Saturday, August 24, 2013

Reading strategies

I have been reading with great delight Psalms through the Centuries by Susan Gillingham. This book summarizes in just over 300 pages the reception history of the psalms under five broad headings: 
  • commentaries and introductions
  • devotional and instructional works, 
  • aesthetic representations in literature, art and music, 
  • liturgical usage, 
  • and new translations.
The results of her lengthy research project are a pleasure to read however one might have grown up with the psalms, as a lover of literature, or in liturgy, as a singer of plainsong, Anglican chant, motets, and cantatas, and many other forms of singing the psalms, or one is, out of devotion, or what some may term an obsession, a translator of the psalms.

Even if one has written a commentary (and there are so many and so varied of these), one still needs to read and reread many times this creative collection of poems called the Psalter to extract from it the remarkable insights it affords into humanity and our training in the management of governance, pleasure, and violence. You may admit, perhaps, that these are somewhat critical to our lives these days.

Over the past 3 days, I reread the first five and the last five psalms in each book. I figured that starting at Book 1 was going to result in again losing track of where I was - so I worked backwards from Book 5. What I then note is that I have read 1/4 of Book 1 (31 poems remaining, 6 to 36), a third of Book 2 (21 poems remaining, 47 to 67), most of Book 3 (7 poems remaining, 78 to 84), similarly most of Book 4 (7 poems remaining, 95 to 101), and less than 1/4 of Book 5 (34 poems remaining, 112 to 145). Let's make sure this adds up. I have read 50 poems leaving me with 31+21+7+7+34 = 100 remaining. I have 10 bookmarks in my Seeing the Psalter.

To end up finishing all five books at the same time, I would read now 1 a day from each of Books 3 and 4, 3 a day from Book 2, and 4 or 5 a day from Books 1 and 5 - curious, eh? - about 13 or 14 psalms a day - a large chunk for a 10 day journey. Moving the bookmarks one at a time, I read in Hebrew and English, checking some words as I go - and improving my slow Hebrew. Right now if I am in a hurry, I skip the Hebrew - but I hope this will change.

But I won't manage this because I am going on yet another holiday next week!

If starting from 0 using this strategy to even it out a bit more over 10 days, read 4.1 poems a day from Book 1, 3.1 from Book 2, 1.7 each from Books 3 and 4, and 4.4 a day from Book 5 (15 a day).  Would I discover anything reading each book as a sandwich working both ends toward the middle, and nibbling some in the middle as well? Yes, you see connections as you go - always different. Juxtaposing different psalms against each other is revealing. A different 10 day journey would be to read all the poems that have the same day number as the day of the month modulo 10.

Another strategy for a 15 day journey is to read 1, 16, 31, 46, 61, 76, 91, 106, 121, 136 on day 1 and so on through to day 15 (10 a day). This 15 day strategy is not as easy to remember. But the problem with both is that they do not let the books each stand as a unit. Why are the books the way they are?

Once I really get these poems in my head, I think reading even one of them will suggest many links to the others. I suspect one could reduce the volume of reading per day as well. I wonder about treating Psalm 119 as 22 psalms and reading 2 a day over an 84 day cycle beginning at Psalms 1 and 85. You would get through the Psalter about once a quarter.