Advice on Reading

Some original, famous, and counter-intuitive advice on reading comes to us from the 18th century writer and literary critic Samuel Johnson (1709—1784).

For example: It was never his practice to read books from cover-to-cover. And only a few books were worthy enough to be read completely, meaning, after reading to the end he returned to the beginning to read the first half he originally skipped. Advice like this is uniquely Johnson. So I’ve collected a few choice excerpts, mostly borrowed from James Boswell’s, The Life of Samuel Johnson (Everyman’s Library 1906).


“Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.” [Boswell 270]

“What is read with delight is commonly retained, because pleasure always secures attention but the books which are consulted by occasional necessity, and perused with impatience, seldom leave any traces on the mind.” [The Idler #74 (September 15, 1759)]

Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. JOHNSON: “I have looked into it.” “What,” said Elphinston, “have you not read it through?” Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, “No, Sir, do you read books through?” [Boswell 462]

Friday, April 7, I dined with him at a Tavern, with a numerous company. JOHNSON. “I have been reading Twiss’s Travels in Spain, which are just come out. They are as good as the first book of travels that you will take up. They are as good as those of Keysler or Blainville; nay, as Addison’s, if you except the learning. They are not so good as Brydone’s, but they are better than Pococke’s. I have not, indeed, cut the leaves yet; but I have read in them where the pages are open, and I do not suppose that what is in the pages which are closed is worse than what is in the open pages.” [Boswell 542]

Walter Jackson Bate: “His equivalent of a library was, of course, his father’s bookshop. Balked by the school procedure from reading either for substance or even for style in any genuine sense, his immense curiosity found outlet in independent dipping into books and skimming them. And his habit of instantly ‘relating’ one thing to another, which Mrs. Thrale rightly thought one of the secrets of his mental superiority, enabled him to get a point quickly, to see its ramifications, and to anchor it to a growing corpus of general thought that was imaginatively and fertilely alive. Here, in this kind of reading, simply because it was done without deliberate purpose, and not confined within a conscious program or demand, the inner protest and instinctive mulishness declined, though it did not completely disappear. For this sort of reading could be viewed as a kind of escape. It could hardly be called ‘work.’ Even so, a certain mulishness remained… This appears, for example, in his growing habit of not finishing books. Later, as if to make a virtue of necessity (since the habit was to become thoroughly ingrained in him), he enjoyed starling others—particularly pedestrian and solemn scholars (just as he enjoyed startling snobbery of any kind)—by flaunting his inability to ‘read books through.’” [Samuel Johnson (Counterpoint 1998), 34—35]

He said that for general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to; though, to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance. He added, “what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” He told us, he read Fielding’s Amelia through without stopping. He said, ‘if a man begins to read in the middle of a book, and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it, to go to the beginning. He may perhaps not feel again the inclination.” [Boswell 656]

Dr. Johnson advised me to-day to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. “What you read then,” (said he,) “you will remember; but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject moulds in your mind, it is a chance if you have again a desire to study it.” He added, “If a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he shall prescribe a task for himself. But it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination.” [Boswell 766]

In the morning of Tuesday, June 15, while we sat at Dr. Adams’s, we talked of a printed letter from the Reverend Herbert Croft to a young gentleman who had been his pupil, in which he advised him to read to the end of whatever books he should begin to read. JOHNSON. “This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep to them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?” [Boswell 1154—1155]


8 thoughts on “Advice on Reading

  1. This past year is the first year I have tried reading several books at the same time. Usually, I would read one book through before starting another. Not only has this strategy helped me read more books, it has helped me retain more of what I read. Posts like these are very helpful. Thanks!

  2. I would challenge that some texts are made to be struggled with. I often cannot understand scripture, and I often almost grapple with it’s words till it becomes an arduous task. However, I know the benefit is mine for my pains.

  3. Thanks Jude. Corey, there are certainly books worth the struggle, although scripture was most certainly not what Johnson is speaking of in these excerpts. He often uses the phrase “books written by men” as a qualifying designation. With Scripture we are to wrestle the meaning out of a text. Good distinction.

  4. I think we should all be honest and say that many books which come out today are often padded to meet the publishers demands and while I think there are certainly books that need to be read cover to cover, there are others that a good water-ski through will suffice.


  5. Corey,

    you said “I would challenge that some texts are made to be struggled with.”

    I just finished Religious Affections and have to agree with you that some texts, the Bible being the supreme example, are made to be struggled with.

  6. I was tickled by John Piper’s interview a year or so ago, when asked something like, “What are you reading?” He answered, “I seldom finish a book…” (my paraphrase).

    I told my Dad he was in good company b/c that’s his habit toward books.

  7. This post makes me feel much better about my habit of starting too many books and then not finishing them all. It is nice to know I am in good company.

  8. […] So, I ask again, why is anybody trying to reproduce the book? It's a mediocre vehicle for transmitting information. That's why it has been on the fade not since the beginning of the 21st century but since the beginning of the 20th. It's why Philip Larkin said in 1964 that books are a load of crap. Even in 1773, by Jove's beard, Samuel Johnson replied (tartly), "No, Sir, do you read books through?" […]

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