Saturday, January 30, 2016

What Counts as Reading?

I recently saw a post by Tim Challies where he listed all of the books that he had read this month. Out of curiosity, I looked up the page counts of the eleven books that were listed (excluding back matter and such) and the total came out to a little over 3,000 pages. Sheesh.

Challies is doing a reading challenge wherein he aims to read 104 books in 2016. And that’s nothing compared with Don Carson, who claims to read 500 books a year. I’m also reminded of a professor of mine who once casually remarked that he had “worked through” the 900-page first volume of Keener’s commentary on Acts in a single evening.

Now I have no intention of insinuating that these people are dishonest, but whenever I see or hear claims of this nature, I always wonder to myself what that person counts as reading. Are they reading these books word-for-word? I suppose my professor’s use of the words “worked through” could imply something other than word-for-word reading.

In any case, another professor of mine had a practice of his own that he referred to as “thick-skimming,” which is basically reading parts of every page, but not every word. Tai Lopez, a secular motivational speaker, claims that he reads “one book a day,” but whenever he explains elsewhere what he means by that, you find out that he actually does nothing more than “thick-skim” one book a day. Is this the kind of “reading” that people like Challies and Carson do? It may not be. But if it is what they do, then that seems like something that should be communicated.

Of course, I’ve heard of speed reading, and I don’t doubt that there are some people who have the ability to do that. But I do share the suspicions of Daniel Streett, who calls himself “a bit of a speed reading skeptic.” Streett writes,

“I’ve done speed reading courses and found some helpful techniques, but those primarily had to do with speed-scanning or -skimming a page, not what I would call reading. Further, from my (limited) research, scientists who have run tests on speed readers are generally unimpressed by the results. In fact, there is good reason to think that the eye itself limits the speed at which we can read, as it’s unable to focus on more than a little text at a time. . . . Note that speed reading tests always use very simple writing, like the kind you’d find in Reader’s Digest; so anyone who claims they’re speed reading Barth is really full of it.”

The notion of having “read” a book carries a pretty specific meaning in the minds of common people. Most would typically (and reasonably) assume this means that you’ve “looked at and comprehended the meaning of” all of the book’s contents. So personally, I wouldn’t tell somebody that I had read a book if I had only skimmed it. I would simply tell them that I had read parts of it. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with skimming a book, or only reading key parts of a book. But my question is, should you skim a book and tell people that you’ve read it? Is that misleading? Does it make you seem more widely read than you really are?

By the way, I do envy people like Challies and Carson, as I know they read much more than I do; but that’s not what’s driving me to write these things. I’m simply raising questions about what sort of thing should qualify as “reading.”

Postscript: I just found Denny Burk’s post from years ago, which explains that Don Carson does skim at least some of those 500 books. But this isn’t always communicated whenever the claim is made. Consider this article by Andy Naselli, which states that Carson “reads about five hundred books each year” without any sort of clarification.

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