IVP - Behind the Books - [Giveaway] Seven Kinds of Reading

March 6, 2013

[Giveaway] Seven Kinds of Reading

The incomparable Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) practiced four distinct kinds of reading:

Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading

  • Study
  • Perusal
  • Mere reading
  • Curious reading

Perhaps someday we'll talk more about Doctor Johnson's four-layered approach, but in the meantime let me point you to Robert DeMaria Jr.'s excellent Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), which I heartily recommend.

But I've got an alternate scheme that allows me (like Johnson) to have a baker's half-dozen books in active readership at any given time.

Reading in Parallel

Mine is not a variation on Johnson's. (The fact is, his four-fold practice could probably be overlaid mine.) Indeed, I'm really cross-sectioning this space entirely differently — not by modes of reading engagement but by times and places during my reading day. And yes, isn't reading what the day is for?

Nor is this a scheme I propose to you as any kind of model to follow. I'm just telling it like it is, and description is not prescription. But it has interested me to realize that these channels of reading can truly run in parallel — that I really can have seven or so books going at once — because they run separately throughout my day.

Am I the only one who reads like this? I hear that plenty of people have a particular book under way that they read only in the bathroom. (And yeah, segregating that one might be just as well, actually.) Anyway, see if any of this rings a bell:

1. The Breakfast Book

Format: Ebook

I have only a few minutes while I ingest my toast and cereal, so this is the time for a book suited to reading in small chunks — but a book with chunks that nourish despite their small size. Because (a) I'm eating in the near-dark of a still-sleeping household and (b) I need my hands free to feed my face, this has to be an ebook on the iPad for me.

At the moment, this book is Michael Card's Luke: The Gospel of Amazement (IVP, 2010). Thanks to a tip from a former colleague, Caitie, who mentioned in passing that she was reading this and enjoying it, I too have been enjoying it.

Since I'm reading Luke via the social ebook reader, Readmill (easily available for all IVP ebook buyers), you can peek over my shoulder, if you will, to follow my highlights and comments, if you're interested.

2. The Commute Book

Format: Audiobook

Hm, I wonder if someone will squawk here and object that listening to an audiobook isn't real reading? If you do, I'll probably concede some of your point (if you're moderately thoughtful, and civil enough) — but then I'll refer you again to Dr. Johnson, who was a lot smarter and well-read than either of us. He considered hearing things read aloud to be a kind of reading. Not the "only" or the "highest" — but "a" kind. So take it up with him. :)

At any rate, with a nearly-hour-long commute each way, I'm certainly not going to waste such a precious resource! I do sometimes mix in other things to listen to — music, the Mars Hill Audio Journal, etc. — but 90% of the time, it's a book.

What kind of book varies widely, though — everything from Bridget Jones's Diary (the inspiration for a recent post here) or my current "read," Dave Eggers's novel about the Lost Boys of Sudan, What Is the What (McSweeney's, 2006), to nonfiction like How Children Succeed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) or Dallas Willard's Hearing God (rev. ed., IVP, 2012).

3. The Business Book

Format: Ebook or hardcopy

Here's a slice of reading that floats around my day more than the others, because there's always one (or two) books I'm eager to read on publishing, the web, communications, reading or management. Into this category falls everything from Book: A Futurist's Manifesto (see my highlights and annotations here) and Guy Kawasaki's Enchantment (highlights) to something a bit farther afield like The Signal and the Noise, by the statistician Nate Silver (highlights).

These books become a movable feast throughout the day only because I haven't figured out how to discipline myself with an assigned time slot. And if I can lay my hands on an audiobook of them, it can even displace The Commute Book.

4. The Lunchtime Book

Format: Hardcopy

I do various things during a lunch break (including, yes, eating lunch), but one favorite is to speed-read a recent IVP book. I can hardly keep up with our more-than-two-new-titles-a-week pace, so the fact is that (like Doctor Johnson) some books get only a perusal. But some of these become favorites; for example, I'd count Brian Howell's ethnography, Short-Term Mission, in that category.

Even though I'm rocketing through, some of these books end up providing "juicy bits" for later reflection, passing along via social media, or the germ of an idea for blogging.

5. The Bedtime Book, Part 1

Format: Hardcopy or ebook

The first bedtime of the day in the Boyd household comes when it's time for little girls to go to bed — and both they and their papa are addicted to bedtime "chapter books." The first one that really got us going was the Chicagoan Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories (1922), available in a nice, free ebook edition from manybooks.net here.

But now we're in the midst of a new(ish) edition of Astrid Lindgren's classic Pippi Longstocking (Viking Children's, 2007) with contributions by two remarkable artists: a fresh translation by Tiina Nunnally (whose translation of Sigrid Undset's three-volume historical epic of medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, is the one you should read) and the wacky, mixed-media illustrations of Lauren Child. Once we're done with Pippi, we'll go back to our spot in the middle of Michael Bond's Paddington series (courtesy of ebooks from the Chicago Public Library).

One challenge with this kind of reading is that the girls want me never to stop. "But Daaaaaad!"

6. The Bedtime Book, Part 2

Format: Ebook or hardcopy

If Papa has any energy left after Pippi, Paddington and the Village of Liver and Onions, I have my own bedtime reading, and there are really two kinds here: something I'm seriously interested in that can hold my attention (currently Madeleine L'Engle's Troubling a Star, the final volume in her Austin Family Chronicles but just as likely to be the next in Robert Caro's multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson).

But I also need something I don't need serious attention for, for those nights when I can tell I have about five minutes before cerebral shut-down. For that purpose, these days I'm chuckling sleepily over Ambrose Bierce's satirical Devil's Dictionary (for which you can see my highlights on Readmill).

7. The Weekend Book

Format: You name it

Ah! Now this is a book! Perhaps my favorite kind of reading is the one for which I get to sink down in the big brown chair and devote some uninterrupted hours to. (That little picture is pure fantasy, by the way. "But Daaaaad!")

The Weekend Book might commandeer one of the other six books, as often as not, but it's also a good spot for anything in a large format or that needs good light to appreciate — so lately here have fallen G. B. Trudeau's career-length curation of key storylines in 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective (Andrews McMeel, 2010) or one I'm looking forward to starting soon, Nicholson Baker's The World on Sunday (Bulfinch, 2005), with large-format reproductions of full-color newspaper graphics from the turn of the 20th century.

Close cousin to The Weekend Book (and even better still) is The Vacation Book.

Plenty of Room

So those are the seven planets, if you will, in the cosmology of my current reading. They each have their own characteristics, periods of orbit and rotation, atmosphere, gravity, even forms of life. (OK, I'll stop now.)

(Speaking of the planets, as soon as you're done reading this post, go get Michael Ward's amazing book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis. Brilliant.)

These spheres are not immutable. For instance, I started a long commute only last summer, so The Commute Book is a nova in my firmament. (Oh rats, I said I'd stop with the astronomical metaphor, didn't I?) And when I was in grad school, there was only one kind of book: The Sit Your Butt Down and Read All Day Long Book. (It was awesome, though.) I'm sure my opportunities and habits for reading will continue to change in the future.

But that's one of the great things about reading: there's almost always room for a book somewhere, somehow.


So I'm curious: where, when, how, and how many do you read? Or do you prefer to practice serial monogamy in your bibliophilia? I'd love to hear about your kinds of reading.

Since we're talking about reading (though aren't we all the time, here at "Behind the Books"?), I'd like to give away two titles: one copy of Reading Scripture with the Reformers and one of Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers to two commenters drawn at random next Monday morning. I can't wait to hear what you have to share.

With the Church FathersWith the Reformers

Posted by Jon Boyd at March 6, 2013 8:24 AM Bookmark and Share


Last year I read 76 books and this year my goal is to read 100 books. I am very narrow in my reading and pretty much only read biblical/theological/practical books. I have a hard time reading fiction and history.

Comment by: Craig Hurst at March 6, 2013 9:00 AM

I am a half a dozen or so books at a time reader. I admit that there are times when this is not great for the individual book, but it is great for me as a reader.

Sometimes book just need time to rattle around in your head before you continue on with them. So right now I am reading the new bio of CS Lewis and the Pope's Jesus of Nazareth on audio. I am reading the Quest for the Trinity, Imagining the Kingdom and Fresh Air (by Jack Levison) on ebook.

I just finished John le Carre as my fiction and I think I am going to read Ann Pachett next. And Ragamuffin Gospel is my paper book for when I fly.

Comment by: Adam Shields at March 6, 2013 9:35 AM

I read two or three books at a time, usually from the theology, history, and fiction genres. I also have materials to study for school, which has cut into my personal reading time. But when I have the free time (between semesters), I like to read books that I know will challenge me or educate me (particularly in the areas of theology and church history). I like to read books by Catholic and Orthodox authors, as I've found a richness in those works that is sometimes lacking in mainstream works.

To relax, though, I'll grab a good fiction book. Sometimes, the serious topics, while helpful, can make my brain feel like it's going to explode, and I just need a break. I'm currently reading "World War Z" for fiction and waiting for "The Winds of Winter" to be published (though I'm not holding my breath).

Comment by: Justin Boulmay at March 6, 2013 9:41 AM

Craig: All the best to you in reaching your goal!

Adam: So true about "books needing time to rattle around," and good way to put it. Which Le Carré did you just finish? (Or do you mean you finished all of him off?)

Justin: Catholics and Orthodox folks might not know quite what you mean by contrasting them with "mainstream" works: isn't it everyone else who's unusual? ;) Somebody else recently recommended World War Z, but I'm a zombie newbie; do you think it's a good intro to the genre?

Comment by: Jon at March 6, 2013 10:04 AM

I read several books at a time. I usually have my non-fiction project book (right now, "The 3 A.M. Epiphany), my non-fiction history book (a history of Israel), my fiction book for during the day ("Tom Sawyer", AGAIN), my non-fiction for during the day (foundational American documents), my fiction before bed ("Till We Have Faces", also AGAIN), and my early morning book ("On The Incarnation").

Comment by: Rachel Lambert at March 6, 2013 10:24 AM

No I am not that far yet. I just finished the Honorable Schoolboy. I believe that is the sixth in the series. Not my favorite of his, but good enough to keep reading.

I, with Justin, try to intentionally read at least one Catholic or Orthodox book a month. I only have a few pages left in Jesus of Nazareth, which I liked, but wasn't as impressed with as others I know. I am two chapters in on John Allen's new introduction to Catholicism and it is very refreshing to read a book by a journalist instead of a theologian. He is actually clear and readable in a way that so many theologians and pastors are not.

Comment by: Adam Shields at March 6, 2013 10:30 AM

Rachel: Thanks for reminding me about Tom Sawyer — a book I'm way overdue to read, since I'm not 100% sure I've ever read the whole thing. It certainly sounds as if you're busy! :)

Adam: I agree about The Honourable Schoolboy. It has some good moments, but the characters (especially the more peripheral ones) somehow seem less fully realized to me than his usually do.

Comment by: Jon at March 6, 2013 1:48 PM

I usually am reading several books at once, and pick them up throughout the day. I'll be reading something on church leadership, something usually to prepare for an upcoming sermon series (I'm a pastor), and usually a fiction work or so along with devotional titles.

Comment by: Dennis at March 6, 2013 1:51 PM

I usually read one book at a time, interspersed with the magazines to which I subscribe, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, National Geographic, etc. I read from many different genres, although heavily weighted toward Bible and theology. I recently read Team of Rivals upon which the Lincoln movie was based and I read Les Miserables for the first time. Sometimes I find I need a break from the heavy stuff and read something lighter like the latest Grisham book. I just love to read!

Comment by: Ken Vance at March 6, 2013 1:57 PM

Since Seminary, I've read a book a week. It's been 10 years now, so ... 520 books and counting.

I usually have 15 on the go at the same time.

Comment by: Stephen Barkley at March 6, 2013 2:04 PM

I usually try to limit my reading, either ebook or paper, to one or two books at a time. I find that if I take a few notes, I can remember what I read. I tend to read theology or biblical studies, but some fiction or history. It doesn't happen very often, but I do not have a problem with moving on to the next book, if after several chapters, the book doesn't seem to be interesting.

Comment by: Doug at March 6, 2013 2:20 PM

Typically, I read a number of books simultaneously. Different moods require different genre. Additionally, I read books aloud with my children. (Though, once in a while, they catch me reading ahead after they've gone to bed because I can't wait to find out what happens next ;) I read throughout the day with and without my children and count it a blessing to have so many wonderful titles from which to choose.

Comment by: Elizabeth at March 6, 2013 2:48 PM

I'm a divinity school student (Dr. George is actually my dean), so most of my reading is dictated for me. Over breaks, when I get to choose what to read, I try to be a little more diverse. I like to have 5 books going at once: One work of fiction, one book of poetry (I was a writer and lover of literature long before I was a Christian), one non-fiction book (typically a biography), one work of philosophy (I was a philosophy major in college), and one work of more academic theology.

Comment by: Dwight Davis at March 6, 2013 2:54 PM

I think I can divide my reading into devotional, inquisitive, or pleasure; though I'm not as advanced as I'd like to be.

Comment by: Jeremy at March 6, 2013 4:29 PM

Like you, I have particular times throughout the day when I can read and books for each.

1. While dressing or puttering around in the bedroom, I listen to a Christian audio book – generally one that I have gotten as a free monthly offering from Christianaudio.com. Spurgeon's _All of Grace_ is on deck right now.

2. Doing chores in the house or on the property, or driving, I listen to an mp3 player. I subscribe to a number of regular podcasts which I download each week, and I have begun to add to that mix Utube items suggested by FB friends, blog posts etc., which I recently learned how to convert to mp3s. When I get through those items in the course of the week, I listen to a novel, generally a free one from Librivox. I am working my way through 1001 Books You Should Read Before you Die, and I’ve had some fascinating stuff.

3. I read at breakfast and lunch, but then I generally read magazines, journals, or academic papers which I have requested from conference presenters, so books don’t show up in this slot. A fair bit of blog material arises from this, more than I have been finding time to write up, unfortunately.

4. As part of my morning prayer time, I usually work my way through a devotionally oriented book. Right now, I am reading short pieces from two books which were given to me by the authors. One is a commentary on Revelation, by the pastor I interned with 55 years ago, and the other is a fine collection of John Newton’s letters to J. C. Ryland. I had been reading John Frame’s excellent work on ethics when these two gifts interrupted that one, but it is on the table waiting for my return.

5. I have a novel on my Kindle (often another from the “1001 Books list”) which I read for relaxation just before going to sleep or in dentist’s offices etc., where concentration is difficult. This may be interrupted by a book of interest from the public library, usually of the non-fiction genre, biography, self-help etc. Right now, that time is going to trip planning for a visit to Edinburgh and then Azerbaijan in June, working with material from Lonely Planet who have become our primary guide book for trips. I like the fact that chapters from their country books can be bought in pdf form. This is excellent for cruises, like a stop in Lisbon, for which I didn’t want to buy the Portugal book, but the chapter on Lisbon served wonderfully. I especially like it when they construct walking tours.

6. I usually have one or two theology books under way for careful reading and interaction on my blog. These can take a while because I generally deal with them a chapter at a time rather than in the style of a journal book review. They end up being serialized review articles, in which I get a chance to work out a fair bit of my own theological development on the topics at hand.

7. I read through a book with Gail after supper when we are on our own. Fred Sanders on the Trinity is our current fare, in Kindle format. We have read many of the IVP Christmas gift books at this time.

I think that pretty much covers my routine. It entails being in the midst of numerous books, so that it can be a long time before one gets finished, but it is interesting how often they inform one another – kind of like preaching from the lectionary. :-)

Comment by: Terry Tiessen at March 6, 2013 8:26 PM

You didn't mention the "Read in the Bathtub" book! That is one of my favorites these days. :)

Comment by: Ann Boyd at March 6, 2013 10:56 PM

I tend to read several books at once. I'm normally reading something devotional, something heavy, something light, and something non-religious. I recently tried to start reading fiction. I failed. Maybe someday.

Comment by: Jeremiah at March 6, 2013 11:35 PM

Following an example from George Steinbeck, I've been keeping a journal since the beginning of this year to document my writing progress -- and often my reading progress, too. Writing isn't my full-time job yet, but it does help in terms of setting specific reading and writing goals. And yes, like other commenters above, I have bookmarks in more books "that I'm reading currently" than I can recall just now.

Comment by: matt lowe at March 7, 2013 8:08 AM

I usually have a few of books going. One for enjoyment, a couple for school, one or two for reviewing on my blog, the bible, and maybe one on the side for devotional purposes.

Comment by: Peter Stevens at March 7, 2013 9:01 AM

I often have several books going at once. I do quite a few book reviews, mostly in the area of biblical academics/Christian living. I recently have been evaluating my practices and would like to become far more focused. But, generally speaking, I'm always working through several books at once.

Comment by: Kevin Fiske at March 7, 2013 2:21 PM

I have an acrostic for mine:

G: Greats or what we typically call classics
R: Reviews I write
O: Others that don't fit neatly in a category
W: Word of God/Commentaries mostly
T: Teaching prep.
H: History

Comment by: David Moore at March 9, 2013 1:28 AM

Typically, I am personally reading 2-3 books at a time. I say personally because we also do a family read-aloud after dinner and then I am often trying to keep up with what my daughters are reading for school or pleasure.

For myself, there are am usually reading two nonfiction books, one Biblical/theological and one history/science/general NF. Currently I am almost finished with Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes by Ken Bailey, A shot of Faith to the Head by Mitch Stokes and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I have to admit my progress in the last has been derailed by my current fiction book, REAMDE by Neal Stephenson. I have found audiobooks to work well for me but on the couple of days a week I walk home from work I enjoy listening to Mars Hill Audio Journal and apologetics.com podcasts. I typically don't have time for anything in the morning. I used to be able to read during lunch at work, but that seems to have become a pleasure of the past. I find your category of work book interesting. I work in the sciences, and read quite a few journal articles, but seldom any books. I think that is because most books on clinical virology and food microbiology tend to be for reference only and not really for reading.

Comment by: Matthew from Alaska at March 11, 2013 1:44 AM

Wow! Such great comments, everyone! Thanks for sharing your reading experience with us all. I hope you heard some interesting tips from your fellow readers here; I know I have.

Congrats to Stephen B. and Matthew from AK — the two random winners of today's giveaway drawing. (Watch your email for a message from me, you two.)

Comment by: Jon at March 11, 2013 9:22 AM

Thank you Jon and IVP. I look forward to reading my new book. I answered your e-mail earlier.

I managed to express my experiences with audiobooks exactly opposite. I have NOT found them to work well for me. Occasionally on long car trips, if the kids aren't with us. But I am not an auditory person and if I am listening to an audiobook while "working" in any fashion it don't follow or retain it well.

Comment by: Matthew from Alaska at March 11, 2013 9:31 PM

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