Sunday, July 22, 2012

On reading books

Summer time is especially good for catching up with academic reading.  I am always over-ambitious as I select the pile and nearly always end up disappointed that several books are left unread.  But much depends on taking a realistic approach.  Not all those books in the pile should be read closely!  Indeed, some need to be skimmed in order to ensure time is spent on the more significant. (My summer time reading also includes novels but these rules do not apply to them!)

Robert Webber used to advise students that they should not read an academic book word for word, page for page, chapter for chapter. Rather they should read a book like they would look at a picture, study its frame and only at the end examine its details.  Often the first look would give a clear idea how much time to spend. He suggested first reading the back cover, contents page, Introduction and Conclusion with time given over to thinking about the author's stance and books' purpose. Can you sum up in a sentence what the book's point is and how the author wants you to respond? 

To ensure you are not oversimplifying you need also to frame the book by studying the index, footnotes, and Scripture references to gain understanding of the author's sources and interpretation.  Further, the book's  structure requires its chapters to be scanned.  

All this happens to prepare you for the big question:  Is this book significant enough that you need to examine it in detail, making notes of key sections and even of vital quotations.  Some of us have good enough memories to capture the main issues for the future with few notes.  For me, note-taking has to be more extensive to keep reminding me of those distinctive ideas that now help to build up my knowledge.  Because this last stage is time-consuming the early looking and thinking is essential for setting priorities.

So, I find I have three kinds of academic books in my reading repertoire:
Grade A - I have paid critical attention to most pages because of its high caliber challenge.
Grade B - I am aware of the general issues and have given parts of the book some serious attention.
Grade C - I probably have engaged with its main issues already in other reading, or it falls outside my priority concerns.

Do you have a system for sorting out which books most deserve your attention?  Have you engaged with many Grade A books recently?  Care to share?


Anonymous said...

Dr. Quicke,

I'm struck by the parallels of your observation to preaching; particularly in your desire for preachers to deliver without notes. Perhaps one of the reasons that preachers aren't more comfortable with this style is because of their preoccupation with the "details," i.e. "I've got to pass on this illustration word for word." "This quote has to be perfect", etc. However in the desire to make sure that all of the "details" are right, they miss out on the "big picture". In addition while focusing on the "details" they miss out on what matters the most in communication...the audience! Details in preaching are important. However a preoccupation with the details, often caused by a preoccupation with "How am I coming off?" will end up injuring the preaching event. Thoughts???

Michael Quicke said...

An interesting reflection. I guess the motives differ. When reading I try to work out first which books (of too many) deserve the most attention. Looking at the bigger picture helps sort out priorities, but eventually I will need to deal with details on page after page of the key books. Attention to detail is key to academic study.

However, when speaking publicly, my motive is to keep the 'main impact' as clear as possible for my hearers. This means providing only salient details which I find 'preaching without notes' aids and abets. I agree that preoccupation with details (which need a manuscript) often speaks of preachers' concern not to miss anything out rather than proclaim good news!