Essay / Culture

Reading Books: Quantity or Quality?

Well, Harry Potter has once again hit the stores, to the rowdy “Hurrah!” of millions of devotees (one of whom blogs frequently about the boy wizard on this website). I imagine that employees have really racked up the overtime this week while the US economy has likely stayed steady given that profits from Potter book sales are likely offset by the thousands of absentee employees on Monday who were either too tired to come to work after a marathon reading of the latest tome or who did not have time to read it all on Sunday and “just had to finish” on Monday. Without a doubt, the topic of reading books is in the air again!

In addition to this week’s buzz over the students at Hogwarts, I also just finished reading the blog written by two non-Christian Torontonians who were paid to visit five churches over the past few weeks and who were recently highlighted in Scriptorium Daily’s “Recent Links.” My interest in this blog was mainly because I spent six years living in the greater Toronto area, first as a doctoral student and then as a local pastor, though the two blogging gyrovagues did not visit my former church. Something in one of the blog posts of Sabrina, a self-described “pagan,” caught my attention. When introducing herself on the blog she mentioned that she was a voracious reader. Though she fails to mention what she reads, this tidbit of information is likely intended to give us (the readers) a sense that she has been educated from all of this reading, giving her blog entries a credibility they would lack if she described herself as an obsessive, compulsive couch potato who has watched every Oprah episode for the past ten years. That said, this week’s passion over Potter and Sabrina’s voracious reading habits leaves me asking the question, what’s more important: what you read or how much you read?

From the start, it’s worth reminding the readers of this blog that I am a professional reader, that is, I teach in a university program that spends time reading and discussing the great books of the western world. When I am not in the classroom teaching, I am talking with students about books or reading more books for my own research, reading books for review in journals, and on and on. Books, books, books! They are the “stuff” of my life.

That said, I want to return to my question of what matters most when it comes to reading books, quantity or quality? If one were to pose a similar question to a bunch of frat boys in the Bahamas during spring break, “what matters most to you right now, the quantity of your beer or the quality,” their answer will likely be a whole-hearted “quantity!” That seems to be the general trend in the world of books right now — don’t necessarily give me quality, just give me quantity. For example, the first run of the latest Potter books was around 12 million copies. That’s a lot of books! Most academic books (i.e., books published by university presses and specialized presses) are lucky to have a run of 500 or 1000 and often cost nearly $100 to purchase. Now, I am not saying that the Potter franchise lacks quality, just that the bulk of the readers of Potter are not the types to also read a book published by Cambridge University Press anytime soon (Scriptorium Daily bloggers aside). In fact, some Potter fans have lamented that because this last volume is now in print, they do not know what they are going to do next. It appears that their reading careers have ended. In their minds, there is nothing left on the planet to read. Forget that section of their local bookstore entitled “Classics” with such bizarre books as A Tale of Two Cities, The Brothers Karamazov and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Forget the “Poetry” section with insignificant authors like Ovid, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Czeslaw Milosz. No, without Potter there is nothing else to read.

Of course, there is plenty to read but not all of it is worth reading nor does voracious reading necessarily mean that you are giving yourself a good education. For instance, there are currently 174 books in the well-known Hardy Boys series. Should I decide to read all of them over the course of a month or even a week, will I be a better theologian or historian? Could the Hardy Boys make me a better husband or father? Probably not, though I may become an expert on early twentieth century “cheeky” vocabulary! You see, reading 174 books of the Hardy Boys type, though it may sound impressive, will likely do nothing more than entertain (or bore?) me. It won’t make me an expert in anything. Ah, but one good history of the Middle Ages or one tome of Karl Barth and I can give myself something to chew on for days, weeks or even for life. One read through Homer’s Iliad only makes you want more as does Dante’s Divine Comedy.

When it comes to books, quality is more important that quantity. Better to read one substantial book this month than most of the books located in your local “Fiction” section. Again, don’t get me wrong, there is some great modern fiction out there. Unfortunately, most people will not look behind the Harry Potter display to see it. How unfortunate.

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