Different Kinds of Reading, Different Kinds of Books

Essayist Bookshelf 2013A couple of weeks ago I tweeted that I was reading 10 books simultaneously. I started looking at my reading notes, and this seems to be a habit for me. I can sit down, read one book all the way through, and then move on. But looking at the different books I am reading right now teaches me something about different kinds of readings we do.

Bedside Reading

My bedside reading pile is unending. What kind of world is this where there are so many great books to read! Alas, I get to almost none of the books I set aside to read before I go to sleep, but it is a big part of my evening.

I’ve recently gone through a Tom Clancy spell—I’ve already repented here. Now at bedtime I’m reading J. Aleskandr Wootton’s The Eighth Square (2013), the second part of an indie fantasy trilogy. Wootton is also a guest blogger here on A Pilgrim in Narnia, and this trilogy is the ideal fantasy-lovers series.

I am also reading a literary superstar’s memoir, which is a little odd for me. It is That Summer in Paris by Canadian Morley Callaghan (1963). Morley Callaghan’s fiction is worth reading, but this book came to me by accident. I found it in a reject bin about the same time I watched the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris (2011). I loved the film, but have a sneaking suspicion that Woody Allen stole the idea from Morley Callaghan. In vivid detail, Callaghan tells the story of his literary adolescence as he finds his way into friendships with Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemmingway.

I am also reading, little by little, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (1977). It is like the Bible for Tolkien geeks (to quote a friend). And I keep a book of poetry by the bedside, which I take in little sips.

Research Books

Part of what I do is research, and research means reading long, detailed books. In my world, those are usually books on philosophy, literature, theology, or history. The best thing to do with most of these books is to dig in and read whole chapters at a time. Sometimes I take 3-4 days and do nothing but read a single book. Other times I read a chapter a day.

In this cycle, I’m not reading anything really dense. I just finished The Cost of Discipleship (1937) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (which could now move to “enrichment” category), and moved on to Paul Tillich, Against the Third Reich (1942-44). This is a series of radio broadcasts this German-American theologian broadcast into German during WWII. His goal was to provide thinking Germans with the motivation to resist the Nazis, which he argued had betrayed Germany and the world. Once I was a few chapters in, I moved this to my Happenstance pile (see below), and just finished it last night. I’ll pick up another Tillich book tomorrow, and then perhaps Karl Barth.

Tolkien Fall of ArthurI am also reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s incomplete alliterative poem, The Fall of Arthur (c. 1934). The poem is only a small part of this book. The rest is made up of essays, commentary, and textual notes made by his son, Christopher Tolkien. I am in the nitty gritty of comparing manuscripts now, and have made quite a few notes.

Finally, I also took time to go through George MacDonald, Lilith (1895). Normally this would fit in my bedside reading, but it is an important work for understanding C.S. Lewis, so I did this as a sit down read. I will read it again this fall and make copious notes. It will be the same with Charles Williams’ “Chapel of the Thorn” (1912), which will be published soon. I read it once with a few notes, and looked at the manuscript at the Wade. Sometime later I will sit down, read it in more detail, and then do some writing on what I found.

Happenstance Books

Other than toilet reading, I don’t know if other folk have Happenstance Books. I try to have a book beside each of my reading places in the house, and one jammed between the seats of the car. For me, this has to be a specific kind of book. Madeleine L’Engle’s nonfiction works well for this. I finished Penguins and Golden Calves (2000) and have begun her Stone for a Pillow (2000). These are books I can pick up and read mid-paragraph or even midsentence without missing a beat. I am also reading C.S. Lewis’ George MacDonald anthology (1945) and the second volume of his Collected Letters (as part of reading Lewis chronologically).

Beside my study chair in my office, I also have Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur (1485). Among my Happenstance Books are some older ones that I read a chapter at a time. I am only a quarter of the way through the first of two volumes, so that will take some time. My big struggle is not the language, but keeping track of all the characters.

Lord of the Rings and HobbitFamily Reading

Family reading is a precious thing to me. We listen to an audiobook in the car from time to time (see below), but I also read to my son every second night. We just finished The Fellowship of the Ring (1954) and took a break to read a story I had finished. Now we are reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s adaptation, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table (1953). Hopefully we’ll begin The Two Towers (1954) soon, but we often get sidetracked by Shel Silverstein’s poetry or a cool book he brings home from school.

As-I-Go Audiobooks

I’ve recently blogged on my love for audiobooks, and I typically have a book in my ear when I am in between things. Before my recent trip to Chicago, I finished Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957), read by David Carradine. Next, I will listen to Perelandra (1943) as a way of rereading this beautiful book by C.S. Lewis.

On top of what’s on my iPod, my family also listens to the occasional book in the car. We are just about to finish Arthur Ransome, Swallows & Amazons (1930). I’m not sure what will be next for us!

Enriching Books

I have trouble naming this category. These are the books that I am reading that are focussed on spiritual or personal renewal. I don’t call them “devotional” reading because all my reading is devotional reading—it has more to do with my attitude in reading than the kind of book, I think. But madeleine lengle booksstill, there are some books I read so I can be challenged to grow in ways I can’t predict until I’ve read the book. Many of these are thoughtful  Christian spirituality books, but some of them are memoirs, creative nonfiction pieces, collections of poetry, and books on writing.

Right now a group I am part of is reading David Platt’s Radical (2010), and I am slowly going through St. Athananasius, On The Incarnation (c. 319 CE). This was translated by Sr. Penelope during WWII and is a real treat.

As I write this, I’m thinking of what will come next in his category. I have a hankering for Anne Lamott, Frederick Buechner, or more Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We’ll see.

There are other kinds of reading too. Skimming, scanning, fireside reading, campfire reading, summer beach reading, copy editing…. The list is endless. But these are the kinds of reading I do most often.

What about you? What sort of reading do you do? Do you also have a Happenstance Pile?

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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35 Responses to Different Kinds of Reading, Different Kinds of Books

  1. mrsnidster says:

    You are honestly awesome! Haha you remind me of myself, before marriage! I was such an avid reader, terrible to say I barely find the time to read now, but when I stick my face into a good book I finish it! haha.



    • We all have seasons, don’t we? This is one where I have paid money to read, so there is a lot of reading to do. I’ve had other seasons where it is all I can do to read a few pages at bedtime. Even in that season I still have the piles, but the piles don’t go down!


  2. childofaslan says:

    Your book stacks look VERY much like my own…in both teetering profusion AND specific books and authors! ❤


  3. Wow! I thought I had piles of books that I am reading but you have me beat! Not sure I quite understand your happenstance pile but since you mentioned Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction I am guessing that means books where you can pick a line or a paragraph and be instantly blessed by the small titbit. I have a pile of books on my bedside table of books I am currently reading and books yet to read. I also have a book or two which I started which I plan to go back to in the future and books I delve in and out of such as poetry and one of quotations. I have more in my bookcase in the living room waiting to be read and re-read. I try to give myself a break from reading fiction after every fictional book I read. I find fiction too absorbing of an escape and a vice for procrastination. 🙂


    • Ahhh, fiction as a vice. Well, there are worse vices!
      “Happenstance” means that when I sit down, there is a book at my right hand if I am ready to read. So it has to be a book that I can set down mid page and pick it up a couple of days later and still understand the story or argument. Madeleine L’Engle is a pretty random nonfiction writer, following rabbit trails as they emerge, so she is good for that. Letter collections are good, as well as “Selections from….” kinds of books.


  4. You have forgotten that important subcategory of Happenstance Reading, Handbag Reading (may not apply to you). Must be small, lightweight and bendable, and a glimpse of the cover at various moments during the day while searching for keys or apples must bring an “oh, yes, that’s right!” sensation to the moment. This moment is currently represented by one of the many strange post-modern art illustrative covers of a CS Lewis, but Emily of New Moon and her ilk seem to hang out there too. EB White made many a checkout wait manageable last year. But your wonderful post has been an urgent reminder of the feast! How, oh how will we ever eat them all?


    • Brilliant! Audiobooks have replaced some of my pocket reading (I don’t actually have a purse…). Lewis used to carry cheap volumes in his pocket. I just don’t wear pants big enough–or with pocketses big enough.
      I have the Kobo app on my phone now, and have done some reading on the plane or train. So I suppose that’s a Happenstance category!


  5. L. Palmer says:

    Due to the flexibility of my current living situation, and the boxes of books piled in my parents garage, I have used more and more e-books. The upside – I can read anything where my phone or tablet is. The downside- I don’t have that satisfying pile of books to be read and already read.
    I think this is a great division of the books. I need to remember to read books for education and books for fun. Right now, most of my reading time is taken up with writing things for other people to read.


    • Some of these are digital books, which I read with an e-reader (I don’t like shiny screens for reading).
      Once you’ve been a little while in the writing community, some of your time will go to peer review. There are seasons of this for me.


  6. Sue Archer says:

    I tend to want to read a book straight through from beginning to end before picking up the next one, because otherwise I lose the thread (not enough time these days to juggle too many!). I love those happenstance books, though – I use them as a moment to pause between things, and that can be very refreshing. 🙂


  7. Larkleaf says:

    I vividly recall the time, several years ago, when my mother at last put her foot down and made me clean off my desk. On it were stacked, in piles and heaps, twenty-seven books that I was simultaneously “in the middle of”. As you say (and as I argued then), different books for different moods and occasions!
    She didn’t buy it.
    In recent years, I have toned it down to four or five at once– but I watch with a smile as my little sister’s pile of books she’s “in the middle of” grows and grows and grows……


    • …and grows…and grows.
      I think I will pull this under control. But my wife is astounded that I seem to need a full bedside table. Perhaps it is less intellectual than it is emotional.


  8. I am impressed that you can read “Morte D’Arthur” over a long time span like that. When I read it last year, I read it over a period of two months as part of a book club between myself and two friends. We each take turns picking a book to read, giving ourselves a month or two to read it, if its long. There are a lot of characters in it, so I wouldn’t think it’d lend itself to too long a span…though it is highly episodic.


    • My problem really is the characters. I am stuck with the names of all these nights and all these adventures. My problem in reading is that 1/3 of it is pretty boring, and I find myself looking up after a few pages with only a thin sense of what happened. Plus, I’m reading the Roger Lancelyn Green retelling, and getting the order a big confused. We’ll see how it goes!
      I’ve actually printed off a grade school character list to help me along.


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  14. Taryn MacLellan says:

    I have always read multiple books at a time. It really used to bother my English teacher mother. Maybe she thought I wasn’t really reading them. When I was a preteen, I described it as playing school since it was also broken up by subjects.
    Currently I am reading, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, 180 Tips and tricks for new teachers by Melissa Kelly, Money Rules by Gale Vaz-Oxlade, and Rockbound by Frank Parker. These are my bedside books but my purse book is Jodi Picture’s Sing you home. I am also waiting to get “Les Etoiles Contraires” back from the library which is the French translation of John Green’s “The Fault in our Stars.” These days I like to have a French book, pure enjoyment book, finance book, something about teaching book, fitness and health (although I am currently not reading one), and a book to make me think and grow.
    My purse book is what I always have with me, just in case I have an unexpected reading opportunity.


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  22. keebslac1234 says:

    Loved the description of your reading materials. I’m envious of your organizational style. My wife and I have oodles of written stuff scattered everywhere (We’re not hoarders quite yet, though.)
    Let’s take a gander at my reading. I’m slogging through my Medicare provider manual (a reminder that some things just don’t translate to the page), the third book of the Wildwood trilogy by Colin Meloy, Reforming American Politics by Harold Heie, the winter edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iaian Pears, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (rereading), Dan Murphy’s Breakaway (a tale [sometimes ribald] of a medical doctor in the Americas), Looking for Dawn by Jim Schaap, a retired English professor from Dordt College, the Fall 2014 edition of the Annals of Iowa, the second volume of Maus, Doris Kearns Goodwin Team of Rivals (rereading and paying attention to the footnotes this time), my Canon EOS 7D camera instruction book, Randall Munroe’s “what if?” of xkcd fame, Alan Moore’s and David Gibbons’ Watchmen, the souvenir guide to the National Railway Museum, the illustrated novel Stephen Kings’ Dark Tower The Gunslinger Born (and looking for the out of print [I believe] second one in the series), MacWorld and American Photo (both magazines no longer being printed, I think), a past issue of the American Public Power Association annual report, an issue of the Land Institute Report (a journal of research into perennial agriculture), an Iowa Natural Heritage journal, The Art of Richard Thompson, Ansel Adams Yosemite and the High Sierra and older issues of Billboard and Rolling Stone.
    Incidentally, they’re organized by size. It facilitates stable stacking.
    Digitally, I’m dipping into the Standard Lesson Commentary Sunday school guide, the Wrinkle in Time trilogy, iPhone and iMac instruction guides and an older AP Stylebook.
    “Eclectic” and “great fun” are the descriptors. The world is too large to restrict reading too much, and I’m not even scratching the surface, right?
    Oh, suggestions for categorizing are welcome.

    Liked by 1 person

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