Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Not Reading

Written by: on September 4, 2014

If I’m completely honest, when it comes to academic texts, I must admit to expending a lot of mental energy figuring out what portions I can get away with not reading while still capturing the essential message of a book.  In the time spent attempting to avoid them, I could probably get those portions read that I am trying so hard to skip.  I have wrestled with this tendency for years now, always feeling a little guilty (a bit like a cheater, really) as if I am cutting corners in my pursuit of intellectual enrichment.  I have contended with serious moral dilemmas over this issue!

I mean, can I really state honestly that I have “read this book” or “engaged with that important treatise” when the portion of its text that passed before my eyes and into my grey matter is less than 50 percent (Or 30 or, gasp, 15)?  Yet I make that claim with startling regularity.  I am pretty sure I have read less than 10 percent of Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways but I wave that one around like a silver-haired Church lady does a crocheted handkerchief.  I desperately want to be recognized as well-read and current on the latest missional trends but, if I’m willing to continue with the brutal honesty, I have to say the desire for recognition is probably stronger than the desire to actually be well-read and current.  It motivates me to keep reading, keep talking, keep writing long after my interest in a book’s actual content has faded.  I want to be recognized.  I want on the platform and it seems that acquiring more knowledge is the fast-track there.

I have watched, read and listened to brilliant leaders and teachers — mentors of mine even — as they quote from a seemingly endless stream of weighty tomes, ponderous literature and lofty written works produced by the greatest of minds of ancient, modern and even post-modern thought, all the while wondering “how do they possibly have time to read all of that?!  I will never be able to do that!”  Oftentimes, I walk away with dueling emotional responses leading to inner turmoil: Guilt and resolve.

The demoralizing guilt that accompanies not doing enough to elevate myself to an acceptable intellectual stature collides with my steely resolve to get busy and finally push the up-button on the learning elevator.  This collision usually results in a mental vapor lock of sorts, the net result being that I energetically (and partially) read a lot of books.  This is ironically similar to what I had been doing prior to the crisis created by the moment of inspiration…  And so, the cycle continues.  I read a lot of books while at the same time feeling guilty about not actually reading a lot of books.  So you can imagine my relief to discover that Pierre Bayard (uber-intellectual) not only admits to this kind of behavior, but celebrates it!  His book How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is at the same time both shocking and refreshing for the same reason: abject honesty.

Bayard cavalierly notes that he, as a professor of literature at the university level, must comment “on books that most of the time [he hasn’t] even opened” (xii).  Further, it is completely acceptable, preferred at times, to carry on a “conversation about a book you haven’t read — including, and perhaps especially, with someone else who hasn’t read it either” (xv).  What is a book, after all, but an articulation of knowledge in printed (or virtual text) form?  Can that same knowledge not be acquired by way of a conversation or a meditation stimulated by a book without actually reading its words?  For Bayard, the “idea” behind a text is more likely to be acquired and assimilated if the (non) reader avoids “getting too close to [the book], where we risk getting lost in its details” (29).  The acquisition and assimilation of knowledge by any number of means is the goal, not the discipline of reading the text.

It is interesting to me that while methods abound for effectively skimming or short-cutting books, very few will be so bold as to come right out and say “I’m not reading that one!”  One such example is Derek Rowntree’s Learn How To Study, A Realistic Approach.  He embraces a method referred to as SQ3R where a book (or portion of a book) is surveyed in a cursory manner while questions are formed in the mind of the reader (or non-reader).  Then, the student reads (skims), recalls (outloud and creatively) and reviews the content.  This seems to stand in somewhat of a contrast with what Bayard advocates — not reading a book at all — in that Rowntree (along with other advocates of quick reading methods) actually expects a student to read at least portions of the text.  This is where I find myself most comfortable.

If the truth be told, when it comes to academic books, I think most everyone engages in some variant of partial reading, or non-reading, of important books yet most will not be honest about the matter.  Even those volumes that do receive a thorough reading are soon forgotten.  “Reading is not just acquainting ourselves with a text… it is also, from its first moments, an inevitable process of forgetting” (47).  What remains are the important ideas and inspirations that found their way to the surface of the consciousness while the reading activity was taking place.  There is no reason to feel condemned by this.  To put this in proper perspective, if I were to thoroughly read one serious book every week for the entirety of my adult life, that total number would amount to an indiscernibly small percentage of the total of the serious books ever written.  So the most well-read intellectual alive has read virtually no books at all, relatively speaking.  Apparently, we are all in good company.

So who wants to discuss War And Peace?  I haven’t read that one either…


About the Author

Jon Spellman

Jon is a husband, father, coach, author, missional-thinker, and most of all, a follower of Jesus.

10 responses to “Not Reading”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    Good thoughts Jon! I love the irony of you quoting a book by Hirsch titled The Forgotten Ways, yet hardly having read it.

    Your thoughts really tie into Mary’s thoughts on humility. We can approach books and conversations as a “know it all” or with a humble curiosity. We all know who we would rather hang around. (-:

  2. Mary Pandiani says:

    Appreciate your words and metaphors, Jon. They bring solace in the advent of all the reading that is to come. I also appreciate your honesty about recognition. Knowing that you too struggle with wanting others to think you have something to offer, just as I do, is a gift of hospitality as we enter into our cohort soon.

  3. Dawnel Volzke says:

    Jon, I had to smile when you mentioned working just as hard to figure out how to avoid reading as doing the actual reading. I think most of us tend to do that, especially for very dry subjects. I sometimes work best with a little pressure or deadlines to meet – otherwise I put off doing things that seem boring.

    You also bring up a good point that many people talk about their reading or knowledge in order to get recognized. Everyone has the need to be recognized! Sometimes sharing a quote or someone else’s ideas is ok and should be encouraged…regardless of whether one read the whole book. If the quote works and gets the intended message across…then I say use it! Through my career, I’ve learned that some of the best leaders are those who can present with knowledge and confidence, even when they are unsure or lack the knowledge internally. People tend to follow or look up to those who seem to know what they are doing…even when they don’t. I guess that means that there is a careful balance and a huge responsibility to guard what we say and how we say it….even when talking about material we aren’t knowledgeable about. And, we have to be very careful that our words have meaning and aren’t solely used to help us look smart or to get recognized.

    I appreciate your honest response to “how do they possibly have time to read all of that?” I’ve met people that sometimes totally overwhelm me with their ability to come across so articulate and well-read! Sometimes I find myself thinking “I wish I could present like that”…

  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    I find it very interesting that many of us, without conversing, are dealing with thoughts and emotions of guilt, dishonesty and integrity from the introduction of this text and it’s fresh view of “reading”. Reading your post and the others amazes me of how alike our educational upbringings in regards to reading and how many of us “suffered” from a similar academic oppression.

  5. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Dawnel, By mentioning “very dry subjects” above, were you specifically referring to “Doing Visual Ethnography” by Sarah Pink? jk 🙂

  6. Dave Young says:

    Jon: I appreciate you honesty about the desire “to be recognized”, to be known and seen by those around us. I can certainly relate. Being well read, being widely read, having the pithy quote at the tip of your tongue would be great – it would certainly impress. But that doesn’t seem to be a path I can walk down, my mind won’t cooperate with my desire to impress. Forgetting what I’ve read, is just the tip of the iceberg. Forgetting what little I’ve known or experienced. Weakness – Yuck! But what if it was our weaknesses that people really connected with; I mean sure it’s great to have some common words around a book, a movie, a show, a post – and we need these meeting places, but really at times it’s our inability that people connect with.

  7. Travis Biglow says:

    Jon- I hope and pray you get those accolades you desire, funny. I wish I was like you and did more cheating on reading because I used to find myself trying too hard to cram every word down some how. I did not read every book but I did feel guilty. But as you are I am now more interested in how to do this praised art. The book really alleviates me of thinking im less qualified to talk about a book I have never read because it is done all the time. For instance the librarian who managed to memorize the contents and what was written on the backs of books. I still have to read more on this because I know this is really important as we continue our education!

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