On Reading Slowly

C.S. Lewis once said that if a book is worth reading it is worth reading slowly. Since coming upon his observation I have tried to follow his advice. Formerly, I tried to rush through books; commentaries, histories, theologies. And although I certainly learned a lot that way (speed-reading does work. One often can take in more than one thinks one can) I have to say that I am a true believer in the “Lewis method.”

Sir Francis Bacon advised, “Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe and take for granted, not to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.” He was also the man who observed that, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” Those latter works are the ones which Christian readers need to be most concerned with. There are so many time-wasting volumes out there, it behooves us to take responsibility for what we run our eyes over.

When I am asked to recommend books (as I quite often am) I always tell the questioner, “You don’t have time to read bad books. You must read the best books. And if you read them you should read them slowly.” I say that because I have noticed that those who read books like they are throwaway ads tend to have a rather superficial notion of what it was that the author was trying to put across. They may glean some useful thoughts here and there, but nothing of real substance can permeate a brow that has not had time to furrow, even just a little, before the next page is turned. One cannot ‘skim’ any worthwhile author, be he Calvin or Owen or Baxter or Edwards or Warfield or Lewis.

Reading “slowly” doesn’t hold up the consumption process as long as one might think. But the extra time and effort will bring its rewards. One must get in a good book and not just through it. A good book is worth marking up. Not rudely with yellow highlighters, but carefully with a nice pen or even a pencil. I use a self-devised code: T = Theological, Q = worth quoting, ! = an arresting thought, ? = possibly dubious/spurious, etc. This helps me when I am researching something later. Again, I don’t see how one can do this if one is flying through the contents so as to “finish it.”

The verb “to read” is at home with terms like “consider,” “meditate,” “muse,” “ruminate,” “ponder,” and “think.” So slow down. If a book is really worth reading, it is worth reading slowly.

N.B. This is a re-post of an essay that appeared in Oct. 07



  1. Great observations!

    The same recommendation can be equally applied to time spent in the Scripture. Too many Bible study groups are intent on “covering the chapter” in one setting and don’t spend the time to ruminate, follow parallel passages down, and so forth. The result is “covering a book” in a fixed amount of time, but predictably shallow gleaning. One of the approaches I’ve tried to get those I minister among to pick up on is the value purposefully ignoring “how much” of the text we cover in a given session. Instead, following cross-references, investigating ideas, even making up a hierarchical “tree-like” diagram of cross-references to related passages and then working through the Scriptures following these “rabbit trails” rather than always reading linearly for coverage. The typical result is a much better understanding of what was read leading to–in the end–a superior understanding of Scripture than would be forthcoming from merely reading over and over for the Nth time and still not understanding what is going past one’s eyes.

    Its one thing to read “devotionally” and to work through the entire Bible on a regular basis (e.g., once per year). This is something I do and find valuable–just to have the exposure to all the passages on a regular basis as a refresher. But there’s no substitute for reading carefully, analytically, and following down related passages using an approach which neglects “how much is covered” in favor of greater understanding of what is there to be seen.

  2. Tony,

    Speaking personally, it is amazing how much I forget, even when I read slowly. But your point is well taken. I sometimes tend to be atomistic in reading Scripture. I believe there is a place for that (I don’t want to fall into the fallacy of applying the analogy of faith too soon), but you are so right about stopping and asking questions, cross-referencing, etc. This is particularly important when reading Scripture-blocks like the Pentateuch, or the Prophets or Luke-Acts.

    As to worthy authors outside the Bible, I might add here something which is implicit in your remarks, and that is the need for good guidance in reading. Too few Christians talk to others about the books they intend to read or ought to read. This leads to a random accumulation of sometimes diluted “knowledge” and, in cases where only one or two authors are read, a narrow dogmatism often emerges.

    Thank you for your thoughts.


  3. Couldn’t agree more Paul. At times I’ve thought, other people are reading more than I am. I am getting behind. Maybe I’m just a slow reader. Maybe I should take a course in speed-reading. It is an encouragement to find these observations by Lewis, Bacon and yourself. I have found however, that I have a higher comprehension and recall of the theology of authors I’ve read in part and in whole, even recalling specific page numbers, in part because I find myself turning to them over and over, but memorable even from the get-go. Thanks for these remarks.

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