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

Thoughts on Bayard and Rowntree

Written by: on September 4, 2014

I can’t say that I have always enjoyed reading, especially those books outside of genres that most capture my interests and attention.  Looking back, I must honestly admit that I haven’t truly read any textbook or novel in its entirety. Despite this admission, I have been able to effectively gain the knowledge needed through my “non-reading” process, and my learning objectives have always been met.  Bayard’s book, How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read [1], provides examples of renown and scholarly people who engage with books but don’t actually read them.  His argument provides justification and a defense for not reading books. The thesis presented is that “the notion of the book that has been read is ambiguous.”  Non-reading is still engaging with the book, just not getting so involved in the details that one becomes too distracted to take away meaningful knowledge nor to engage with multiple sources.

I had expected Bayard’s book to provide detailed techniques for quickly and easily digesting information without reading.   Instead, he outlined the concepts and theories that support non-reading.  I found myself engaged by Bayard, and could easily relate to and connect with his stories.  It was this connection that caused me to step back and evaluate my own process for acquiring knowledge.  How did I gain the ability and knowledge for non-reading?  Is this a learned trait, and why does it come more easily for some people versus others who struggle in the details?

Professor Derek Rowntree’s book, Learn How to Study [2], provides strategies and tactics that one can use to improve their organizational skills and study habits.  Part of his approach uses SQ3R, which is a formula that teaches one to quickly glean the main ideas from a book.  His is an actionable approach, as he provides strategies that have been learned and used by many successful scholars.   In today’s learning environment, students must adapt their habits and study approaches in order to more effectively multitask and process the large amounts of information that they encounter.

As I more deeply analyzed my own processes for reading and learning, I realized that many of the concepts and techniques discussed by Rowntree and Bayard have been taught to me through exposure and education over time.  I also believe that my specific learning style contributes to my natural abilities in this area. My husband often teases me about the fact that I never fully read books, and he was a bit concerned when both of our children told him that they never read any of their books for school.  He couldn’t figure out how they got good grades without reading.  As an adult student, my husband struggled with the vast amount of reading he was required to complete in seminary.  He signed up for a speed-reading course that taught the same techniques as presented by Rowntree.  These techniques greatly improved his ability to complete his assignments, and also improved his comprehension of the concepts.  He finally understood that one truly gains more knowledge by stepping back first, and understanding the broader picture.  Bayard’s claim is true that skimming books without reading them doesn’t prevent one from commenting on them; rather it helps them to glean the important ideas and avoid getting lost in the details.  Non-reading allows us to digest the information and to evaluate and consider the information presented.  Who is the better reader…the person who engages a book in depth and doesn’t digest the author’s meaning, or the one who skims and takes away the key concepts and points?  Our knowledge should be gained across the totality of resources, and we shouldn’t base our opinions and views on limited sources.  Rather, we need to keep a broad perspective and guard against getting lost in the details.

In Bayard’s book, he also concluded that other people’s views are often a prerequisite of forming your own views.  I agree that hearing and exposing oneself to multiple views and a broader base of knowledge is a healthy approach to open our minds and to increase awareness.  In reality, everyone bases their opinions and beliefs on their worldview and understanding.  This comes from one’s environment and exposure to people and situations.  After reflecting on Bayard’s comments, I began to consider how this impacts my study of the Bible and understanding of Christ.  I am always cautious of blindly relying on other people’s opinions, especially from a theological stance.  I conclude that non-reading is certainly a valuable skill, and without it I would not be able to gain breadth and depth of knowledge. There is no doubt that it is a skill that contributes greatly to one’s academic prowess and literacy level. However, I argue that there are times when one should slow down and engage with the details of a specific book, such as the Bible.  In my own experience, despite caution, I have been influenced by other’s theological opinions too easily because I wasn’t familiar enough with the details.  I now try to take a more balanced approach in my study of the Bible, which is to engage first through non-reading techniques…but then to ensure that I am closely engaging with the details through prayer and time spent directly in the Word.  My opinion is that Scripture is the one exception to Bayard’s claims, and it should be studied in both the broad and detailed levels.

This week’s reading assignments are appropriate as we dive into the work necessary for completing a doctoral degree.  It is helpful to step back and place focus on the intended outcome versus getting too entrenched in the details of each assignment.  It is always better to look first at the larger picture and then to structure information into smaller, more meaningful pieces.  We should focus on the learning objectives, or “the spirit of the law versus the law itself”. A key message that I took away from this week’s reading is to “avoid getting stuck in the weeds”.

[1] Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2009).
[2] Derek Rowntree, Learn How to Study (London: Time Warner Paperbacks, 2002).


About the Author

Dawnel Volzke

Christ follower, wife, mom, teacher, student, professional...my passion is to serve Christ and my calling is to help organizations become great at fulfilling their mission.

10 responses to “Thoughts on Bayard and Rowntree”

  1. Jon Spellman says:

    Dawnel, you said “[i]n today’s learning environment, students must adapt their habits and study approaches in order to more effectively multitask and process the large amounts of information that they encounter.” You are spot on I think. The volume of available information has taken a marked upward turn in recent years to the point of becoming overwhelming at times. Adaptability in learning methods will be vital to a 21st Century learner.

    At what point in the last 10-15 years did you begin to notice an uptick in the sheer volume of information? I have wondered if the volume of available information has driven us toward a short attention span? Or if our short attention spans have created blocks of intellectual space that demand to be filled, thereby driving the creation and dissemination of more information? Kind of a chicken and egg conundrum…

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Jon, The volume of information that we process has drastically gone up in the past decade…as the Internet has become more widespread and common. I’m not sure about the idea that people have short attention spans, but here is my observation… People multitask and process information at a much faster rate. It is not uncommon to see someone texting with multiple people, emailing with multiple people, watching TV, and having one or more conversations at the same time. At the same time, many have learned to hyper-focus when necessary, and to pay very close attention so that they don’t miss details in the midst of multitasking. I am not sure that people’s need for more information has fueled this, rather the constant bombardment of information has caused the human mind to adjust and accommodate in order to survive in the world we live in.

      Your post made me also consider how I have personally adjusted. I’ve worked in the corporate world for many years, in both IT and marketing…very, very fast pace environments. It is not uncommon to get over 500 emails per day and to have multiple IM conversations happening at one time. The rate at which I must process information today is much greater than ten years ago. If I don’t keep up with the pace, then I wouldn’t be able to adequately do my job. This being said, I’ve also learned how to prioritize and balance life and work. I believe the issue for some is that they don’t know how to say no, slow down or to take a break…

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Dawnel, Do you think there is a cause or a specific reason so many people, like your husband, get “trapped” by the thought of having to read every word of a book to have read it???

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Phil, I believe learning styles contribute greatly to one’s ability for non-reading. My husband is extremely dyslexic, hence it is difficult for him to quickly skim a book as his eyes don’t allow him to jump from section to section. However, he has learned techniques over the years to help him more effectively skim. I also believe that a person can improve their literacy level by practicing the techniques that allow their brain to more quickly process information, such as described by Rowntree. The interesting thing is that I believe my husband is much, much smarter than I am…yet my reading and writing ability is better. He is an auditory learner, and can process information from his environment much faster than I.

  3. Dave Young says:

    Dawnel, I appreciate your post. I heartily agree that we need to gain skill in a form of speed reading or selective reading, that enables you to still understand the essence of the material. I wish, like your husband, that I took such a course. Rowntree has a good approach to digesting content, and on making it memorable, and finding the essential points. That was helpful for me, but I’ve got a lot of room to improve.

    So regardless of a through reading or skim reading, what’s important is – “did you understand the text”? I guess what still causes me concern is how do your really know if you really understand, if you caught onto the author’s argument, her point, his main ideas without a full reading? There must be some balance between skimming and full reading that I haven’t found.

    • Brian Yost says:

      So regardless of a through reading or skim reading, what’s important is – “did you understand the text”?

      That is a great question, Dave.
      Depending on the author, I may be able to read the table of contents and do a very quick skim to get the main points of the book. In fact, I am often disappointed when I read more in-depth and find that there is nothing left of significance to discover. This is frequently the case when I read several books by the same author covering the same topic. It is as if many books are written with non-reading in mind. The chapter titles sum up the content of the chapter and key ideas are set in the margins with large letters. The current style of writing seems to allow more non-reading than older books. While this is not a blanket statement, it seems that in the past, authors expected you to read their work; Nowadays, it seems that they expect you to not read their work (but still pay full price at the bookstore).

      • Dawnel Volzke says:

        Dave and Brian, I agree with you both…healthy balance is needed. Today, people can publish themselves and almost anyone can call themselves and expert and write a book. This is where I think it is important that we don’t get too focused on any one author and carefully consider many points of view. Brian, I also find I’m disappointed at the lack of depth and new information in many books! I most enjoy reading those authors that cause me to think on a deeper level.

  4. Travis Biglow says:

    Greetings Dawnel – As I began reading I was looking for the action part too, what are those little secrets to reading a book without reading. I never seemed to get it though. Unlike you the stories are a different type of literature to me and I did not easily stay with it. I did not get a chance to read the other book but you have stated that it is more action oriented. I look forward to reading it soon.

  5. Mary Pandiani says:

    Dawnel – I know that I’m late in responding, but I wanted to catch up even tho’ my response won’t be graded.
    I can relate to your comment by your husband about your reading, alongside his struggle in all the required reading. My husband always questions whether I’ve read something when he hands it over to me, and I hand it back in a matter of moments. I actually peruse what he gives me, but I just read it rather quickly. I can’t honestly say that I get everything, but I typically get the main point, by standing back. It helps me in connecting dots of various pieces of information. However, something I’ve noticed recently in my style that will require a self-discipline is my “skipping.” Sometimes I miss a main point.
    Looking forward to getting to know you.

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