Organized reading

August 11, 2007

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.

The Plan

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?

18 Responses to “Organized reading”

  1. Reg Says:

    Craig, you are insane! (This is a bit eccentric for the public record.)

  2. cburrell Says:

    Beggars can’t be choosers, and that applies as much to the reception of comments as it does elsewhere, but I’m afraid I must insist that for this particular post, each comment, even and perhaps most especially abusive ones, should be accompanied by an account of the commenter’s own reading plan, or at least by a gesture in that general direction.

    Thank you.

    At the same time, I don’t deny that both of your points are defensible.

  3. cranky Says:

    I need your discipline

  4. Adam Hincks Says:

    Craig, you need a girlfriend. Oh, wait . . .

  5. cburrell Says:

    There is a certain irony in the fact that the only respondent who does not poke fun at me is called “cranky”. The other comments lead me to fear that I have exposed myself to the ridicule of the wide world.

    Modern psychological theories, the reliability of which would be much improved if we all took their findings as normative rather than just descriptive, state that when someone “opens up” to others in a way that makes them feel vulnerable, their self-esteem can be salvaged only if others “open up” as well. When everyone is vulnerable together, everyone feels less vulnerable. This dynamic culminates in the “group hug”. It is a beautiful thing.

    Am I to understand that others don’t have a reading plan? Is that because you don’t think it’s a good idea? Or is it just that my system is overly elaborate, and therefore an occasion for mirth? I was really hoping to get a conversation going about the various ways people structure their reading.

  6. Matthew Says:

    My reading plan works in cycles as well. I read a book and then try to find another book to read. Repeat. Perhaps I should be more structured and actually look for another book to read before I finish the one I’m reading. However, one step at a time.

    Seriously, I think you might have more fun and get farther taking philosophy, theology, and classics courses as a special student or as a part-time general arts degree. I know from experience that being taught rather than just reading texts has led me to have a better framework for understanding the texts, especially when getting poignant (and not just random) background details from a scholar in the field. Writing essays on the texts leads to a much deeper understanding, as you’ve already realized in your want to write something down about the work after you’ve read it. Finally, you will find people in your class–perhaps not many, but a few–who are genuinely interested in what is being taught. Just remember, you can never have too many degrees.

  7. cburrell Says:

    You’ve reduced the cyclic reading plan to its most fundamental constituent! Very nice.

  8. David Elliot Says:

    My good man, you have the organizational genius of a St. Benedict: with books, not monks. When it comes to reading, I’m afraid I gulp. What generally happens is that I experience an insatiable craving for a certain idea, book, or author – often this keeps me up part of the night tossing – then I rush to the library or book store the next day, buy it, have the happy chemical released in my brain, and then read it obsessively. This gives me a hundred other ideas, leading to a dozen other books, so that the whole thing, spread over time, becomes like a giant tree sending out feelers and inching out branches and roots in every direction. But your Ptolemaic universe cycles are superior in organization and I have a feeling result in a reading plan that is not (like mine) lopsidedly eclectic and missing vast tracts of pertinent humanities learning.

  9. Christina Attard and Jim Farney Says:

    Jim tells me that his current reading plan is more like bibliography padding. Surely you must remember that process from your own PhD days. He plans to improve it soon by only reading books recommended by Mr. Elliot.

    My observation is that following our recent marriage, Jim seems to be focusing on my superior library collection. I brought Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and a good collection of mediaeval primary and secondary source literature. Jim’s bibliographical dowry consisted of some C.S.Lewis and a book on Stephen Harper.

    My own reading plan resembles Dave’s so closely that I feel I could have written his comment myself. The only thing is that I don’t lose sleep at night over books, but that might just be a side-effect of having a real job.

    I find that my reading passion goes in spurts rather than in a regulated cycle like yours. My reading certainly has high and low seasons each year.

    Consider this reply a group hug for your sniffling inner-bookworm-child.

  10. Adam Hincks Says:

    I usually go to the library with a book or two in mind. Then I come away with half a dozen books that I find that look interesting and end up reading most of them.

    Example: yesterday I went to the university library to get C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. I left with: Studies in Words, Brontë’s The Professor, Graham Greene’s The Man Within, Stephen Gill’s A Short History of Lesotho and Arbousset’s Excursion Missionnaire dans les Montagnes Bleues. I also looked for Dune but it was checked out.

    Craig’s plan is certainly more orderly, but I still secretly think that though this be a method, yet there is madness in’t.

  11. cburrell Says:

    I am blessed with witty friends. Thank you all for your contributions. After the taunting died down, I found the comments most interesting.

  12. cranky Says:

    The only important thing is to read something, something more than blogs, some way that works for the reader. Some use a system. Some randomly wander about.

    I have a shelf I work through of books I want to read. As the shelf empties, I purchase more from my list of books to read. Regularly, my process is disrupted by bookshop finds and spousal recommendations.

    This may not work for anyone else, but I could care less.

    I have been wanting to read Coppleston and Pieper myself, falling into skimming. Craig’s plan would stop that. I may borrow some of it to spite the detractors.

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  15. KathyB Says:

    Well, I realize I am perhaps replying a year too late, but there was a link to this on your newest post about quirks, so here I am.
    My current reading plan, having read all of the books in my own possession, is to work my way through the entire “Classics” section at my local library. Since my local branch is quite small, and I am setting myself a rule forbidding inter-branch loans, I should be able to succeed, especially since my rules are further defined by “except the ones that seem boring”. I’m currently reading “Villette” by Charlotte Bronte, that is, if I can find where the munchkin has hidden it.

  16. cburrell Says:

    Kathy, any reading plan that involves systematically reading the classics is a good one in my books (so to speak). Your caveat to exclude the ones “that seem boring” permits room for you to exercise your good judgment. Well done!

  17. […] — what is it good for? December 8, 2008 The seasons turn, and so too turns my risible cyclic reading plan.  I recently reached the end of the cycle and returned to the beginning, which brings me again to […]

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