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.
Unlock 4,000+ Articles Like This!
You like this post? It's free! However, you'll need to be a blog member to read most articles here. Get access to Dr. Ehrman's library of 4,000+ articles plus five new articles per week. Membership starts at $2.99/mth and every cent goes to charity!
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.
Over $2 Million Donated to Charity!
We have two goals at Ehrman Blog. One is to increase your knowledge of the New Testament and early Christianity. The other is to raise money for charity! In fact, in 2022, we raised over $360,000 for the charities below.