Alan Jacobs on How to Read a Book
Philip Ryken and Jeffry Davis recently presented a surprise book in honor of Leland Ryken, Liberal Arts and the Christian Life (Crossway, 2012). One of the essays, by Alan Jacobs, is on “How to Read a Book” (which you can read online for free). It’s a delightful essay that is a great companion piece to the two books I would recommend on the subject: Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book and Tony Reinke’s Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books.
Professor Jacobs opens with Francis Bacon’s wonderful quote:
Some books are to be tasted,
others to be swallowed,
and some few to be chewed and digested;
that is, some books are to be read only in parts;
others to be read, but not curiously;
and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
That schema structures the rest of the essay. I’ve included an outline with some notes below, but I’d encourage you to read the whole thing. Parents and teachers, this would be a wonderful essay to require students to read.
- Discernment. “Not all books deserve the same attention from us. . . . Skimming is really the first stage in the discernment I am recommending: we skim a book to find out whether it appears to be genuinely substantive—to find out whether it deserves more than a skim. . . . You should rarely plan to skim. . . . How do we really chew and swallow a book so that we get the maximum nourishment from it? Three things are needful: . . . “
- Attentiveness. “This requires a determination to make our attention as full as we can make it, not partial, which, in turn, requires us to shut down the computer and put the phone (set to ‘silent’) well out of reach. After all, how would you feel if you were opening your heart to a friend who claimed to be listening but never stopped texting or updating his Facebook page? Attentiveness is an ethical as well as an intellectual matter; it’s about treating our neighbors as they deserve as much as it’s about getting facts into our heads.”
- Responsiveness. “When you’re pouring out your heart to others, you don’t want them just to nod and repeat your last few words. You want them to offer their own words, as an indication that they have heard you and thought about what you’ve said—have processed it in some meaningful way. This is what writers want also: for you to ‘enrich their words’ with your own responses. And this is the main reason to read books, especially difficult and challenging books, with a pencil in your hand: not primarily so that you can remember what you’ve read—though that is nice—but so you can register your reaction.”
- Charity. “Reading calls for charity because everything we do calls for charity—if by ‘charity’ we mean, as we should, Christian love. . . . Sometimes charity requires us to be challenging and at times even skeptical. . . . Charity begins with the two traits we have already mentioned: attentiveness and responsiveness.
- Whim. “We should affirm the great value of reading just for the fun of it. . . . In my experience, Christians are strangely reluctant to take this advice. We tend to be earnest people, always striving for self-improvement, and can be suspicious of mere recreation. But God doesn’t just create, he takes delight in his creation, and expects us to delight in it too; and since he has given us the desire to make things ourselves—has allowed us to be “sub-creators,” as J. R. R. Tolkien says13—we may rightly take delight in the things that we (and others) make. Reading for the sheer delight of it—reading at whim—is therefore one of the most important kinds of reading there is.” (For more on this, see Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.)