How I Choose What to Read

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Over a decade ago I began recording what I read (a few years later I added what I watch). I read as part of my daily routine and as a default leisure activity. I read routinely in the morning and when I have opportunity throughout the day. If I have a review to write or a research deadline to meet, I schedule reading blocks. For example, in my calendar I write, “3-4 pm: Appointment w/K. Barth.” Sometimes reading material is chosen for me. More often, I make my own choices.

So, how do I choose what to read?

These ten ideas guide my selections.

1. Pursue Interests

As an undergraduate student I became interested in Christian theology, Christian ethics, Christian apologetics, and church leadership. Some reading was curricular, but not all. The more I read, the more names, ideas, and categories of thought became familiar. An intellectual map began to emerge, and connections were made. As new authors, concepts, and fields of inquiry presented themselves, the borders of the map expanded, and I was no longer confined to subcategories of Christian thought. For example, the essays of Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas led me to Richard Adams’ Watership Down and philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue. My interests led me into a broader range of literature, and I kept wandering, and wandering, and wandering along.

2. Identify Literary Heroes

My favorite authors include the aforementioned Stanley Hauerwas, philosopher and Christian spiritual formation author Dallas Willard, pastor and poet Eugene Peterson, and crime novelist Michael Connelly, to name a few. I’ve tried to become friends with the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (it’s not always easy, but we’re getting along). I like Charles Portis and Larry McMurtry and Flannery O’Connor. I enjoy reading C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein and G. K. Chesterton. I have been encouraged by the writings of James Bryan Smith. Wherever Alan Jacobs goes, I tend to go along.

Identify the writers you love to read, and read them.

3. Develop Literary Taste

Not everything is worth reading. Ecclesiastes 12:12 says, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” You don’t have to finish every book you start, and you don’t have to read every book people you respect recommend. You’ll pick up some books and within the first fifty pages determine it is more suitable for kindling (or worse). Your taste in literature is your own. Discover it. Develop it. Refine it.

4. Read Old Stuff

In a famous essay, “On the Reading of Old Books,” C. S. Lewis wrote:

“Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. . .[But] if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books.”

That’s interesting advice. I read Dante’s Divine Comedy a couple of years ago, which was completed around the year 1321. I read new books. But I have taken Lewis’s advice to heart. When I consider what to read each year, I mix in ancient philosophy and early church history. That’s proven profitable.

5. Consult Footnotes and Bibliographies

In nonfiction literature (and some creative fiction), footnotes and bibliographies are there to acquaint us with the background, context, and web of ideas that contributed to the author’s original work. If you notice authors and titles come up in repeated and interesting ways in the main body, footnotes, and bibliography of a work, sound the bugle and let the hunt begin.

6. Challenge Yourself

I confess I don’t always understand everything I read. When I began reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I often walked away puzzled. The same has been true when I’ve read Jurgen Moltmann or N. T. Wright or Johnathan Edwards or Fyodor Dostoevsky. Sometimes I’ll go back and read slowly. Other times I’ll press on and trust the process of reading, believing that the ideas I find in one place will appear elsewhere in The Great Conversation, and clarity will emerge in due time, if it is needed. I approach reading with a degree of trust in Providence.

7. Be Open to Different Genres

I wrote above that my interest in Christianity helped me become a reader. But so did British literature. The sonnets of Shakespeare, John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley helped me appreciate poetry. Later, I read political theory, history, social science, and cultural commentary in an effort to better understand the American milieu. Biography and autobiography have helped me learn wisdom from the stories of others. You can have a favorite genre. But go exploring.

8. Pay Attention to Readers, and Keep a List

The latter first: when an author or title catches your eye or ear, capture it. Make a list. I use an app on my phone. I also have an earmarked section in a notebook. Routinely review this list and make selections.

If you befriend readers, ask what they read. If you read writers who mention other authors, take note. If a magazine or publication produces a “great books” list, consult it. With experience, you’ll differentiate between those recommenders to heed and those to ignore.

9. Collect Books

I borrow books. I love libraries. But I also buy books. I pre-order books from authors I love. I buy used books. I shop the book sections of thrift stores (I did this at a Goodwill last week). And I don’t always read my purchases immediately. As your library grows, scan the spines, see what you have, and pull off two or three books that you want to read. Set one on your nightstand or by your reading chair. When you have a few moments, read a few pages, and move the bookmark. Read from your collection.

10. Set Goals

My annual reading goal is to complete a set number of books. This year I am aiming for sixty. I’m a little behind pace, but hope to catch up during the summer. When I begin a new year, I think of titles that I have meant to read but haven’t yet, or I choose a research interest I’d like to pursue. Last year, I began reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It took me a long time to reach the end. I’m still reading a Ron Chernow biography of George Washington.

Choose a title or an author and set a goal. I pick one or two books at the start of each year that I pledge to finish. I will read other things. But my goal books are the bedrock, the core, of a reading year.

One Other Factor: Serendipity

Some great reads are discovered as if by accident. The right book comes along at the right time. A book catches my eye at a used bookshop, and the blurbs are from people I respect. Suddenly, I’m delighted by words on the page, a story beautifully spun, or wisdom delivered via a dusty codex. There are few things in life I enjoy more than the pleasures of reading. Books are a gift of God.