I sometimes get asked what the best way is to read a work of non-fiction.  Well, who knows? All I can say is what I do. I’ve dealt with the question here on the blog a number of times. But since I’m nearing the tail end of research on my next book dealing with the ethics of Jesus in relation to the broader world at the time, and how his ethics revolutionized the ways people in the west thought about how we ought to behave, I’m reading a lot right now, and I thought I should address the question again.

My practices, in fact, have not changed much over the course of my scholarly career. My approach depends entirely on what kind of book I’m reading (I’m referring to non-fiction books here, not novels) and why I’m reading it — that is, 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. I figured it out then and am much better at it now. In fact, when you get good at it, you can read much more than a book a day. 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, many of which I don’t know, 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.

In other instances the book is in a field that I already know inside and out. In those cases I can skim even more and simply write up a paragraph reminding me what the author’s basic thesis is and how he goes about dealing with it. Metzger was the one who first told me that the quickest way to read a book was to look at the table of contents, skim the introduction, skim the conclusion, and decide if you needed to read anything else.

Other books deal with topics that I’m already pretty familiar with but not completely on top of. Often this is when I already know all or at least most of the relevant data. These books as well I do not need to read thoroughly, since I already know the data. I just need to know what the author tries to do with them (and to see if s/he cites data I’m not familiar with).

These books, too, then I can skim by reading the introduction, reading the conclusion, and figuring out what parts of what chapters I need to read carefully. I can do this by reading the first paragraphs of each chapter and possibly the conclusion. (For example, if I have to read yet another book on the Synoptic Problem, or on the authorship of Colossians, etc. unless the person is making a completely novel argument – which rarely happens – I really don’t need to read every word.)

For yet other books, I don’t even need to do that much: a lot of books don’t need to be read at all, either because they are so basic or are not advancing any new thesis. Sometimes dealing with these books involves reading a few published book reviews; when you do that, you know pretty quickly if I need to read any or all of the book. For years I used to have a research assistant read a book for me, write up a two-page single-space synopsis, and use that to decide whether I need to read the whole book, a chapter or two of the book, or just about none of the book. I haven’t done that, though, for a very long time. Grad students have other ways to earn money….

Many books will have just a chapter or two of relevance to what I’m interested in. In those cases I make notes on what the book’s overarching thesis and approach are, but then take detailed notes just on the parts that matter to me. I end up reading books in this way a lot.

And so the short answer to the question is that I read different books in different ways, depending on what they are and what I need from them.

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2023-11-13T15:11:06-05:00November 14th, 2023|Reflections and Ruminations|

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  1. pommylee November 14, 2023 at 5:17 am

    Speaking of books (bit of a stretch for this segue but oh well 😊) on this weeks pod you briefly mention how there are some parallels with stories in the Hebrew Bible, which made me wonder, with the infancy gospels do scholars have any idea whether they were written by early Christians who were converts from Judaism or members of Jewish/Christian community’s or if they were coverts from paganism and were in gentile Christian communities? (Sorry if my labelling is incorrect there but I hope you can tell what I’m trying to ask)

    • BDEhrman November 16, 2023 at 3:32 pm

      Technically there is no way to know whther they were born into Jewish or gentile homes; most of them are pretty anti-jewish in their views and do not have a good knowledge of Judaism, and since most Xns at the time of their writing were gentile, they are usually thought to be gentile productoins.

  2. petfield November 14, 2023 at 6:14 am

    Mr. Ehrman, how many books have you read? If you had to take a rough guess.

    • BDEhrman November 16, 2023 at 3:33 pm

      Ha! My guess is: No Idea! But I did read all the Hardy Boys and I’ver read Lord of the Rings ten times. (Twice out loud to my kids!)

      • petfield November 16, 2023 at 7:14 pm

        My guess is you’ve read approximately 11.640 books and 20.780 articles. And if I were to estimate like an apologist, I would have said “there’s a 99% probability you’ve read 11.638 books and 20.781 articles”. You know, they just make wildly arbitrary guesses claiming ridiculously accurate percentages and they act like they’ve nailed it.

        • BDEhrman November 24, 2023 at 12:30 pm

          Yeah, these probability calculatoins drive me nuts.

  3. RD November 14, 2023 at 7:16 am

    I just finished reading “The Roots of Fundamentalism” by Ernest R. Sandeen (trying to come to terms with my fundamentalist upbringing}. Lots of good information but quite a slog getting through it. In retrospect I probably could have done just as well reading the introduction along with parts of selected chapters. The book covered the period the period from 1800 to 1930. Can you recommend any books which include the history of fundamentalism from 1930 onward?

    • BDEhrman November 16, 2023 at 3:34 pm

      Yeah, bit of a slog but terrifically insightful and informative! You might try the books of George Marsden.

      • Stonefeather November 16, 2023 at 11:12 pm

        I read it outloud to my son, as well as a number of times silently.

  4. Seeker1952 November 14, 2023 at 8:21 am

    Recently I’ve been thinking that in many important ways the “ransom” theory of (something like?) atonement makes more sense than the satisfaction theory. Plus it’s the theory clearly found (but perhaps only in outline) in Mark, the earliest Gospel.

    As I understand it the idea is that all humanity belonged to Satan due to original and subsequent sin. Satan agreed to release humanity if Jesus somehow took humanity’s place as a hostage of Satan and/or by suffering at Satan’s hands what humanity deserved to suffer.

    It makes more sense that Jesus had to pay off Satan through his suffering and death than that Jesus had to pay off God. The latter seriously compromises God’s goodness.

    However I can’t get clear in my mind how God “tricked” Satan so that Jesus could accomplish humanity’s release but also himself “escape” from Satan. It seems like it has something to do with Jesus being without sin and thus inherently and ultimately not subject to Satan’s control.

    Could you provide a clear and succinct explanation of how God tricked Satan and how or why Jesus escaped?

    • BDEhrman November 16, 2023 at 3:37 pm

      I’m not sure I can. But in the ealry Xn tradition found, say, in the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Devil is tricked into thinking that he can have Jesus killed and pay no cost for it, but Christ is far more powerful than the Devil imagined and after his death came to Hades and took everyone (or at least the righteous) out of it, and th eDevil had no idea he could do it. The Devil is condemned (by a personified Hades) for being fooled, killing his enemy not knowing that the death would bring salvation for everyone else.

    • sLiu November 22, 2023 at 7:06 pm

      with predestination & in the beginning was the word …
      If Jesus knew he was God why would he care to ‘inherit Satan’s kingdoms” Matthew 4

      • BDEhrman November 26, 2023 at 3:48 pm

        So he wouldn’t have to be crucified first.

  5. edecter November 14, 2023 at 11:44 am

    What do you do with all the notes you take? How do you organize them so that they’re accessible and helpful to you?

    • BDEhrman November 16, 2023 at 4:02 pm

      I take them electonically (just in word files) and put them in subfolders of subfolders of folders by topic; they are easily searchable that way. I refuse to use data-bases and other tools, that seem to me to be fussy and a waste of time and effort. But in part that’s because I’m a dinosaur. I reread all my notes before writing a book and can easily find key words/terms/authors as needed.

  6. normative November 14, 2023 at 11:53 am

    The Bloomberg editor Joe Weisenthal has an oft-repeated quip: “Most books should be articles; most articles should be blog posts; and most blog posts should be tweets.” This is not entirely fair insofar as scholarly books often have lengthy sections which are necessary for the peer specialist but can be reduced to a gist for the majority of readers. Still, my working default is that a serious non-fiction book that I can usefully read in a single day is a book that probably should have been an article. Or at any rate, a book I would have better off reading a condensation of in article form. And conversely, it’s a waste of time to speedrun a book that really needed to be a book—say, a dense work of philosophy like Parfit’s “Reasons and Persons”: Unless you’re some kind of prodigy, if you read that in a single day, you’re not getting much more out of it than you would have from the Wikipedia entry.

  7. RRomanchek November 14, 2023 at 2:39 pm

    Can we presume that when you read a novel for pleasure these practices do not apply?

    • BDEhrman November 16, 2023 at 4:06 pm

      Oh boy can you assume that. First wod to the last word in order from beginning to end. Re-reading the Palliser novels now. Fantastic.

  8. nanuninu November 14, 2023 at 10:03 pm

    A lot of books don’t need to be read at all. For instance, Yellow River by I. P. Freely.

  9. Elkojohn November 17, 2023 at 11:52 am

    Dr.Bart, I must say you have been my bedrock for Bible study.
    I now embrace whatever wisdom is found in that book rather than its theology. It doesn’t matter whether Jesus said it, or later writers added or modified verses. The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, The Woman Condemned for Adultery, and Matthew 25:35-40 are of the highest moral standards. On this beautiful planet upon which we live, it is the humans who create the moral good and the moral evil. The rulers of empires and of the nations on this planet, whose minds are possessed by greed, malice, and deluded thinking, inflict the unmeasurable death, destruction, and suffering upon innocent victims.
    “You are like sheep among wolves. Be wise like the serpent, and innocent like the dove.” (Matt.10:16)
    Thank you for guiding me along the path.

    • BDEhrman November 24, 2023 at 12:36 pm

      Thanks! I’m glad my works’ been of some use.

  10. Asparaguspee November 17, 2023 at 2:54 pm

    In lieu of graduate students, Bing Chat does a pretty darn good job of summarizing books, articles, and other text. And you can ask it to go into more (or less) detail, group under bullet points, dumb it down, etc.

    • BDEhrman November 24, 2023 at 12:41 pm

      I’ve never used it, but if I did I would try it out with books and articles I already knew intimately to get a sense of its level of accuracy. Most ChatBots at this stage still botch things a lot.

  11. ckubica November 18, 2023 at 9:09 am

    This is very helpful since I’m reading a lot of books for research for a book I’m writing, The Seven Storms Uprooting Humanity. One through line is the history of how leaders have whipped people up into a frenzy using Christianity to control and manipulate.

    Any suggestions on books I should read?

    • BDEhrman November 24, 2023 at 12:55 pm

      Sounds interesting. There are hundreds of books dealing with relevant topics to your interest, including those dealing with, say, heresy and orthodoxy, the Christianization of the empire, Christian legislation starting with Constantine and esp. Theodosius *, the history of anti-Judaism leading to anti-Semitism, the destructoin of pagan religious sites, the power of the early Christian councils, etc. etc. But you’re probably familiar with all of that from your research so far. It’s been a theme of a lot of my work, starting with Lost Christianities and most recently my Triumph of Christianity. Good luck with your project!

      • ckubica November 28, 2023 at 8:40 am

        Thank you, Bart. This is very helpful. The bones of my book are written, and now I’m diving deeper. Your book, the Triumph of Christianity is on my list to start Thursday. Thank you again. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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