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.

Spurgeon on Reading, Citations, and Learning From Other Minds

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The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Quoted from Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of C. H. Spurgeon, who cites from Christian George’s Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon [affiliate links].

Don’t get hung up on the pronouns. The wisdom here is for both men and women. While I might not recommend the Puritans, you could certainly do worse. And while light literature may have its place, we are only given so much time, and there are so many books.

August Books Notes and Deals

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The last set of book notes appeared in May, and I’ve read a few more books since then. The best books I’ve read more recently are A. J. Swoboda’s Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World and Timothy P. Carney’s Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. I found a few laughs in John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway… and, as I always do, enjoyed the insight of Stanley Hauerwas in his book Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries. is blowing out titles as the summer draws to a close. Some of those books are listed for under $5. For  friends who enjoy reading Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology is $3.99. Books about United Methodist membership vows, the denomination more broadly, and an account of the sacrament of communion are marked down. Richard Mouw’s Adventures in Evangelical Civility is $3.99, as is Stanley Grenz’s Prayer. Kuyper’s Stone Lectures can be had for $4.49 and N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Scripture and John Stott’s Basic Christianity are $5. Be judicious. Not every sale is a deal.

If you browse and find a title that interests you I haven’t listed here and want to know what I think, leave a comment and ask. I’ll tell you what I know.

As for Kindle deals, Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy is $2.99 and Nouwen’s Discernment is $1.99.

On a recent run to the library I scooped up several novels by Toni Morrison. I have a couple of books to read and review from InterVarsity Press. Tonight I’ll begin reading a book by Joseph Bottum called An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

Reading anything exciting? Anything you’d recommend?

I hope so. Peace.

Disciplined Reading

Do not say…that one or two books is sufficient for instructing the soul. After all, even the bee collects honey not from one or two flowers only, but from many. Thus also he who reads the books of the Holy Fathers is instructed by one in faith or in right thinking, by another in silence and prayer, by another in obedience and humility and patience, by another in self-reproach and in love for God and neighbor; and, to speak briefly, from many books of the Holy Fathers a man is instructed in life according to the Gospel.

– Paisius Velichkovsky

Paisius Velichkovsky was an Eastern Orthodox monk and theologian. His observation is a rather simple one: we must learn wisdom from the bee, gathering wisdom diligently, broadly, and with great discipline. He exhorts us to read from the Holy Fathers, from the saints of old, who can instruct us in the Gospel and in Christian living. Our souls, being great things, need great nourishment. Like the bee, the gathering should take place daily, not from a paltry collection of sources, but from a diversity of literary riches.

I like to read and study. Not everyone is like me. Thank God. But if I could offer one bit of encouragement to others who, like me, are following Jesus, it would be to read a little more often than you do now. Begin with the Bible, particularly if Scripture is something you neglect. Scripture is a dietary staple. But then add to that a work of theology, or a historical work about a person who has been important to the Christian tradition.

Pay particular mind to your denominational heritage, if you have one (if you are a Methodist, read Wesley, if you are a Presbyterian, read Calvin, etc., etc.). I’d like the Baptists I know to be better Baptists, the Methodists I know to exemplify the best of their tradition, and on and on. Consider doing as Velichkovsky recommends: read the Church Fathers. Read Augustine. Read Athanasius. Read the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The old stuff is profoundly rich.

Choose one or two or three great theologians or renowned saints. Get to know them well, even if a little bit at a time. Pick up their work. Buy a book and learn about their lives. Read each day. Choose wisely. Stick with it. Observe. Learn. Apply. Grow.

February Book Notes and Kindle Deals

If you know me, you know I love books. Last week, I finished Jeff Pearlman’s Football for a Buck, which tells the story of the United States Football League. Pearlman is a great writer, I’m a sports nut, Donald Trump is part of the USFL’s story, and that made this interesting book more timely that it otherwise would’ve been. I also finished Michael Connelly’s latest Bosch and Ballard novel, Dark Sacred Night. I read everything Connelly writes. He’s a master of crime fiction, and Harry Bosch is one of my favorite characters in literature.

Amazon’s released their February Kindle deals. Here are a few notable books:

These are all either two or three bucks. The Name of the Rose is a detective novel, set in a monastery. I read it about ten years ago and enjoyed it. We’re using the Shigematsu book in my covenant group at Truett Seminary, and I think it is excellent. If you’ve struggled to formulate an approach to the spiritual life that works (meaning, in the past you’ve tried, got frustrated, and felt like you failed), you might want to check it out. I’ve enjoyed reading Henry Cloud, and thought those topics might be relevant to a few of my friends. Sider, McKnight, and Merton are authors I appreciate.

Happy reading!

2018: My Year in Reading

That’s right. It’s time, once again, for everybody to sit back, relax, and enjoy my annual recap of the year in reading. This is one of the most heralded, most anticipated, and most celebrated lists published so far this year. Aren’t you glad you are reading it?

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Prepare to have your day brightened and your mind enlightened, your interest piqued and your sensibilities tweaked–guaranteed, or your money back.

How Many Books Did I Read This Year?

My love of literature increased this year. I set a modest goal this year to read fifty books, which I exceeded by a wide margin. I read ninety five books, and that’s not counting the comics (I started taking my kids to a comic book shop once a month as a family outing), graphic novels, and my (almost) daily sit down with the newspaper and the Psalms. I read a whole lot, more than I anticipated, and discovered new authors and new stories. You can browse what I read here. I made an addition to my media log this year and included movies and television series I watched, which I mainly streamed on Amazon Prime or checked out on DVD from the local library.

What Were My Favorite Books This Year?

I’ll begin with fiction, because fiction gave me the most joy. Ursula K. Le Guin died in 2018, and after reading about her life I checked out a collection of her essays, No Time to Spare, from the local library. Soon thereafter I was led to The Left Hand of Darkness and the first three books in her Earthsea cycle (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore). Earthsea is a fantasy tale, set in a collection of islands, involving a vast and wide ocean, with plenty of wizardry. The first book was the one I found most striking, particularly in how Le Guin wrestles with human ambition and pride, our longing for greatness, and the shadows we cast.

P. D. James’ The Children of Men is another book I immensely enjoyed. Imagine a world that suddenly experiences a stoppage in births. Time passes, and there are no children. The death of the species can be seen in the near future, and while human beings hold out hope that a technological solution will be found, none is forthcoming. What would that world be like? And what would it be like if, suddenly, one woman was found to be pregnant, and a man of lapsed Christian faith found himself in the middle of it? How would he regard the event itself? How would he navigate the obvious political implications of such an event? Those questions are addressed in the novel.

I finished Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth series by reading A Column of Fire. Pillars remains one of my favorite works, with Prior Philip being one of my favorite characters. I discovered Joe Abercrombie’s work, another fantasy writer, whose Half a King, Half the World, and Half a War are all excellent for their character development and intrigue. There is a revelation in Abercrombie’s third book I suspected in the first, and when confirmed found very satisfying. I also read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Willa Cather’s My Antonia’, and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.

In nonfiction, I read a great deal of political commentary. I’m trying to understand the moment, I guess. Amy Chua’s Political Tribes was insightful as was David Frum’s Trumpocracy. I enjoyed Russell Shorto’s Revolution Song as a creative work of history, and learned a great deal about the opioid epidemic by reading Sam Quinones’ Dreamland. One of the more interesting nonfiction books I read this year was by Bill and Rachel James called The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery. Yes, Bill James of baseball’s statistical revolution, and yes, together with his daughter they piece together a series of ax murders from the early 1900s that appear to be connected, then offer their best guess at who was behind them all.

In the area of personal development and self-improvement, I really enjoyed reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, Total Recall. Those who know me well know I love Arnold. Bodybuilding, movies, politics, and, believe it or not, there is a lot of practical wisdom in this book. I also enjoyed Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work!, Max DePree’s Leadership is an Art, and Damon Young’s The Art of Reading.

There is one last nonfiction book that stands out: Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, by Gregory Alan Thornbury. I didn’t know anything about Larry Norman, or at least I thought I didn’t, but through reading this book I was able to see his influence in the music I was familiar with, both in mainstream rock and in the Christian music industry. I spent time listening to his stuff on Spotify.

I read a lot of Christian literature this year, as I always do, consuming a lot of trade books and a few works of biblical and theological studies. I wrote short reviews of many of the Christian books I read on Amazon. The book that has remained with me most has been Ben Myers’ short book The Apostle’s Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism, which I found to be brilliantly written, theologically insightful, and historically rich. I also enjoyed Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited for the very first time, Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor, and Eugene Peterson’s collection of sermons, As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Two works of theology stick out in my mind: Rene Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning and Beth Felker Jones’ Marks of His Wounds. James Bryan Smith’s The Magnificent Journey was a clearly written, encouraging read, and Gary Moon’s biography of Dallas Willard, Becoming Dallas Willard are two other books I am likely to return to in the years ahead.

Did You Hate Anything?

Yes. Yes I did.

Hate is probably too strong a word. This year I became a little better at putting down books that aren’t paying off. But there are a few I read cover to cover that I didn’t overwhelmingly enjoy: two books by N. T. Wright (God in Public and The Day the Revolution Began), Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway, and Dan Pink’s When. I also didn’t care much for Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life. Peterson is an interesting fellow and he is saying some things that I guess need to be said, but I think his popularity says more about the void of the moment than it does the profundity of his prose.

What Are you Reading Right Now?

I’m reading Andrew Delbanco‘s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. Next up will be Jeff Tweedy’s Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), a memoir of his life as a musician. Tweedy is most notable as the frontman for WILCO, my favorite band (“Dad Rock”). Beyond that, I have a couple of titles to read for review, and plenty of stuff I’ve yet to dig in to on my shelves at home. I also have a long list of titles I’ve bookmarked at the local library.

What Did I Learn From My Reading Experience This Year?

I gained two major insights. The first is that I deeply love fiction, and I have a surprising appreciation for fantasy literature. I’ve neglected fiction for too long, and I need to spend more time reading the great novels already resting on my shelves, waiting for me, calling to me.

The second insight is that I need to be more selective. Qoheleth tells us in Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” There are so many books! What’s more, there are so many great ones! I do not have time to read them all. No one does. So I need to be choosy. I need to spend time reading Barth, Kierkegaard, and Augustine, not to mention Aquinas, Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare. I may read far fewer books this year, but come away far richer.

That’s my goal. I guess you’ll find out how I did next year, next edition, same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel.

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