How (not) to read books
Scott McKnight (NT blogger I ought to read regularly, as his blog is so well-written, but don't because of no-one can read everything) has a fine, fun post "On Marking Books
" (which I found through a lovely quote in Ricoblog
). I agree with the commentor (Jonathan
) who says:
"The only way to read Hengel is with a beer in hand to take the edge off."
That's definitely my quote of the week!
BUT the whole discussion appears predicated on actually "reading books". I have told generations of students: "Never read a book!
" After this shocking advise I instruct them in the not-so-gentle art of scanning:
- The table of contents is important, look at it second (First you look carefully at the covers, yes, spend longer on the back cover, it tells you what the publisher thinks the book is about and who it is aimed at.) The ToC gives you an idea of the contents (duh!) and the flow of the work, so it is where you start. (The front cover may have already told you if the book is worth not-reading!)
- Skim the preface or introduction. Often they will summarise the whole book, so you will have a better idea than the ToC has given you of what to ignore for now.
- You will now have an idea which chapters are important and relevant to you - the others can be left but may become relevant one day (you can not-read them then)!
- Read the opening paragraph (or two...) carefully. If the writer has done their job this should tell you what the chapter is really about.
- Read the closing paragraph (or two...) carefully. If the writer has done their job this should summarise their conclusions.
- Glance through the chapter paying particular attention to any headings, pictures or other bits that catch your attention (allow about 2 mins for this task).
- Now you can decide if that chapter is really necessary to not-read now.
- When you have glanced in this way at any chapters that seemed potentially "don't miss" items you can decide which to actually not-read. After all, by now you have a good idea of what the book is about and of how it and its author work!
- You now approach these chapters, and using similar techniques gut and fillet them. Despite all I have said above and the number of times I've stressed that the aim is to not-read, you may (if you must) at this stage actually read the chapters that matter (to you, now).
- Skimming the index for interesting titbits is optional and may be enjoyed at any time.
Later, of course, you may come back and either read other bits, or even if the book is really well-written and interesting, actually read it
Yes, I'm a barbarian
and a heretic, but I'm a busy barbarian, and my students are busy people too...
PS: I'd no sooner finished writing the above, when the SBL email announcing the latest Forum
appeared in my inbox. Serendipity. Athalya Brenner has a piece "On Blurbs, Prefaces, and Other Good Intentions
" saying some of the same things, at least about blurbs and prefaces, though no one should tar and feather her with the same barbarian brush as me! Her piece is a plea for honesty in advertising. (At least according to a first very fast skim!)