“We won’t remember what we don’t reread.” Alain de Botton–as quoted by George Grant@gileskirk
A few days ago, I finished reading Philosophy and Theology by John Caputo. It is a short, witty, thought-provoking and challenging book. The most important word in the title is the word and. I also read this same book last month (December 2012). I understood quite a bit more on the second reading. If I were to let it sit for a while and then read it a third time, I would gain even more.
I don’t read every book twice. Some I read a book 4 or 5 times. And some more than that.
Throwing out these kinds of comments might discourage the person who is already overwhelmed with a stack of books that have not been read even once. I know that to be true, because I am that overwhelmed person. Right over there, see in the other room, there is a stack of unread books. And there’s another pile of books beside it, and another smaller stack on the floor, and a few still in the sack from when I brought them home. And that box there, you ask? More unread books.
I don’t reread every book. I may read it once and then scan back through parts of it. Often, I depend upon my recollections of the book. Or I might read another book on the same subject. But some books call for or demand a re-reading. Sometimes the book needs another reading because of the material. In the case of Philosophy and Theology, I simply didn’t pick up enough on the discussion the first time. My training in philosophy is woefully lacking, and I only know enough about theology to have a vague sense of how little I know. I assume that the heavier books on theology, philosophy, literary criticism, and historical analyses will need a second reading.
Often a book calls for a second reading not because of the depth of the material, but because of the shallowness of the reader–me. Some of the most practical books on Christian living slide right across my brain without ever sinking in and touching my heart sufficiently. Last fall, I read The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung. Being a short and simple book, it didn’t take long to whip through it. A week or two of morning coffee and that book in hand was time enough. When I got to the last page, I knew I needed to go back to the beginning. So I re-read it. And starting it again would not do me no hurt.
I am blessed in that I teach a Humanities class where I am forced to re-read great books. Occasionally, I will take some shortcuts and scan the book, read the underlinings or markings, and read a few helps. Usually, however, I plod through the book just like my students. The difference is that I am often reading the book for the third, fourth, or fifth time. (The Humanities program takes four years to work through.) In recent months, I re-read Beowulf. On works like this, I allow myself to read different translations. This year it was Seamus Heaney’s remarkable rendition. Great literature unfolds in the subsequent readings. Especially when time and life experiences change our perspectives, we continually can find more and more in epic poems and great novels.
My Humanities class followed Beowulf with Augustine’s City of God. I must admit that we don’t attempt the whole work; rather, we use a scaled down, abridged version that is merely 600 pages long. And this year, we only read about half of that short version. The reason: On this reading (the fourth for me?), I got bogged down–in a good way. I covered portions of the book in more detail, had the students copy quotes, and delved into the meaning a lot more. It would have consumed the school year if I had continued. Poor kids–graduating from high school with only 300 pages of Augustine’s City of God under their belts. Sometimes, a subsequent reading will not go from beginning to end; sometimes, it will begin halfway through the book.
After Augustine, I read again from portions of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity and Eusebius’ Church History. Next came a short work–The Rule of St. Benedict. And now, I am enjoying my fourth time to teach through and read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. These books just keep getting better and better. I try to do some extra reading and new readings on the side. The more ingredients in the soup, the better the flavor.
So what are the secrets, the hints and helps to reading and rereading?
1. When you read a book, as much as is humanly possible, plow, tread, even race on through to the end. Quite often, rather than slowing down, speed up. If you are totally lost, totally out of your league, or defeated by the book, maybe it is not the book for you or the time for you to read that book.
2. Glance at some short reviews and summaries. One summer, years ago, I was reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot at night. When I would get to work, I would look on-line for explanations of what I had read. My usual reaction was “Okay, now it makes sense.” Of course, a class of students or a teacher can serve the same function.
3. At least re-read the beginning of a book after the first reading. As Gordon Clark notes in his book Logic, you will understand the first chapter a lot more after you read the last chapter. That is true of many books.
4. It is often helpful to finish a book and then let the book simmer in your mind for a time before reading it again.
5. Remember that no great literature is ever read: It is only re-read. Listen to the language, look for style, discern the meanings, and watch the plot development on the subsequent readings of literature. Strangely enough, the more I read a book, the slower I get. I can get through a Faulkner work at a decent pace the first time. In the later readings, I am connecting the themes, the flow of the language, and multi-layered plots and characters.
6. Be selective about what you re-read. Not every book needs a second reading. Or it may not need that second reading for many years.
7. Either mark your book or make notes to enhance a second reading or to give you the chance to do a quick trip back through the book.
8. Carefully read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren and How to Read Slowly by James Sire and An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis.