How to read canonical Western literature

From a reader:

You should do a post on tips for reading canonical Western literature.  Especially on whether, and to what extent, one ought to read secondary stuff like criticism, biographies, histories alongside.  Also, to reread, or to read another canonical work for the first time instead.  Tips for the average interested reader…

For your consideration, feel free to ask me anything you’ve ever wanted to know about Kosrae (one of the four states that make up the great Federated States of Micronesia!)

I am hardly the expert here, and I don’t pretend these techniques will work for you, but here are my pointers:

1. Assume from the beginning that you will need to read the work more than once, or at least read significant portions of the work more than once.  Furthermore, these multiple readings should be done back-to-back (and also over many years, btw, after all this is the canonical).  So your first reading should not in every way be super-careful, as you don’t yet know what to look for.  Treat the first reading as a warm-up for the second reading to follow.

2. The first fifty pages very often should be read twice, in a single sitting if possible, even on your “first reading.”

3. Assemble three to five guides to the main book you are reading, or significant fairly general contributions to the secondary literature.  Consult those works throughout, and imbibe an especially large dose of them between your first and second readings of the classic itself.  But you shouldn’t necessarily read those books straight through, or finish them.  They are to be pillaged for both conceptual structure and particular insights, not to be reified as books in their own right.

4. Always be asking yourself how the classic work you are reading is engaging with other classic works you might know or know of.  Starting with the Bible, but not ending there.

5. Find people to talk to about the book.

6. Read Western canonical literature.  This is actually the most important item on the list.

p.s. Don’t forget the small groups and mentors!

Addendum: Nathan Meyvis comments.


Comments for this post are closed