One of the books I would have read if I had stayed in the doctoral program at SBTS was A. G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods (you can download a PDF here). As I’m moving forward toward still doing Ph.D work, I thought I should read all the books that were part of that opening seminar at SBTS. In this particular book, Sertillanges details the calling and virtues of an intellectual (chapters 1-2), how to organize life (chapter 3), and then the time (chapter 4), the field (chapter 5), the spirit (chapter 6), and the preparation for work (chapter 7). He closes with chapters on creative work (chapter 8) and the man as worker (chapter 9).
It was chapter 7 that really grabbed my attention. While each chapter has roman numeraled subdivisions, this chapter has three headings which have those subdivisions. They are reading, the management of memory, and notes. Keep in mind that all of this is considered “preparation” for work. I’m not sure what your expectations would be for Sertillanges’ thoughts on reading given the title of his book, but they definitely didn’t fit mine.
For starters, he says “The first rule is to read little” (146). Really? I’ve clearly been doing this wrong then. He goes on to say,
The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production; it grows inwardly extroverted, if one can so express oneself, becomes the slave of its mental images, of the ebb and flow of ideas on which it has eagerly fastened its attention. This uncontrolled delight is an escape from self; it ousts the intelligence from its function and allows it merely to follow point for point the thoughts of others, to be carried along in the stream of words, developments, chapters, volumes. (147)
He adds some more thoughts (don’t read novels or newspapers, though he qualifies this more later) and then concludes the section saying, “Never read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence” (149).
The main idea in the next section is that intellectuals should “read only those books in which leading ideas are expressed at first hand” (150). He then distinguishes four types of reading in the following section. They are fundamental, accidental, stimulating or edifying, and recreative reading (152). Each of these has its place, and it is obviously important to know what kind of reading you’re doing with any given book. This subsection of the book has three more sections about how to interact with authors and finally on a life of reading.
While I could extract more insights from this section of Sertillanges’ book, I’d like to reflect instead on the block quote above. In my experience, what he says about inordinate reading has proven true. I think two insights follow, one for book reviewing, the other for seminary.
First, you should be careful if you’re planning to be a book reviewer or do a lot of self reading. It can very easily be something that takes a big chunk of your time when you could be doing other worthwhile things. Notice, I didn’t say reading wasn’t worthwhile. It’s just that we can easily fool ourselves into thinking that with reading more is always better. Reading widely and deeply is beneficial. Reading excessively is not necessarily so. If I’ve logged a thousand books on Goodreads but can’t think straight when it’s time to write that article or paper I am to be most pitied. Even more so if my plans for reading interfere with productivity elsewhere.
The danger with being a book reviewer is that you can end up snagging a lot of books to read that aren’t really going anywhere. If you look back at the four categories Sertillanges gives, reading for the sole purpose of a book review is somewhere between stimulating and recreative. It’s certainly not fundamental, but we can very easily shift into thinking it somehow is. The same can happen with personal reading simply because we enjoy the subject matter. However, we eventually may find ourselves trying to read every new thing that comes out and catches our eye. But that isn’t reading “little” as Sertillanges encourages and may involve a lot of wasted time on books that aren’t worth it.
Second, and definitely related, seminary forces a person to read “much.” But the books are wisely chosen by those who know much more than we do. For a season, it is not a bad idea since it is part of the preparatory program you’re enrolled in. As a lifestyle though, I’ve found it to be counter-productive in the four years since I graduated. I was generally reading over and above assigned class reading while at Dallas and I took a full load every semester. After graduating, I more or less continued the volume of reading, but directed to books I would review or simply wanted to read for interest sake. The problem was that I wasn’t necessarily required to do any of that reading, and none of it was being harnessed into any long term intellectual project. I may have read 500 books since I graduated from Dallas, but I only have several hundred reviews to show for it.
All of this is to say that there perils associated with reading too much. As we have sought to recover from the scandal of the evangelical mind in that last 20 or so years, we have prioritized and praised reading, and rightly so. However, for some of us, reading can be overdone and more is not always necessarily better. Take for instance Tim Challies Reading Challenge. While I personally read far over and above the obsessed level, I wouldn’t encourage you to do the same. I would encourage you to use the different categories to broaden your reading (and will most likely do so with mine as well), but I don’t know that you would personally benefit from aiming to read 100 plus books next year as a goal. I don’t know anyone within my current sphere of influence for whom that would be a good idea. While I want people to read more, especially if they are looking to grow as Christians, I tend to think close reading of a few solid books is much better than quick reading of several hundred. Even if you are D. A. Carson.