I recently realized that the majority of works that I have been reading are quite dry and boring to the average reader. That being said, that does not mean the book in question is bad, just that it is written in such a way that does not satisfy the human desire for a little drama or narrative. In fact, some boring writers really have the most important things to say, but the technical language they use in striving for correctness limits their audience only to those with the patience to endure the boredom. It is, however, oftentimes worth it.
I do not mean to insult such writers or works, calling them boring; I mean to point out that their writing is, on its very face, unexciting. If it helps, you may think of some of the works discussed as school “textbooks,” which everyone acknowledges to be boring but still useful.
Therefore, I would like to share some tips on reading boring works so that you may have less trouble gleaning the important parts.
Some of the physical things I mention may or may not be applicable to ebooks. In my uninformed, purely instinctual opinion, ebooks are inferior to physically print books for quality study. Further, there was the Amazon fiasco years ago where they made the novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four disappear from readers’ accounts. What else could they do?
It Is Not Entertaining
First and foremost, do not expect to be entertained by Aristotle. He, the quintessentially boring philosopher, is very dry reading written in the dryest way possible. The topic at hand such as Ethics may be fairly exciting, but his treatment of the topic is unexciting due to the nature of his technical language and the utmost care put into his reasoning. I find that if you approach what you expect to be a boring book, you will be better prepared for its dullest moments. As great as Aristotle is, for example, there are precious few “hot-takes” and an awful lot of common-sense.
(I think it was Edward Feser in his book, The Last Superstition that said Plato’s writing was sexier than Aristotle’s. It takes but a few paragraphs of each philosopher to prove that statement, but the down-to-earth reasoning of Aristotle is definitely superior. After all, Plato wrote the entire dialogue Lysis in trying to define what a friend was and had no conclusive answer; Aristotle defines a friend succinctly in both the Ethics and Rhetoric; Lysis is certainly a more entertaining read, but the Ethics is far more accurate.)
Aristotle need not be our only example: I am nearly finished reading Walter Gieseking and Karl Leimer’s two books on Piano Technique. This is not a lesson book, but a technical treatise on everything from relaxation of the hands and shoulders to proper damper pedal usage. As you have probably guessed, despite being written by a once famous pianist and pedagogue, Piano Technique is tearfully boring even for someone well-versed in the topic. I did not expect an exciting book when I picked it up and I expected it to be a struggle to read, and I was not disappointed. Moreover, this is not some self-fulfilling prophecy: I challenge anyone to find such a book a “lively” read. All I am saying is that there is a lot of truth within the pages of boring books, but the reader must not approach them with the expectation of an exciting revelation like they would find in a novel.
In some ways, my “boring” books have made me skeptical of more exciting books. At least the boring books take great care to speak correctly even if it does entail boredom.
Personally, I have always loved Ecclesiastes, the reason being that its one “hot take” is that there are no “hot takes” at all. That is, there is nothing new under the sun, and I would postulate that most things are only “hot takes” to us because we are ignorant of them; once we are no longer ignorant, they lose their heat.
For this reason, do not read with the expectation of finding “hot takes.” In fact, be skeptical of anything claiming to have “hot takes” because “hot takes” may not have been scrutized sufficiently. To continue our example with Aristotle, his writing is lacking in “hot takes” but his scrutiny contained in the dialectical method is well above par; if his syllogisms sometimes read like mathematical proofs from geometry class, that is because they are supposed to. The latter is far more desirable for truth, the former for book sales.
Two semi-exceptions to this statement can be found in the Christian writings of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. In some ways, they are not saying anything new, but their presentation of their topics is certainly fresh. In a sense, a Chesterton polemic is an exciting way of reading what is normally boring, especially with his characteristic wit. Their takes are hot because the early 20th century atmosphere in which they wrote was cold.
The Studying Frame of Mind
Another help to reading boring books is to think of it more as a study rather than reading. You do not merely read St. Thomas Aquinas, you must study his work. St. Thomas Aquinas is a particularly good example because of his organization in writing: if the reader wishes to study the unity of God for example, he need only flip to that particular question in the Summa Theologica.
Reading versus Studying is an important distinction, because reading is sometimes construed as only consumptive like television, whereas studying is about gaining additional knowledge. When you pick up Aristotle’s Metaphysics, understand that you must study the book; it is impossible to just read it and glean any meaning from it.
In school, it was thought the faster readers were the better readers, but this is only true if the faster reader gets the meaning of his reading material. It is not at all how fast you read, it is about how much you absorb and remember from the book; reading a book without piercing its surface is vain reading, unless of course, the book lacks depth in the first place. Much like approaching a new piece of music, reading slowly and carefully is strongly advised, lest you misunderstand.
Again, there is the rudimentary skill of reading which is enough to read ridiculous advertisements, and the far more difficult apprehension found only in concentrated study. To do the latter, reading slowly is a must.
Where to Read
When reading boring books, where you read them is surprisingly important. It is unnecessarily difficult to read these books in a distracting environment. Find a quiet, well-lit, and comfortable place to read. I have a reading area set up in my bedroom, a large armchair and ottoman with a lamp. It is comfortable enough to read, but not so comfortable that I am likely fall asleep. Very few distracting sounds penetrate to this area as well.
I advise against reading difficult books in bed, because the bed is too relaxed and causes the mind to become lax with drowsiness. Sitting upright in a chair is much better for difficult or boring books; save the bed reading for easy books.
If you so have the opportunity, reading out in nature can be quite hospitible as well. The fresh air and bird calls can be quite conducive to productive study as long as distractions like biting insects are kept at a minimum. There is a small mountain not far from me that I have occaisonally gone up on to read in quietude.
Get A Dictionary
No, not some dictionary app on your phone, get a physical dictionary at your local thrift shop and put it accessibly in your reading area. The phone screen distracts us for a multitude of reasons, but picking up the dictionary to define “enthymeme” only slightly breaks one’s reading concentration. In order to deal with the technical language that boring books use, a dictionary is indispensable.
Also, physical dictionaries are static objects, that is, their definitions do not magically change at the whims of social engineers behind modern online dictionaries. Online dictionaries may be worth having for convenience on-the-go, but never take them as seriously as an old hard-bound dictionary.
Consider A Reading Notebook
I have only occaisonally done this myself, but I will mention it if it helps others. The legendary composer Ludwig van Beethoven kept a diary in which he wrote down things he thought worth remembering, either from books he read or musicians he spoke to. I personally find the practice a little tedious, but I can see the obvious advantage. One can write down his main takeaways from each boring book he reads as well as important quotes on particulars.
At the very least, I would suggest marking up the books with highlighters or pen if they are yours. It is a low-effort way of marking important things, but not nearly as organized as the above method. Especially for larger books, one should really notate things in a separate notebook simply because one cannot just “flip through” the Bible to find their notes.
I often tell my piano students at the end of their lessons to go home and immediately work on whatever we worked on together to help solidify the new information in their minds. A similar approach needs to be taken after or while reading a boring book: thinking about what the book is saying and how it applies realistically is of utmost importance; we must not read in a vacuum, as if the book is totally irrelevant to “real life.” Further, taking a few moments between chapters to contemplate what was read is a good practice for the more difficult topics, especially if that chapter is foundational to the next chapter. Here, the reading notebook aforementioned may come in handy yet again.
While I am sure there are strategies I have left out, the above tips should serve to help those who wish to read boring but important books. I felt the struggle of trying to read difficult things when I first took up serious study of philosophy and theology, but with a systematic approach and careful reading, we can get closer to what St. Thomas Aquinas was rumored to have once said when asked what he was most grateful to God for (paraphrased):
“That I have understand everything I have ever read.”