Reading Broadly or Deeply? Three Years in the Mind of a Genius

Photo © Tavis Bohlinger

 

By Matthew Everhard

Suppose you step into the entrance of an enormous library.  Like many, you feel enchanted by the possibility of learning. A bibliophile, your soul thrills at such unfettered access to human knowledge. Even the smell of books delights the senses. Each volume represents some small bit of knowledge or experience in a given field; one writer’s obsession for years or even a lifetime. But which books should you choose?

You reach out your hand, attracted by the look and feel of one volume, or provoked merely by the title of another. You are forced to make choices. You can take several books with you, perhaps even an armful. But the limitations of time and energy will force you to make some selection. You cannot read them all.

The Mountain Climber: Reading Broadly 

In some sense, all theologians choose between reading broadly and reading deeply. We could choose, for instance, to read quite widely from the whole range of Christian history: a little AugustineAquinas, and Luther here, and then a little bit of Warfield, Lewis, and Packer there. In fact, I would see great value in that sort of enterprise. I personally want to be well-read, and I think most other scholars, theologians, and pastors feel the same. I recently listened to a podcast with a theologian who took earned degrees in mathematics and law before engaging in the formal study of theology.

We call such scholars “polymaths.”

Reading broadly is a wonderful–and even glorious–choice. The polymath sees things from a high vantage point. She makes connections across fields; drawing sight-lines from one subject to another. She takes the way of the mountain climber to see things from an advantageous vista point. Yet choosing the high road of the polymath is still limiting and restricting in certain ways. One would have to skate quickly across the surface of some writers’ best works, and ignore many other primary contributors entirely. That library we imagined in paragraph one is enormous after all, and the broadly interested reader chooses books from multiple shelves, up and down the galleys, mastering no section completely.

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