Can you really read a book a week?


I’m increasingly seeing the same thing said about some remarkably high-powered people.  Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Rick Warren, are all among the people of whom I’ve heard it said that they all read a book a week.

I think that is extraordinary, and while I have no doubt that the stories are true – for those three, the claim is well documented – I do find it an astonishing claim.

So let’s get some things straight

Who are these people?  They are all high capacity individuals, who would have risen to the top of almost any profession because of their remarkable (and varied) gifts.  Among those gifts, presumably, are concentration, self-discipline, and quick absorption of information.

What are these books?  Actually, I think this is more to the point.  Because there are some  books which are best taken on board not so much by reading as selective sampling, knowledge of the index and contents, and a high-speed scan through with a highlighter. Lots of popular church leadership books fall into this category, and they can be filleted fairly quickly.  Most of the advice on the web is not about reading a book, so much as understanding it – filleting it for ideas.

That’s the standard advice in, for instance, How to read a book by Adler and Van Doren.  It’s useful, but only as far as it goes

Take the most recent three books I have reviewed on the blog.  None of them is a quick read; in fact, to read them quickly is to do them is a disservice.  Their ideas need time to expand and breathe.  One is quite light and fun, but if you speed up you miss the jokes.  Another is a serious work of history and philosophy which takes a lot of attention  And the third is about the danger of speed and triviality – which means you have to take it slow.

However, if you’re like me you have a lot of books on the go at the same time, and you pick one up depending on the mood – or the room – you happen to be in.  And I surprised myself last year when I tweaked the ‘book a week’ idea.

Instead, I aimed to finish 50 books a year.  And I did it.  And I’m on target for this year too.  I have to keep the foot on the accelerator, but I think the book-a-week advice is poor guidance.  Books have to persuade us, if they are to do their work.  And that takes time.

I used the ‘word finish’ because I have a terrible habit of starting, and then finding something else more interesting – or at least, newer and more shiny.

And I find the focus on the year to be much more realistic.  Frankly I doubt if it is possible to read The City of God in a week, no matter how much coffee you drank.  But give it a couple of months, in smaller doses, and you’re done.

Few of our books are as demanding as that, but most of the ones worth reading do take longer than a week to marinade.

So challenge yourself: read carefully and intelligently, but read a lot.

4 comments on “Can you really read a book a week?”

  1. I’ve noticed my need for the stimulation of reading to keep my faith lively, and set myself the goal of 25 books this year. I’m on course at the moment but suspect I need to get ahead before Christmas hits! Do you read all 50 to the finish (like my perfectionism prompts me to) or do you give some up if they’re no good?

    1. I find it really hard to give a book up! The price is therefore the excellent book I’m not starting because of the poor book I’m finishing. Sigh.

  2. I suspect that my question may cause you to question whether such a person can actually exist, and it might be beyond your experience, but do you have any tips for someone who simply finds reading tedious, slow, gruelling and dull? Because that is me… sit me in a talk and I will pretty much remember everything, give me something to watch and I’ll retain most of the information with no need to make notes. Give me a book, and I get to the end of a page and am struggling both for the motivation to continue and to remember what I’ve read…

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