As a brief disclaimer, I don’t pretend to make the claim that all the books I set out to read, or all the books that make it into my library, or all the books that I end up recommending on this site are history’s greatest works according to academic standards.  For practical purposes, I am using Adler and Spurgeon’s counsel to focus my studies (and my search) on the best books that cover a specific set of categories, or are written from a certain kind of worldview, that are of interest and importance to me.  I don’t think all of the books I read or recommend are necessarily even the “best” in their category.  But in my efforts to narrow the field, I’m happy to adopt and point to the honorable mentions I find.

As far as Spurgeon’s advice to “master” these great books, I know that will be a life long journey.  As Adler also attests:

“Suppose that you have in some way hammered out for yourself [the greatest writings of history]. If you have done so, you belong to a rare and small species, rare and small, but not unknown. If you have read all these books, read them again. What makes them great is, among other things, that they teach you something every time you read them. Every time, you see something you had not seen before; you understand something you had missed; no matter how hard your mind worked before, it works again.

And this is the point: every man’s mind ought to keep working all his life long; every man’s imagination should be touched as often as possible by the great works of imagination; every man ought to push toward the horizons of his intellectual powers all the time. It is impossible to have “had” a liberal education, except in a formal, accidental, immaterial sense. Liberal education ought to end only with life itself.”

Updates:

  • I was encouraged to hear John Piper echo sentiments very similar to the one’s I make in this post (even to the degree of referring to Mortimer Adler) in his August 31, 2018 “Ask Pastor John” podcast episode titledHow Do I Choose Good Books and Grow My Library.”  In this episode, Piper says:

“Let me stress…that I don’t think reading many books is important, not for the average person anyway—maybe for the scholar, but not for the average person.  Reading good books—solid books, non-sudsy books, substantial books—is really important.  And reading them well.  If you wonder what I mean by reading really well, one place to start is Mortimer Adler’s ‘How to Read a Book.’  This is not a new book. I read it for the first time after my college days. Oh, I wish I had read that book earlier. But I’m so glad I read it in my early twenties. If you want to go deep with how you read, you’ll be inspired and helped by that book.”

“Beware of reading for quantity to impress anyone.  Read for your soul.  If we could live a thousand years and experience a thousand relationships in the thousand times and places and cultures that offer themselves, perhaps we wouldn’t need books in order to become wise. But our lives are short, and God has been merciful to give many places, many times, many cultures, and many insights distilled into books.  Find the ones that strengthen your faith and make you want to live all out for God.”

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