Reading for Breadth

I love books and read quite a bit. I’d rather read than eat, but if I didn’t eat I’d starve to death and then wouldn’t be able to read. Not everyone loves reading as much as I do, but I think most people value reading and wish they read more – or, if they already read a lot, wish they read better.

So, how can you improve your reading habits? I’ve found it helpful to read for both breadth and depth, and would like to suggest several tips for each. This post is on breadth; with a post on depth forthcoming.

1. Develop curiosity. If you aren’t curious, you won’t read widely. Why bother? But if you have a childlike wonder at the world – art, music, literature, history, biography, politics, theology, philosophy – the varied thoughts, accomplishments, and experiences of fellow human beings from other places and other times – then the possibilities for learning are endless. And as long as you have a library nearby or money for books, you’ll never lack for reading material.

Granted, curiosity can become a vice. There is an unhealthy kind of curiosity against which authors as old as Augustine have warned. But as Augustine recognized, curiosity has “greater power to stimulate learning than rigorous coercion.” want to is always more powerful than ought to. So, use this to your advantage. Expand your interests. But be sure that your curiosity is “channeled by discipline under [God’s] law”[1]

2. Read more than one book at a time. I know. This breaks a law engraved in granite for those who insist on reading only one book at a time. There are advantages to this, no doubt. My problem is that I simply can’t help myself. Even if I’m enthralled in the book I now hold in my hands, I’m still curious about what’s between the covers of thousands more. (Sometimes I’ll read the first chapter of a novel, just to see if I want to read more, even though I know it will be weeks before I can really dive in.)

But even if you are one of those people who prefer to read only one book at a time (more power to you), may I suggest that there are some advantages to reading multiple books at once?

For one, you get variety. And that means different books are available to you for different reading times and moods. I’m currently working on Book Four of Calvin’s Institutes and love it. But I don’t want to read it late at night, when I’m more likely to bury myself in a biography, gobble down a graphic novel, or plunge into an epic novel.

3. Read parts of books. If you’re anything like me, there is something in you that wants to read every book you start all the way through. Every line. Every page.

You should ruthlessly kill that impulse. Stomp on it till it’s dead. If you don’t, you’ll drag around your list of unfinished books like Jacob Marley’s chain.

You must reckon with the fact that there are vast oceans of literature that you will never swim across. There are depths in books that you will never plummet. There are rivers of literature, poetry, history, biography, philosophy, and theology that you will never forge. There are whole shelves, nay, entire libraries, of great books that you will never read through. And that’s okay. Just because you can’t swim across the Pacific, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy splashing on its shores. I may never get all the way through the Summa Theologica but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it when I dip in.

On the other hand, there are lots of books that aren’t worth reading through anyhow. I still don’t regret not finishing a certain bestseller whose author I shall not name, but whose heroin is named Bella in love with a vampire named Edward.

4. Read outside your tribe. I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s a great mistake to only read authors you are familiar with or books with which you already agree. In my early ministry, I spent the majority of my time reading authors in my tribe – basically Reformed Evangelicals. So, I read lots of Lloyd-Jones, John Piper, John MacArthur, J. I. Packer and the Puritans. All of this was great – they’re still some of my favorite authors. But it wasn’t broad. Then I made a new friend who was refreshingly different from me, who put me onto a new stream of authors. He was handing me books by Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, John Ortberg, and N. T. Wright. I didn’t agree with everything I read, but over the next few years I devoured many of their books with great profit.

5. Read the most important books. But let’s face it. You don’t have time to read everything. You don’t even have time to read everything worth reading, or everything you will want to read. So, you do have to narrow it down. So, read the most important books.

I don’t mean by this that you should only read books of a certain genre, but that you should prioritize the best books in any genre. Do you like history and biography? Read the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists. Do you enjoy science fiction and fantasy? Read the Hugo and Nebula award winners. Do you like theology? Read primary texts: Scripture (of course!), but then the great formative theologians in the history of the church: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Barth.

Make it your aim to read the best writers and the most original thinkers. There are lots of mediocre writers who even at their best are just second-handers. Their books don’t break new ground or synthesize information in new ways. They just repeat what was written before (and, usually, better written).

6. Read for enjoyment. As Alan Jacobs has reminded us, reading is one of life’s great pleasures and there is some virtue to “reading at whim,” that is: “Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame.”[2] In fact, Jacobs calls this his “one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading.”[3] Don’t read a book, in other words, just because it’s on someone’s list of great books. Frankly, I’ve done that (slugging my way through The Brothers Karamazov, for example) and it’s not very much fun. Just because a book is a so-called great book doesn’t mean it’s going to help every person who reads it.

Now, I put this at the end for a reason. It is good advice for someone who has developed a curious mind and has learned to splash around on the shores of a book to determine if it’s worth the long swim. Maybe not such good advice, if the only books you read are teen paranormal romance novels.

This post was published by Servants of Grace. Be sure to check out the many helpful resources for spiritual growth at their site


[1] Augustine, Confessions, trans. E. B. Pusey, Book I.14
[2] Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 23
[3] Jacobs, p. 15

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