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While I was on vacation last week, I re-ran a post from 2008 about setting a reading goal of 100 books a year. While many resonated with the call to set a reading goal, others chided me for suggesting too high a number or for choosing speed over reflection.

Having considered some of the criticism of that post, I thought it might be good to follow up with a few more observations about reading, some of which may be helpful to those who think reading too many books may be counterproductive.

1. You cheat yourself when you read some books too quickly.

On this point, I agree with the critic who thinks that setting a reading goal could cause you to pass over significant books that deserve much time and close attention.

  • Speed reading a devotional work, for example, might cause you to miss the purpose of the work.
  • Obviously, the Bible deserves our time and attention. We should concentrate on spending significant time in meditation and reflection when reading God’s Word.
  • Other books deserve time too. John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin is a classic. Banner of Truth’s recent update makes the language easy to understand, and yet I still spent three months working through that book last fall. Three months well spent, I believe.

So yes… I agree that some books need to be lived in for a time in order to fully come to grips with the glorious truths contained therein.

2. You cheat yourself when you read some books too slowly.

Having acknowledged that some books deserve reflection and time, I still believe that many books (if not most) can and should be read more quickly. Not every book is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship.

In the case of many (if not most) books, the reader can quickly come to grips with the main point, consider the author’s perspective, and then move on. Some books deserve careful attention and reflection. But many are practical and easy-to-comprehend. Get what you need and go on.

If you are in a five-star restaurant with a five-course meal, you are foolish if you devour the meal in ten minutes. On the other hand, if you’re in a Steak and Shake, you don’t want to spend three hours on the Frisco Melt. A steak dinner is digested differently than mashed potatoes. You may find you enjoy both meals, but you (hopefully) enjoy them in different ways.

3. Set reasonable goals based on where you are in your life.

My wife’s reading goal will look different than mine. My goal may be different from yours. I suspect that D.A. Carson, Al Mohler and John Piper have very different reading practices.

But I still affirm my initial challenge to set a goal for reading. Why? Because you are more likely to read if you set a goal than if you don’t.

Set a reasonable goal and then go for it. If it’s a book a month, so be it! Goal-setting is simply a way of holding yourself accountable to a discipline.

Let’s say you set a goal of 25 books this year (roughly one book every two weeks). It’s possible that you might not make your goal, but I believe that you’ll get closer to that number having set a goal than if you forget the goal and read unintentionally all year long.

So once again… Happy reading in 2010!


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6 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Reading: Going Deep AND Wide”

  1. Guy Fredrick says:

    It IS possible to read more than one book at a time. I regularly have as many as 5 or 6 books in process at any given time. Some (like the Bible) never get “finished” they are ongoing continually. Others, as you well state, are read and move on material.

    Thanks again for dealing with this important subject. Not a day goes by when I don’t hear something along the lines of, “I read my last book in high school and hope to never have to read again…” How sad a thought, and how uninformed the person that holds it.

    I cannot think of any other way to combat the “sound bite” main stream media attempts to coral American (and the world) thoughts into a singular philosophy than reading entire works dealing with the subject matter at hand. Everyone has a “good argument” but not everyone’s argument is based in reality or fact. How does one know without examination of the grounds for the debate, and how else to acquire those grounds except to read the background material.

    Kudos!

  2. Carrie says:

    I’ve read some 200 pg books that could have been reduced to 20 pgs. I agree that with some books, you can get the point pretty quickly.

  3. Micah Cobb says:

    I think rereading is more important than reading slowly. No matter how slow you read a good book, you’ll always miss something, whether it is a point the author makes or a connection you can make to another topic/book. I’ve read that some of the Reformers claimed to have read Augustine’s major works more than 50 times in their lifetime.

    I know this doesn’t settle the question of whether you should read books quickly or slowly. However, I think reading a book 5 times quickly will be better than slowly reading a book once.

    That being said, one shouldn’t reread bad or mediocre books multiple times–but maybe one should put down the book at the moment one realizes it is bad/mediocre. The literary critic Harold Bloom says that he’ll stop reading a book midway if he learns that it isn’t worth rereading.

    (On the topic of rereading, C. S. Lewis said in his *An Experiment in Criticism* 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 in the course of their life.”)

  4. John Gardner says:

    I agree with the previous poster. I tend to read most books very quickly (with the exception of things that require slow reading based on their depth or reading level). I like to try to get the overall message of a book first. I will often then re-read (either immediately or, more often, sometime later) those books which I feel call for further study or reflection.

    This is also typically how I study my Bible. If I am going to study a book, I tend to read the entire book (especially the epistles) in one sitting first, and then I go back for a verse-by-verse study with the book’s “general effect” fresh in my mind.

    I read “Holy Subversion” in just a few hours. This is not a reflection of depth… I wanted to take it all in at once, so that I can reflect on it before going back through more slowly, reading the notes I took as I went through the first time. It’s a great book!

  5. JT Caldwell says:

    Well said, Trevin! Great way to balance your former repost on the subject. And, thanks for responding to others’ (including mine) comments in this manner.

  6. Roger says:

    Trevin,

    Bravo! Well said. Keep up the good work. And I, as an “old man” and encouraged by your work ethic.

    sdg
    rd

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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