Posted On November 19, 2013

Reading for Depth

by | Nov 19, 2013 | The Gospel and the Christian Life

I once heard an old preacher say that the Bible should be studied with both a microscope and a telescope. He meant that we needed to get both the big picture by reading Scripture broadly, but also do in-depth study of specific passages. The analogy extends to all of our reading.

My last post suggested six tips on reading for breadth. Here are six tips on reading for depth.

1. Limit curiosity. Yes, the contradiction with the first tip on my previous list is deliberate! For curiosity can become a vice. The ancient and medieval moral theologians warned against the vice of curiositas, contrasting it with the virtue of studiositas.

For example, in his first article on curiositas in Summa Theologica, Aquinas said there were four ways one’s appetite for knowledge can be inordinate.

(1) “when a man is withdrawn by a less profitable study from a study that is an obligation incumbent on him”

(2) “when a man studies to learn of one, by whom it is unlawful to be taught, as in the case of those who seek to know the future through the demons;”

(3) “when a man desires to know the truth about creatures, without referring his knowledge to its due end, namely, the knowledge of God;” and

(4) “when a man studies to know the truth above the capacity of his own intelligence, since by so doing men easily fall into error.”[1]

We can fall into any of these errors today, especially the first. The Internet makes this especially difficult and recent studies have argued that online surfing habits can diminish our capacities for reading and thinking deeply. See, for example, Nicolas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

There will always be distractions to keep us from deep, reflective reading. The only way to beat these distractions is to place limitations on the vicious aspects of curiosity.

2. Read one book at a time. (Another deliberate contradiction.) Only this time, by “read,” I mean a certain kind of reading. I mean reading to deeply understand and intentionally interact with the thesis and argument of a great book.

Mortimer Adler, in his famous How to Read a Book outlined four levels of reading: elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading. Most people never get beyond levels one and two. Most of the time we give books a quick surface reading and quickly move on to the next book, without ever seriously interacting with the central arguments of the book we’ve just read. And, outside of graduate school, we almost never do syntopical reading, (i.e. reading multiple books with varying perspectives on one subject).

But reading for depth demands more than moving our eyes across a page. It requires getting beyond the surface of a book’s contents. That means slowing down. It means reading one book analytically: studying, outlining, taking notes, and reflecting – until we know the book from the inside. You will probably only be able to do this with a few books. But the payoff is worth the investment you will make.

This raises the question of methodology. How do you read analytically? Well, Adler devotes seven whole chapters to this, so I refer you to him. But in my remaining tips, let me just highlight some of the things I’ve found personally helpful.

3. Read the same book more than once. The best books always require repeated readings. It is sheer arrogance for me to think that I can really understand a truly great book well with only one reading. To object to rereading is an indication that one doesn’t truly grasp the nature of books or the goal of reading.

C. S. Lewis said that the “sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work…Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.”[2]

This doesn’t mean every book is worth repeated readings. But some are. The list of such books will vary from person to person and will grow (and probably shrink again, too) with time and experience. So, develop your own list of great books.  Then read them again.

4. Write. Write in your books and write about your books. Take notes in margins. Outline the book’s argument. Rephrase the argument in your own words. Type or scan key quotes into Evernote.

One of my favorite ways of making a book my own is to use the blank pages at the end of a book to make a personalized index of its key themes, thoughts, and quotes. These particular copies come to hold immense value to me. If you ask to borrow one, I will politely say “no.” (But if you’re a close friend, and really want to read the book, and have no money, I will buy it for you instead!)

5. Master the writings of a few important authors. As you discover important books that repay multiple readings, you’ll also discover a handful of authors whose books you find uniquely helpful.

A few years ago, I began noticing that every time I returned to certain authors I found myself thinking, “Why do I ever read anything else?” These authors and their books are so rich, so rewarding and helpful, that I think I’ll never outgrow them. So I now usually have at least one book by one of these authors going at any given time.

Some of you want to know who these are, so I’ll tell you. But don’t think they should necessarily be on your list of key authors. Not every one will get from them what I do. Mine are, in chronological order, St. Augustine, John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and C. S. Lewis. I benefit from every excursion into Augustine’s Confessions, Calvin’s Institutes, Owen’s magnum opus on the Holy Spirit (not to mention his trilogy on temptation and sin), Edwards’ Religious Affections, and the profound essays and theological fantasies by Lewis.

6. Share what you read. Finally, share what you read with others. I don’t simply mean that you should give books away (though you should), but that you should find ways to flavor your teaching, writing, and conversations with the thoughts you’ve culled from great books.

There’s a bad way to do this, of course. You can share what you read in a very self-serving way that calls more attention to you the reader than to the great books you’ve read. (This is the literary equivalent to name-dropping at dinner parties.)

But, with that caveat, do share what you read. If you use your reading well, you will burn what you’ve learned more deeply into your own thoughts. And you will be inviting others into the great conversation.


[1] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q 167. Art. 1

[2] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, ch. 1

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