Think Before You Read

Photo by Oleksii Hlembotskyi on Unsplash

Alan Jacobs, in a recent edition of his newsletter, quotes Oscar Wilde on choosing what to read (and what to recommend):

Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:

  1. Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St. Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.
  2. Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.
  3. Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St. Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for, the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.

Pall Mall Gazette (1886)

I am occasionally asked for reading recommendations, and I tend to share what I have read, or what I have seen, or what I am confident rests along the lines of interest of the inquirer. And I occasionally have people ask me if a book is worth reading. That is an entirely different question. When that is the question, more often than not I answer, “no.”

Ecclesiastes 12:12 reads, in part, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” That verse came up repeatedly during my days in seminary, and I think of it from time to time. There are more books in print than any one person would every have time to read. More and more books are published each day. Not every concern that rises to the level of public debate is worth addressing. Not every question is worth the time and effort it would take to research. While it is delightful to learn new things and to explore new frontiers, conceding that others have more knowledge in a given area and admitting that you do not know is perfectly okay. Some books are not ours to read; some topics are not ours to master.

My advice to aspiring readers is to ask those who are well read what they are reading, to build lists, and to diligently and patiently chase authors and interests. I’ll add an admonition to pray and bring to one’s reading a faith that God is with us in our studies. We do not always appoint or choose our influences, rather, they find and grip us. This can be interpreted as a sign of divine providence. I have often heard it said, or testified, that the right books seem to find us at the right time. (Do the wrong books ever find us at the right time, or at the wrong time? Lord only knows how often we’ve been spared!)

We should not put aside our responsibility to seek faithfulness, to be discerning and discriminating with regard to what is ours to read and what is ours to set aside. We should also seek wisdom, and choose reading material that is timely and profitable for the season of life in which we find ourselves, or the line of inquiry that has been appointed for us to pursue. We should also choose that which is true and edifying, rather than trash. More reasons to be prayerful, all. In all things, desire that the Lord directs your steps.

We take one ride on this rock we call Earth. If you’re going to spend time with books, think before you read.