Read much not many

Something Bill Muehlenberg quoted on his site yesterday from CH Spurgeon has got me thinking.

Bill quotes Spurgeon as follows:

Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them, masticate and digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analysis of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. In reading let your motto be, ‘much not many’.

This has either struck a chord or touched a nerve with me.

I don’t think I read ’too much’, but I do suspect I read ’too many’. I’ll jump from one book to another, and devote little time to digestion. Whilst I often retain a broad outline or premise of a book, I almost always forget the minor points and the finer arguments. I tend to mark important ideas in the margins and very occasionally write a question or comment there, but my interaction with a text is generally very limited and ‘for one time only’. It is indeed rare for me to go hunting for a quote or concept that I marked in a book.

According to Goodreads, I’ve read 435 different books in the last decade. Only a very few have been re-reads1 but I am beginning to re-read more books more often. Interestingly, when I read a work that strikes me as important or valuable and I don’t feel I’ve done the book justice, I will make a note in Goodreads that I should re-read it before too long. From memory I’ve made such a note on half a dozen books over the decade, and I have re-read most of them.

But that doesn’t really address Spurgeon’s ‘much not many’ recommendation. Over the years I have wondered how I can make notes and assimilate selective and appropriate material in books into my own thinking. Book reviews on Goodreads are a very small part of that because I decided early on that I would post a brief review of the book rather than a rating so I had something to hang my hat on in future. That has served me well because it can direct my attention to particular topics or authors to embrace or avoid.

But this idea on why and how to take notes and allow them to become part of my thinking segues nicely to a future post on the Zettelkasten Method which may or may not mention Evergreen Notes, Digital Gardens, Taking Smart Notes and Building Second Brains. I have explored some of these ideas over the past six weeks, and the Spurgeon quote provides further impetus.

  1. though I have recently begun reading books I’ve had for decades and never previously read. ↩︎