One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon–it comes from his essay “Of Studies”–concerns the reading of books: “Some books are to be tasted, others are to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” This is usually taken as a wise or sententious general comment about the worthiness of various texts, but Ann Blair shows that Bacon was making a very practical recommendation to people who were overwhelmed by the availability of books and couldn’t imagine how they were going to read them all. Bacon tells such worried folks that they can’t read them all, and so should develop strategies of discernment that enable them to make wise decisions about how to invest their time. I think Bacon would have applauded Clay Shirky’s comment that we suffer not from “information overload” but from “filter failure.” Bacon’s famous sentence is really a strategy for filtering.

Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 110-111.

This is such an important, and liberating, point. You can’t read it all, and almost certainly shouldn’t try. Indiscriminate buying of books to fill out one’s “personal library” looks great on Instagram, but in practically every circumstance, it undermines the very intellectual pursuit it mimics. We instinctively guard the reading life against the threats of internet, TV, et al. But for some of us, the bigger threat to our intellectual formation may be our own vanity. Reading 1 book a month won’t buy many retweets. But between someone who digests 12 pleasurable, meaningful books a year, and someone who reads 1/6 of 50 different books, is there really a question which one is the actual “reader”?

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Posted by Samuel James

Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor for Crossway Books.

2 Comments

  1. […] * Jason Gudim and Brett Boe: Being Lutheran Podcast Episode #4 – Gnosticism * Samuel James: The Threat to Reading * Kevin Halloran: 5 Resolutions Against Technological Distractions * Vance Christie: Jesus Christ, […]

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  2. Maybe I have misunderstood this last statement “But between someone who digests 12 pleasurable, meaningful books a year, and someone who reads 1/6 of 50 different books, is there really a question which one is the actual “reader”?”

    It seems to me that it is highly likely that when one reads 1/6 of a book, they may have gleaned from it what was important and realized the remainder of the book is just a rehash of what was to be properly digested.

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