How to Read a Challenging Book
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By “a challenging book” here I mean something LIKE David Bentley Hart’s recently mentioned here “You Are Gods.” In less than two weeks I will begin a series of chapter-by-chapter discussions of the book. I have already read the Introduction and Chapter One. I think many readers will benefit from these suggestions, not only for this perhaps especially challenging book for for reading any challenging book.
I have already explained why I think reading this particular book by Hart is beneficial for those of you (and I include myself along with you) “theology nerds.” It seems that Hart is perhaps exploring new territory here. Maybe not. We’ll see. I happen to like books that break new ground and I am at least hopeful about that for this one.
I think everyone will agree, after they begin reading “You Are Gods” or after having read something else by Hart, that Hart’s prose can be both prickly, sometimes aggressive, and verbose. I won’t bother commenting on the first but only on the second. Here is how to read something like this (and other books that, at first, seem “above the head”):
First, don’t give up. As you read light may dawn. Watch for and focus on sentences you can understand rather than ones you don’t understand.
Second, if the going gets too rough, skip to the end of the chapter. Read the last few paragraphs and then go back and start over at the beginning of the chapter.
Third, ignore words you don’t understand or understand them from the context. Don’t waste time looking up every obscure word in a dictionary. A dictionary may be of little help, anyway. A word may mean something in theology different from what the dictionary says it means.
Fourth, ask yourself, as you read, what the author’s concern seems to be. To what is he or she reacting? No author writes just for the fun of it (or rarely do they). Especially in theology and similar disciplines, books are written out of “context of concern.” What is Hart’s context of concern in each chapter? (For example, he explains quite clearly for most readers, anyway, that it has something to do with a change in Catholic thought in recent decades.)
Fifth, if it might help, quickly look up on Wikipedia or a similar online source a concept that seems essential to the author’s argument but is unknown to you. (Here I’m not just talking about a word but a concept like “neo-Thomism.”)
Sixth, work hard to distinguish between paragraphs where the author (e.g., Hart) is describing someone else’s view of the subject and where he is describing his own view. Distinguishing between the two can be tricky. Hart, for example (but not only he!) tends to spend three or four or more paragraphs talking about a view alien to his own before getting to his own. If you feel confused, ask yourself “Might the author be describing another view than his own in order then to refute it?” That is often the case. Even I had to re-read a few pages to keep track of these views. Sometimes Hart (and other writers) will forget to remind readers that “Here I am talking about a view with which I disagree” when that would be helpful.
Seventh, if all else fails, after doing your best to read and understand, fall back on a commentary. I will be offering such here chapter by chapter. But DO NOT start with my commentary unless you are a theology wimp and not a theology nerd! Relying on my commentaries is like reading “Cliff Notes” rather than the assigned book (in high school or college). Reading something really hard is like physical exercise: the pain is weakness leaving the body.
Eighth, don’t read ahead! When reading with a book group or seminar, read only the “assigned” chapter(s). Otherwise you will be thinking different thoughts than the rest. In the case of the Hart book, these are individual essays collected into one book. It is not a monograph even though the essays all have a similar theme. If you are “signing up” to read with me, stay with the program. I will announce here when we will begin.