Discover more from Churchatopia
On Reading Lists
Arminian Baptists: A Biographical History of Free Will Baptists is now available for purchase from Randall House. It may not fit in most Christmas stockings, but you’ll never know unless you try.
Of Making Many Books There is No End
I recently attended a conference with an impressive exhibit hall. It was filled with books from wall to wall. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but upon entering it the first time, I was struck with a bout of anxiety. I was unable to linger more than a few minutes before exiting. Some of it was perhaps the crowd, but I was simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of discounted books.
Anyone with a modicum of honesty will inevitably admit, “I’ll never read half of these books.” For that matter, they’ll not read a tenth of them. I’m not a full-time researcher, publisher, or someone with an excuse to read large chunks each day. Nor could I afford to acquire more than a limited number of titles.
Let me first offer my most fundamental observation to anyone who feels any sadness, modest or deep, about the limited scope of their reading: do not despair. The Bible is the book we most need to master and be mastered by. It’ll take our entire lives. If you focus on it and fulfilling the vocation God’s Spirit has called you to, you’ll probably find a way to read the books you most need to read. Even the brilliant and wise Solomon tells us that the making of books was an endless enterprise (Eccl. 12:12).
I wish I could say that I arrived at this perspective ten or twenty years ago, but it has taken time to cultivate the realism and wisdom necessary to think well about reading. And on many days, I still feel the internal struggle to discipline myself in this area.
Those serious about growth and learning realize that intentionality is essential. Thus, a reading list can be a valuable tool for us to prioritize our reading. I’ve created one now for several years.
The first lists I created were years ago while in college and seminary. They were based largely off the suggestions of professors and the titles I kept noticing repeatedly in footnotes. Over time I simply tried to put together a list to keep track of what I had already read. In the last four years I’ve created lists ahead of time of what I hoped to read in the forthcoming year. Once I had my dissertation in the rearview mirror, I felt quite a bit less guilty in doing this!
So how does one go about creating a useful reading list? Let me mention three main factors that will determine the type of list you construct. (There are more than three, but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere!)
First, what do you need to read? Our reading is often dictated by educational assignments, personal projects (whether a writing project or a book club), perceived blind spots, or professional obligations. While people obviously “opt in” on the first two, all four impose a commitment of some kind. Your list will have to start with these. Depending on your stage or station of life, this factor alone can fill a list.
Second, what are you capable of reading? This question touches on several intellectual and mental issues. It includes reading level, in terms of difficulty. It concerns the willingness and ability of someone to set aside the requisite time to work through books that are lengthier and/or challenging in subject matter. And as an extension of the second issue, you probably can only get through a certain number of books in a year anyway. For most people, one or two complex books or ones of an unfamiliar genre can easily sidetrack them. This isn’t even to mention the biggest problem readers have: trying to read too many books simultaneously.
Third, what would you most like to read? The readers most likely to plow through a list are those who play to their strengths. They stick to the subjects, authors, and themes that interest, inform, and inspire.
Depending on how you answer these questions—and what weight you assign to each—that will go a long way to determining the content and length of your list. Tim Challies’ blog has provided some helpful resources in recent years to help different types of readers make decisions about reading. (The cover image for this post is from him.) I commend these resources to readers.
What about Your List?
Two years ago, I thought it would be fun to try to read 52 books in a year. Admittedly, this was arbitrary, aside from the fact that this would average out to one book per week. I haven’t reached this goal in either year in case you’re wondering. If I’m lucky, I’ll read 36 or 37 this year.
I’m not especially disappointed. If anything, I’m a bit embarrassed. By now I’ve learned increasingly to value quality over quantity. Practically, reading 12 books of great depth and beauty is far better than reading 52 books, even if a few of them have depth and beauty also.
Another virtue that I’ve come to embrace is trying to discern the delicate balance between breadth and depth. Should I read deeply in a specific area, or should I try to touch on many different topics? My research interests always push me toward the former, while my wide-ranging interests and curiosities push me toward the latter approach. I wish I could be more specific on this point, but I do think some who read for depth would do well to read more broadly, and vice versa.
Another characteristic of my annual list is categorizing the books I hope to read in one of five areas:
Biblical & Theological Studies
Philosophy & Ethics
Ecclesiology, Ministry, Leadership, and Spirituality
Current Events, Cultural Studies, Social Science, Science, & Politics
Biography, History, and Fiction
Admittedly, the boundary between some of these categories is a bit porous. I have certainly tweaked these descriptions through the years, but I have mostly stuck with these the last few. Some years I tend to read more in one category than others.
Another characteristic of a good reading list is the balance between old and new. It’s easy to succumb to the tyranny of the present bestseller list while countless classics gather dust on the shelf. Again, what counts as an “old” book? How recent counts as “new”? C.S. Lewis has some good observations about this in God in the Dock. However, I would be a hypocrite if I said I discipline myself enough to only read one new book for every two old ones, or something along those lines. I do think it is a good aspiration to have.
What about adjustments? Can the list change? Absolutely. Sometimes you begin a book that was well-reviewed and looked interesting, but it becomes apparent after a chapter or two that it’s not worth your time. Or perhaps there is a specific chapter alone that may be worth your time, but then you can safely move on after reading it. Life is too short to burn a week or two on a book that’s poorly written or ill-conceived.
I regularly change my list, even once the year is well underway. Sometimes interesting books come to my attention that I wasn’t aware of earlier. Or a new writing project on my plate requires me to do some digging I hadn’t planned to do. Sometimes you’ll have to stay focused if you’re to move through your list, but other times some flexibility is just what the doctor ordered.
Other Hints and Suggestions
Naturally my interests and commitments will differ from everyone reading this, and therefore our lists will differ. I can say that I am currently creating my list for 2023. Among the factors that are shaping that list (in addition to those above) are (1) titles I intended to read this year but didn’t get to; (2) books I own but have never read; (3) personal recommendations from others; (4) favorite book lists from bloggers I occasionally read. See Russell Moore and Trevin Wax’s lists here. Andrew Sullivan mentions two of his favorites from this year here that caught my attention; and (5) award-winning books from this year. The Gospel Coalition recently published theirs, and I am awaiting the ones given by Christianity Today.
As an aside, before the end of the year, I intend to release the list of books I read in 2022, including my favorites. I’ll also share my tentative list for 2023.
Perhaps the other helpful piece of advice I can offer on this topic is this: use your local library system! More than once I’ve heard people lament the difficulty purchasing all the books they’d like to read. This is when I recall some counsel Dr. Paul Harrison gave us Greek students many years ago: don’t buy paperbacks unless you know you need the book. Invest your money in reference books you’ll use over and over through the years.
Now, have I always followed this advice fully? No, but it has stuck with me. I have learned to take advantage of the local public library, the college I teach at, and the nearby seminary. While not everyone will have access to the second and third, most everyone can get a membership at a public library. Many of them have very generous borrowing privileges such that if they don’t have the book you want, they can obtain it from another library. And some will even be nice enough to acquire the ones you request them to purchase. It never hurts to ask.
I derive much pleasure from reading, but like any pleasure, it can be undisciplined. We need structure and prudence if we’re to use our limited time on earth wisely. I’ve been especially humbled this year by how quickly my life is flying by, and how every average or sub-par book I give time to only consumes more of that fleeting time.
Dear readers, may God help us to remember our limits such that we see the need to read, learn, and grow. And as we remember those limits, may we also discern how to pursue reading that truly edifies us and glorifies God.
In a recent newsletter, I provided some remarks on my recent experience at the National Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Denny Burk, whose blog I’ve long enjoyed reading, has provided some observations and takeaways from the meeting here. Take a look.
Quote of the Week:
Depression is never so simple as, ‘Some bad things happened to me and caused my depression’ or ‘I have a chemical imbalance.’ Our depression is always affected by our interpretation of external events. We filter the meaning and significance of those events through our view of God, others, the world, and our self. Even chemical imbalances often need an interpretive push to send us over the line into the dark hole of depression. Indeed, our internal response generally makes quite a difference with regard to our experience of depression.