Summer Reading, Kinds of Reading (Michael Quicke)

The post below is by my esteemed homiletics colleague, Michael Quicke, at Northern Seminary.

How do you read? Do you have different reading strategies? Do you find yourself (admittedly) frustrated because you think you just must finish a book because you began it but wonder if it is worth the time?

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?

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  • great reminder as we try to chug through the last of our summer reading!

  • scotmcknight


    I build a stack when I know I will be traveling, or going on a trip for a week or more, or for summers … always building a stack of books I could never finish, and just before leaving I prune the stack to a little more than I will have time to read, grab the stack, put them in the suitcases and off we go. I’ve never finished all of them except one time… I finished my last book on the plane flight home. (I was reading books about Mary that time.)

    I’m trying to read more novels, and have one going now … but not making much progress.

    Your ideas are very good ones. Thanks for letting me post it here.

  • I am about 2/3 Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age by Roger Lundin. Lots of marginalia throughout and definitely fits in the top category where it is worth doing so.

  • Michael O’Neil

    Great advice there: I think I need to follow it. I am a careful but slow reader and find it really frustrating that I can’t get through more material. I think I will take your method for a drive.

  • Robert

    When I was an undergraduate, my prof took the view that it didn’t matter too much what you knew, as long as you knew where to find the information. I’m not very organised about this, but I try to ensure that, as far as possible, I have whatever information I’m likely to need at hand. So I have a large collection of commentaries, and the standard lexicons, none of which (obviously) I’m going to read through, plus a lot of comparable reference works. When I’m interested in an issue, I start looking for books and reading them through, when they merit it, or at least skimming them and keeping them for future reference. I probalby have equivalents to your three grades, but a lot depends on how interested I am!

  • RJS

    I think Category A has a sub-category.

    I have paid critical attention to most pages because I need to engage with the content to make counter arguments and to persuade others.

    Often times these are not “high caliber”, occasionally they are quite bad, but still need to be read carefully.

    This splashes over into B as well, of course.

  • Rodney Reeves

    We were required to read Adler and Van Doren’s classic, “How to Read a Book” at the beginning of our doctoral studies. They have a threefold scheme: elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading. Wish I would have read it earlier in my studies, saving me much time and energy. With the sheer volume of reading, it was either sink or swim. Their book was my life-jacket.

  • scotmcknight


    I read Adler/Van Doren aeons ago and had forgotten that; that book helped me too.

  • Cameron M.

    Adler and Van Doren’s book is a must. That’s exactly what I thought of while reading this post. I find the inspectional read to be difficult; still trying to teach myself to use it. I’m sure it helps avoid that feeling ‘why did I spend a week reading this thoroughly?’