For some time now I have tried to follow a fairly structured reading plan. The purpose of my plan is to provide me with an education, which demands a certain amount of discipline. This bookish deliberateness is sometimes mistaken for “obsessiveness” by those dear to me, and from time to time I discover that I’ve a reputation for inflexibility in these (and, admittedly, also in other) matters. For instance, when someone offers to loan me a book they have enjoyed I am put in the awkward position of averring that I have a rather large queue of books waiting, and might possibly reach their suggested volume in, oh, a year or two. Sometimes people just don’t understand.
But I’m thinking that there must be some people who do understand. I’m thinking there must be others who follow a reading plan, as I do. And I’m wondering what those reading plans are like. To get the ball rolling, as it were, I thought I would write a tell-all post in which I unveil my reading plan in all of its intricate glory.
A visual aid to my reading plan would look something like the Ptolemaic cosmology: cycles within cycles, wheels within wheels. Thus I observe daily, weekly, and monthly plans, and superimposed on the whole is a set of topical cycles that repeat on longer time scales.
Let’s begin at the smallest scale: the daily readings. Each day, I read a little from the Bible and from a book of poetry. These are brief readings, typically less than one page, and take little time. At present I am reading the Gospel of Matthew, and slowly working my way through the chronologically-arranged New Oxford Book of English Verse, one poem each day.
My weekly plan takes in books that consist of many short, disconnected pieces — the sorts of books that are impossible to read cover to cover because there’s no sustained story or argument. For instance, collections of essays or short stories fall into this category. A few years ago I noted that I had accumulated quite a few of these books, but wasn’t reading any of them, so I instituted the weekly plan. Each book is assigned to a particular day of the week, and on that day I read one selection from the book. At the present time I am reading A Jacques Barzun Reader on Mondays, C.S. Lewis’ Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy, and Short Stories on Thursdays, and G. K. Chesterton’s columns from The Illustrated London News on Fridays (I read his weekly column exactly 100 years to the day after it was first published. This could continue until 2031.). When I complete one book, another takes its place. You’ll note that certain days of the week have no book assigned; this is because I don’t wish to overtax myself.
My monthly reading cycle tackles longer works. I’ve only begun the monthly plan early in 2007, but thus far it has been progressing well. At present, my monthly reading plan consists of one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of Shakespeare’s plays, and one of Plato’s dialogues.
That completes the elements of the plan that are tied to the calendar. In addition, I have a cycle of reading — affectionately known as The Cycle — that is organized topically and authorially. There are certain topics, and certain authors, for which I have collected a fair number of books, but have not had time to read them. The Cycle is intended to focus my attention on precisely those sections of my shelves. I occasionally swap new items into it, or swap items out, but at the present time it looks like this:
- History of Philosophy. This is a multi-year project to read F.C. Copleston’s History of Philosophy, which in my edition is in seventeen volumes. For each major philosopher that he discusses, I try to read at least one primary text.
- Josef Pieper. Pieper wrote a series of short, but very thoughtful, books in the general area of philosophical theology, and I always find them worthwhile. Faithful readers of this web log will have seen Pieper-related Book Notes from time to time. (Recently: Happiness and Contemplation; Scholasticism; In Tune with the World; On Prudence)
- Pope Benedict XVI. When Pope Benedict was elected I added him to the cycle, but I confess I haven’t done very well on this item. Not only have I made slow progress, but in the meantime there have been a deluge of books brought out. I do what I can. (Recently: God and the World, Introduction to Christianity, Deus Caritas Est)
- Søren Kierkegaard. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but somehow I collected a large set of Kierkegaard’s works, and to my benefit I’ve been working through them. In some cases I’ve written up notes (The Point of View; Either/Or I; Either/Or II; Repetition).
- Friedrich Nietzsche. I’ve added Nietzsche into the mix recently both because I’d like to be more familiar with him at first hand and because I thought he’d make a fabulously intemperate conversation partner for Kierkegaard.
- G. K. Chesterton. I acquired a significant portion of the Collected Works, and figured I’d better get started. I’m focusing for the time being on his non-fiction, but hope eventually to delve into his lesser known works: plays, short stories, and biographies. (Recently: The Ball and the Cross, Platitudes Undone, Heretics, The Man who Knew Too Much)
- Church Fathers. I’ve wanted for a long time to acquaint myself with the early history of Christianity, and this item is intended to address that area of interest. The intended focus is on the first five or six centuries after Christ. This is a long term project. (Recently: St. Justin Martyr: Apologies and Dialogue, St. Ignatius of Antioch)
- Medieval Europe. I have an amateur interest in things medieval, and try to feed that interest fairly regularly. Each time this topic comes around I read one primary text and one secondary text. (Recently: Chronicle of Bury St. Edmunds, Life in a Medieval Village, The Discarded Image)
- Greece and Rome. This is a new item that I’ve added in a feeble attempt to redress my near total ignorance of classical culture and literature. I’m beginning, for no good reason other than my eye having chanced upon the volume, with the plays of Aristophanes.
The Cycle is a cycle, so when I reach the bottom of the list, I return again to the top. I am somewhat concerned that The Cycle has become too large. Can this sprawling structure really be called focused? The trouble is that there are other categories — Biographies and Music and Travel/Exploration, for instance — clamouring for entry. If a category gets trimmed, I’m quite sure that another will worm its way in. For the time being the door is barred, but those who are in, are in.
That concludes the account of the rigorously structured part of my reading plan. Since there are good books that don’t fit into this structure, I have a separate queue — called The Queue — the elements of which are interleaved with the books in The Cycle. Books in The Queue are drawn from a variety of subject areas, but they have to work hard to get entry. It’s not a first-in, first-out queue. There’s a complicated sorting algorithm that orders the elements of the queue internally, the details of which are a prime example of a dark art. The advantage of having The Queue in addition to The Cycle is that it provides variety — and leaves the slimmest opening for spontaneity.
You will have noticed that this reading plan governs, for the most part, non-fiction books. My reading of fiction proceeds in parallel, and is much less structured. I am presently reading through the novels of Evelyn Waugh and Charles Dickens, but these efforts progress in fits and starts and I do branch out when the fancy takes me.
A final, but not unimportant, part of my reading plan is that I almost always sit down after finishing a book to write something — anything — about it. In some cases I’m trying to set down the book’s basic argument, or struggling to settle on a judicious appraisal of the style, or piling together enough plot details to jog my memory later, or just using the book as a springboard for whimsical wandering. Sometimes these turn out fairly well, and sometimes not, but the practice itself is an excellent discipline, and I recommend it to you.
How does my reading plan compare to yours?