On Eating Big Elephants Slowly: How to Read A Lot of Books Without Exerting Yourself

I must confess that I am often embarrassed by what I have not read. I have not read Barth’s Church Dogmatics in its entirety. I have not read the Summa Theologica aside from key passages. I have not even finished works in the ANF to the degree that I would like.

I know that some people might say that I am holding myself to too high of a standard. Still, I desperately want to read these works and others like them. I want to be able to interact with the great theologians of the past with integrity.


Ah! Eat the books and not me! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I thought for some time that the answer to this problem was simply to bear down and power my way through. I would sit for hours trying to focus on an important text. I quickly found, though, that this approach was sincere but not the most efficient. My mind would soon begin to wonder, and I would start to lose interest (Barth is not the most fun read over a long period of time).

I then remembered a cheesy adage that I often heard during my childhood. People used to say that you can only eat an elephant one bite at a time. Their point was that before you take on a large project you must first break it up into smaller and more manageable tasks.  I also remembered a man who once told me that he read through the entirety of G. K. Beale’s massive A New Testament Biblical Theology while he was brushing his teeth. Each morning and each night when he brushed he would read a few pages (he must have been a serious brusher), and he eventually worked his way through it.

I now take this slow and steady approach to my reading, and I am overall excited by the results. I map out how many pages a day I that would like to read. When I follow the schedule and stay committed, I am often surprised by how much I have been able to accomplish. In fact, I heartily recommend it! I stay more focused on what I am reading, I am no longer intimidated by the length of the books, and I feel the satisfaction that comes from completing an important task.

Do you have a schedule to “eat the elephant” in your life? What routine do you use to read the books that fascinate you the most?

If it is helpful, here is the plan that I personally use:

  • 10 pages a day from a more recent work (right now it is Thiselton’s Systematic Theology)
  • 25 pages a day from Bavinck’s amazing Reformed Dogmatics
  • 15 pages a day from ANF
  • 10-15 pages a day related to Barth (either primary or secondary sources)
  • I also set aside roughly one hour each Friday for reading in the field of Baptist history. I read a primary source for 30 minutes (right now that is J. L Dagg’s Manual of Theology) and then a secondary source for the remaining amount of time (right now that is Bebbington’s Baptists Through the Centuries) Yea, it is nerdy, but I call it Baptist Friday.








About David Rathel

Husband to April; Baptist Minister; Student at St. Mary's Divinity School at the University of St. Andrews
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1 Response to On Eating Big Elephants Slowly: How to Read A Lot of Books Without Exerting Yourself

  1. Pingback: While you wait… – Theology at St Andrews

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