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How Do I Read Books? A Blast From the Past

Here is an interesting and always germane question I received five years ago.  I would answer the same way today!


How do you go about reading books? Which methods do you use in order to read as much as possibile? How do make plans how much to read? Do you highlight things in books? Do you you’re your own comments? Summaries? Any other tips?


Ah, this is an interesting question. As it turns out, there’s not an easy answer. That’s because there are many different ways I read books, depending on what kind of book it is. I realize we’re talking about books dealing with scholarship – not Victorian novels! But I read different books differently depending on what it is, what it’s about, and what I want/need to get out of it.

When I was in graduate school I had a friend who insisted that anyone should be able to read an entire book of scholarship every day. I had trouble believing him, but in fact it’s true. In fact, when you get good at it, you can read much more than that. It all depends on what you are reading it for; that affects how you go about it.

If I am reading a book in a field that I am basically unfamiliar with, or not intimately familiar with, and it’s an important book filled with data and key insights, I will read the whole thing, cover to cover, and highlight the key lines.  I will then go back, chapter by chapter, and take copious notes on what I’ve read.   Then I have both my notes for review and a highlighted copy of the book for future reference.   This I do for all books that I think are highly significant.

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  1. talmoore
    talmoore  November 13, 2017

    “anyone should be able to read an entire book of scholarship every day”

    That gives me PTSD from grad school, when, one semester, I had to read 7 complete books (500+ pages), in one week.


  2. stokerslodge  November 14, 2017

    Bart, are all of your books “real books “ and not ebooks ?

  3. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  November 14, 2017

    As we are on the subject of books to read, the go-ahead to increase the donation to the Bart Ehrman blog has been approved to now be DOUBLED. The courteous challenge now entails donating TWO thousand dollars to the blog in exchange for publicly (and FAIRLY) assessing what is presented in “Silencing the Skeptics: Gospel Contradictions Resolved; the Ultimate Open Challenge to Bart Ehrman.” That is highly symbolic – one dollar for every year that Christianity has reigned in darkness.

    This can be verified here:


    Press releases will be sent as well.

    • DestinationReign
      DestinationReign  November 14, 2017

      And also, STS is not a book that can be skimmed or superficially concluded upon. Not reading it sequentially and in its entirety will result in concluding that it is madness.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 14, 2017

      I’m not sure people will understand what you’re saying. Are you saying that you will match donations up to $2000 for anyone who (a) writes an evaluation of the book that you consider fair and (b) makes a donation to the blog?

      • JoshuaJ  November 14, 2017

        Bart, they want you to review the book in exchange for the $2,000 donation…

      • DestinationReign
        DestinationReign  November 14, 2017

        Apologies for the confusion. The donation would simply be made in return for your own personal assessment of the book, with any reasonable synopsis of what it presents. Obviously, this would be at your own convenience, as it is certainly acknowledged that you regularly have much on your plate!

        • Bart
          Bart  November 15, 2017

          I doubt if I’ll have time. But I’ll think about it. Thanks for the offer. If I were to write a “reasonable synopsis” and a response, how long would you expect it to be?

          • DestinationReign
            DestinationReign  November 15, 2017

            Brother, the world has been waiting for 2,000 years. There is certainly no rush!

            Okay, that sounds a bit over the top. But really, there is no rush.

          • DestinationReign
            DestinationReign  November 16, 2017

            Oh, I believe “how long would you expect it to be” was misunderstood! As for the length of the synopsis, whatever is enough to cover the book’s contents; on par with what we might expect from editorial book reviews. Perhaps a chapter by chapter summary?

            It’s also important to reiterate that if any of the blog readers here are interested in reading the book, we do have promotional copies on hand to send out free of charge. Email Escapethematrix@outlook.com with any requests. Thanks to all.

        • dragonfly  November 15, 2017

          Isn’t getting a historian to review a theological book a bit like getting a mathematician to review a book on psychiatry?

    • The Agnostic Christian
      The Agnostic Christian  November 16, 2017

      “Reigned in darkness” is a bit extreme. Credit where credit is due.

      • DestinationReign
        DestinationReign  November 18, 2017

        Dragonfly and Agnostic Christian,

        STS really isn’t a “theology” book. Yes, it is predicated on a certain method of Biblical exegesis known as the Gospel Matrix, but it is not built upon any type of conventional Christian theology.

        And “reigned in darkness” is a very accurate phrase to describe the exploits of the most pervasive religion in known history! It is only now that we can see that the last 2,000 years have been the “night in which no man can work” that Christ prophesied in John 9:4-5.

  4. godspell  November 14, 2017

    Working at a library, where new books come in every day, I do something similar myself, with books that cover subjects of interest to me.

    Needless to say, I do not highlight anything.

    In fact, one of my jobs used to be to erase marginal notes made in pencil by people who really should have bought their own copies.


    • Bart
      Bart  November 14, 2017

      Ah, I NEVER do this with a library book!!! They are sacrosanct.

  5. SidDhartha1953  November 14, 2017

    I’ve read that “eschaton” as an English word is of recent origin, showing up in the 1930s. What did scholars writing in English call it before then?

  6. Rthompsonmdog  November 14, 2017

    You mention the Synoptic Problem, I have read Mark Goodacre’s “The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through The Maze” and have been listening to his NT Pod podcasts dealing with the problem. As a non-expert, I believe he makes a compelling case for Luke using Mark & Matthew as sources.

    Would you recommend a response to the Farrer Theory? Would you use this for a reader mailbag question?

    Thanks for the blog.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 14, 2017

      It gets really complicated down in the weeds. Most any treatment of the Synoptic Problem will explain why Q is the more likely hypothesis, in the general opinion.

  7. Stephen  November 14, 2017

    Prof Ehrman what does your personal library look like? Do you have a room or rooms where three out of four walls are covered with floor to ceiling bookshelves?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2017

      Ha! I have my own study with three floor to ceiling and six half-size shelves; we converted a bed room into a small library with floor to ceiling shelves on three sides; and we converted the attic into an actual library with stacks! My wife is even more of a bibliophile than I am! (She is the chair of the English department at Duke, and a Shakespeare scholar)

      • The Agnostic Christian
        The Agnostic Christian  November 16, 2017

        How many books do you estimate you and your wife own between you (and separately what is your percentage of that total?)

        I’ve about 4000. My wife is not a reader. I’d imagine you two must have many more.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 17, 2017

          Ha! Great question. I have no idea!!

          • The Agnostic Christian
            The Agnostic Christian  November 17, 2017

            Maybe it’s my slight compulsive personality. I have them all counted and arranged by topic.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 19, 2017

            Wow. Wish I would do that!

  8. Boltonian  November 14, 2017

    In preparation for ordering and reading the Triumph of Christianity I have just finished re-reading a book I am sure you have read: ‘Christian Beginnings, from Nazareth to Nicaea AD 30-325,’ by the late, great Geza Vermes, which covers more or less the same ground as ToC. This is a bit of a cheeky question (or two) because I should do the research myself but what would you say are the main differences between your conclusions and those of Prof. Vermes, and why?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2017

      When I started my research I ran across Vermes’s book, and was nervous that maybe he had written the book I was wanting to write. But when I read it, I realized it was not at all what I wanted to write. You’ll see when my book comes out! They are very different and not easily confused.

  9. seahawk41  November 14, 2017

    Hah. Very interesting. My area is physics and astronomy, so there are not many books that are vital (or even marginal) to read. But there are tons (literally!) of papers published in thousands of important journals. Different problem, but similar. I’m retired, so it is not as big an issue, but I still follow things, because they are so fascinating. My parallel to your approach, for stuff posted on arXiv, is to scan the titles, download the pdf files of those that sound interesting, check out the authors and their institutions (you can post on arXiv even if you have no credentials at all), read the abstract, check out diagrams, graphs, etc., and *then* read the whole thing if I think at that point it is significant. Similar to your approach. I would likely change this somewhat if I were engaged in active research/scholarship.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2017

      Ah, yes. I too have to deal with thousands of articles — not as many as you, since lots of productivity in my field is in books — and I adopt pretty much the same approach (though if the article is in a reputable journal I don’t bother looking up the author’s credentials).

  10. Oikonomos  November 15, 2017

    Dr. Erhman, how many books do you think you actually read through completely (cover-to-cover) per year as opposed to skimming them or taking selective readings?

  11. 4Erudite  November 19, 2017

    Hmmm…guess I am a bit of an odd ball when it comes to reading…I can only read factual books and technical books on topics I have an interest in…been known to take weeks to months to finish reading some of them, but then I write another book inside the book (I always own books I read…because I write so many notes)…when I read, I trust, but verify (as much as possible) and then have my own thoughts…I use up to four colors of ink when reading so when I re-read it, or go back to reference something, I better understand where my thoughts, research, and questions came from….currently working on my first book written by you, only two colors of ink so far.

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