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.

When Do You Read?

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A friend of mine recently asked, “When do you read?”

Years ago I read Stephen King’s On Writing. King argued that writers should be readers. He described his practice of carrying a book wherever he went. When he was waiting in a line to get into an event, in the reception area at the doctor’s office, or sitting at a coffee shop waiting for a friend to arrive, he cracked open what he was carrying and covered what ground he could. King observed that there are windows of time each day that could be spent reading. So he did. I have followed his example. I carry books with me, and I read whenever I can.

I also read at the beginning of every day. My rule of life includes reading four chapters from the Bible each day followed by an entry from a devotional work (for the past four years this has been Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest). I usually do this before everyone else in the household is awake. If not then, it is the first thing I do when I arrive in the office. It takes about a year for me to complete a reading of the Bible. After I finish Revelation 22, the next day I turn back to Genesis 1. I read a selection from Psalms with Molly as a daily habit, mostly in the mornings before we both walk out the door. If time allows while I am at home, I also read a chapter from Psalms during my time of devotion.

During the work day I read as my schedule and energy levels will allow. Each day I have administrative responsibilities in addition to meetings and time one-with-one building relationships with students, faculty, and staff colleagues. When I’m at my desk, my job requires a lot of reading. I read assignments and emails, articles and memos. I read on computer monitors and tablets. But I prefer print. And I prefer book length treatments of topics as opposed to articles. When I read professionally and for pleasure, I prefer paper, bound, the more beautiful the book jacket, the better. But a paperback suits me just fine.

I use a modified approach to Cal Newport’s time block planning system, and occasionally I’ll schedule myself for reading. What I’m reading at any given moment will vary. I often have more than one book going at a time. I maintain a stack of three to five books I’m actively reading on my desk at home, and another stack of one to three books on my desk at the office. At the office, what I’m reading is always professionally related. At home, the line is more blurry. I read history, creative nonfiction, novels, and poetry. But I read theology, practical ministry, and biblical studies stuff at home, too. The mix of books is a combination of professional interests, aspirational reading, personal enrichment, curiosity and wanderings, and trend chasing.

I also read in the evenings, at least for a few minutes, as I wind down for the day. This is most often a selection from the books residing on my desk in my study at home.

Most of the gains I make each year toward my reading goal are due to the fact that reading is my primary default leisure activity, and because I find reading pleasurable. I read whenever I have the opportunity. Books have become my constant companion. The result: I read a lot.

2022: My Year in Reading

Another year, another list.

My media log from 2010 and every year since is found here.

Please note: all links to Amazon are affiliate links. Clicks and purchases kickback to me. Support the blog and my reading habit. If a book in this post interests you and you plan to make a purchase, follow the hyperlink from this page. All the fun people do. As someone once told me, and as my best friend Ryan still does, “Be fun.”

How Many Books Did I Read This Year?

This year’s goal, once again was to read 60 books. Last year I fell short at 59. This year I exceeded my goal and read 63. The first book I finished was an edited volume by Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen called God in the Modern Wing: Viewing Art with Eyes of Faith. The last book I read was Trevin Wax’s The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith. Both books were published by InterVarsity Press. I cancelled my comic book subscriptions at mid-year, but I had enjoyed following Tom King and Greg Smallwood’s run in The Human Target. That series isn’t quite over, and I’ve stopped by Bankston’s to pick up single issues as they’ve hit the shelves.

I watched 64 movies and viewed 4 complete television series. That’s down from last year, when I watched 93 movies and 11 television series. It looks like this year we moved out of the pandemic and my viewing habits adjusted accordingly. My favorite movies this year included Zach Snyder’s Justice League, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, The Wrath of Man, Top Gun: Maverick, The Death of Stalin, Hard Eight, Nope, and Love Actually.

I didn’t really like Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, The Sweeney, Grown Ups, Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning, Pixels, The Courier, or Nemesis (1992). I didn’t care for Thor: Love and Thunder. I’ve begun to sour on the Marvel offerings.

In television, I did not enjoy The Book of Boba Fett: Season One. But I did like watching Bosch: Legacy and Cowboy Bebop: The Complete Series.

What Were My Favorite Books This Year?

I’m very glad I read Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

But Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man stands at the top of my list of favorites from this year. It is a classic work of pastoral Christian theology. It is brief, insightful, and clear. Scougal explains reasons why so many fail to grow and mature in faith and how these obstacles can be overcome. He names mistaken ideas about religion (specifically Christianity). Many of those mistaken ideas are still present today. He then charts the way beyond them. While he does write of the importance of certain observances, virtues, and adherence to spiritual disciplines, he returns again and again to our understanding of God and what has been accomplished in, through, and by Jesus in his incarnation, death, and resurrection. This book is available on the web (such as here), though a newer edition, which is the one I read this year, was issued by Crossway. I linked Crossway’s offering above.

Other books I enjoyed and/or appreciated are John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, James Clear’s Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful You: Discovering the Person Jesus Created You to Be, Matthew Continetti’s The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism, Clarence Thomas’s My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, Michelle Ule’s Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman behind the World’s Bestselling Devotional, Henri J. M. Nouwen’s Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life, Timothy Keller’s, Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I?, and Trevin Wax’s The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith.

This last one won’t be for everyone, but I deeply appreciated R. Robert Creech’s Pastoral Theology in the Baptist Tradition: Distinctives and Directions for the Contemporary Church.

Did You Hate Anything?

I really did not like Susan L. Maros’s Calling in Context: Social Location and Vocational Formation, Elmore Leonard’s Raylan, or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

What Are You Reading Right Now?

I’m reading Ron Chernow’s Washington, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems, and Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. I’ve also been carrying a copy of Plato’s Symposium in my bag. I will read it! I have several Christian spiritual formation works on my desk at the office, mostly on prayer, that I plan to get to early in the new year.

What Did I Learn from My Experience Reading This Year?

This year I read a lot of books that I had either requested for review of that I had been asked to read, and as a result I did not always enjoy what I was reading, even if I always enjoy that I am reading.

I also feel as though this year did not contain as much quiet and rest, and that I did not always have the opportunity to sit with and simply enjoy the process of moving through a work, immersing myself in a story or an argument, and allowing myself to ruminate on what I encountered on the page. In surveying my book selections this year, I am disappointed that my choices were not often concerned with my primary area of research and study. I read Christian living books, works of theology, and practical ministry resources. But I’m sensing a need to dive deeply into classic works in the area of Christian spirituality and Christian spiritual formation, or to spend more time in the writings of the Church Fathers, better familiarizing myself with the concerns present in early Christianity, or even chasing down some of the spiritual writings of leaders (men and women) in the monastic traditions.

I read several books this year that address contemporary concerns within American public life, or which sought to explore historical aspects of the United States. I think the United States is like all nations and cultures throughout history. Being comprised of human beings, it evidences the fallenness of human nature. But as an idea, the United States is a brilliant place, with an imperfect but effective system of government. My sense is that America does not suffer from an abundance of pride (though that can certainly be found), but rather an overwhelming amount of self-loathing, on both poles of the ideological spectrum. But I also sense the majority of citizens here, as well as a large proportion of immigrants, appreciate the place and wouldn’t trade living here not only for any other place in the world, but across all of human history.

I’m also glad to notice within myself a deepened love for the Bible. I read four chapters each day. The Bible is my daily companion. I do not find my time in Scripture to be tedious or boring. Rather, I am expectant. I am warmed. I am thankful for the Scriptures and the ways God meets me in and through these ancient writings. My recommendation to all Christians is to spend time daily in the Scriptures, whether with a verse, chapter, book, or an even longer portion. Read, and meditate. Then, be a doer of the Word, and not a hearer (reader) only!

What are you reading, and what should I add to my list?

It’s Always Zero Hour

Photo by Elias Schupmann on Unsplash

I’ve been a faithful reader of Os Guinness for years, and most of his more recent titles have concerned themselves with America specifically or the West more broadly: Impossible People, The Case for Civility, A Free People’s Suicide, Last Call for Liberty, The Magna Carta of Humanity, and now Zero Hour America: History’s Ultimatum over Freedom and the Answer We Must Give (InterVarsity Press, 2022)1. I heard him speak at The University of Kansas in 2006. He was one of several speakers in a series called “Difficult Dialogues on Knowledge, Faith, and Reason.” I met him briefly after his presentation and asked him to sign a copy of Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, and Spin. He was winsome and kind.2

In his latest book, Guinness is very concerned for America and for the state of the American experiment. Guinness writes, “America will fall–unless.” He says this book is not a “doomsday pronouncement” but a wake-up call to the internal movements, ideas, and forces that will lead to America’s implosion if left unchecked. Guinness warns that the enemies are already inside the gates. Sounds like gloom and doom to me.

In these types of rhetorical political debates gloom and doom is pretty common, and memory is always pretty short. If we’re in a battle for America’s future, the stakes are high. I think Guinness rightly diagnoses the paradox of freedom as a major source of America’s strife (“the fact that the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom“), that freedom is understood more in negative than positive terms in this country (freedom from and not freedom for), that apart from faith we are under-resourced in the forgiveness and reconciliation department, and that civics education is important (not the self-loathing kind, but the sober and judicious kind that acknowledges past wrongs while maintaining and preserving good and central truths and traditions). I think these are all worthwhile points of concern and debate. I just don’t think these fault lines mean that it is “zero hour,” the absolute moment of decision. It is quite possible that zero hour has already passed, and may soon come again.

Besides, it is always zero hour.

In his final chapter, Guinness cites Friedrich Hegel’s famous statement, “What experience and history teaches us is this–that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.” That’s a dramatic overstatement. But Hegel gets away with it because, as Guinness observes, “nothing lasts forever, and each society contains the seeds of its own destruction.”

In Top Gun: Maverick, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is told by an admiral, “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed to extinction.”

Maverick replies, “Maybe so, sir, but not today.”3

America, as an experiment in ordered liberty, must say something similar every day. There are 330 million people in this country. We are geographically enormous and regionally diverse. We’re not nearly as bad as our critics say, nor as spotless as our apologists claim. But we’re a pretty good place. Millions of people migrate to this country each year, most of whom wish to stay. And plenty of our citizen go about their lives quietly, doing their jobs, going to Little League games, and playing Bunko with their friends. But I guess Bunko doesn’t test well in focus groups, while apocalyptic messaging does.

While it might be politically advantageous and rhetorically effective to claim that the end of the world is near, isn’t it always so?

Yes, it is. We just don’t know how near. Which is why reading a prophet like Guinness is helpful, at least for me, in understanding our times, tracking intellectual currents, diagnosing problems, and assisting me in thinking through America’s history, ideals, values, and possibility, and advocating for a vision of our common life that aligns more closely with what is best about this place, while also works to address present wrongs and move us toward a greater approximation of justice.

That’s the work of politics. We all have a part to play. I try to play mine, not only as a voter, and not only as a citizen, but also as a person of Christian faith.

1. Amazon affiliate link.
2.He also signed a copy of Time for Truth to Molly and I. We attended the talk together.
3. I’m really glad I saw this movie. You should see it, too.

A Review: Spurgeon and the Psalms

From Thomas Nelson, a new issue of the Psalms with devotions from C. H. Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers.”

One mainstay of baptist piety that has stuck with me over the years is the daily quiet time. I begin each day with a reading from Scripture, a selection from the Psalms, a devotional reading, and prayer.

Thomas Nelson has released a new edition of Spurgeon and the Psalms [affiliate link], and with this volume, plus a cup of coffee, I have all I need to begin my day in meditation on God’s wonders and works.

In his preface, Charles H. Spurgeon said of the Psalms:

No one needs better company than the Psalms; therein we may read and commune with friends human and divine, friends who know the heart of people toward God and the heart of God towards people, friends who perfectly sympathize with our sorrows, friends who never betray or forsake. Oh, to be shut up in a cave with David, with no other occupation but to hear him sing and to sing with him! Well might a Christian monarch lay aside his crown for such enjoyment and a believing pauper find a crown in such felicity.

Spurgeon loved the Psalms and found much sweetness in them. We can, too.

A Leathersoft cover, with gold gilding.

This volume contains each of the one hundred and fifty psalms–the complete psalter–plus the brief reflections of Spurgeon on each psalm. Of his time in reflecting and writing on these portions from Scripture, Spurgeon wrote:

The delightful study of the Psalms has yielded me boundless profit and ever-growing pleasure; common gratitude constrains me to communicate to others the benefit, with the prayer that it may induce them to search further for themselves. That I have nothing better of my own to offer upon this peerless book is to me a matter of deepest regret; that I have anything whatever to present is subject for devout gratitude to the Lord of grace. I have done my best, but, conscious of many defects, I heartily wish I could have done far better.

That’s Spurgeon’s way of saying, “Thanks to God for the good relayed here and for the grace leading to my writing any truth found in these words. All errors remain my own.”

Charles H. Spurgeon lived from 1834 to 1892, and was the best known preacher of his day. He was a Baptist, and pastored New Park Street Chapel (more widely known as the Metropolitan Tabernacle) in London for thirty eight years.

The volume open, containing a bookmark. At right, you can see Spurgeon’s short reflection, followed by the psalm.

Spurgeon and the Psalms contains readings from the New King James Version translation of the Bible. Spurgeon’s prose continues to sing out with melody, a fitting accompaniment to a Bible translation that both seeks to maintain the lyric nature of the KJV while making it more accessible to the modern reader.

You can find a copy of this book at Amazon, linked above, or by visiting the FaithGateway store. I received this volume for review, for free, as a member of Bible Gateway’s Blogger Grid. Bible Gateway continues to be a valuable resource for me in reading and researching the Scriptures.

I enjoyed holding, reading, and exploring this new volume of Spurgeon and the Psalms. I found one error, within, on a dog-eared corner of Psalm 129, folded prior to the manuscript being cut and then bound. It’s nothing scissors and a steady hand can’t fix–and, I trust, an anomaly in the printing process.

If you’re looking for a new daily devotional and a faithful guide through the psalter, consider this one.