On Books, Reading and Libraries

Anyone who knows me realises that any excuse will do for buying books, reading books, and writing about books. So a few recent articles about books were enough of an excuse for me to put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard. There is good and bad news on the reading front it seems.

Bad news first. We are still reading, but what we are mainly feasting on is not such good news. We are dumbing ourselves down in the West big time as our main reading is less than edifying, enlightening or ennobling. Back in July John Clark gave us an overview of what our reading habits are like, at least in terms of Amazon.com sales:

It is said that you become like those with whom you associate. Honesty would force us to admit that the same is true of books. That thought is a bit less than edifying when we consider that Amazon.com’s bestselling book of all time is Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy. In fact, if you go to Amazon.com and look up the five top-selling books of ALL TIME, three of them are books from the Hunger Games series and two of them are from the Fifty Shades series.

Hmm, talk about an entertainment-mad culture which is dumbing itself down by preferring mind- and morality-numbing pulp fiction to anything worthy of serious readership. If this is the crème of the crop for most Western readers, things are not looking very good.

On a more positive note, another recent article has told book-lovers some good news: we are still reading, and actual, physical books (as opposed to ebooks, Kindle, screens, etc) are still quite popular. As the article states:

books 7Even with Facebook, Netflix and other digital distractions increasingly vying for time, Americans’ appetite for reading books — the ones you actually hold in your hands — has not slowed in recent years, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
Sixty-five percent of adults in the United States said they had read a printed book in the past year, the same percentage that said so in 2012. When you add in ebooks and audiobooks, the number that said they had read a book in printed or electronic format in the past 12 months rose to 73 percent, compared with 74 percent in 2012.
Twenty-eight percent said they had opted for an ebook in the past year, while 14 percent said they had listened to an audiobook.
Lee Rainie, the director of internet, science and technology research for Pew Research, said the study demonstrated the staying power of physical books. “I think if you looked back a decade ago, certainly five or six years ago when ebooks were taking off, there were folks who thought the days of the printed book were numbered, and it’s just not so in our data,” he said.

Of course there is nothing amiss in ebooks and the like. They are not my cup of tea, and the only books I have ever read have been actual books! But as long as people are still reading, that is a good thing. Of course, it still depends on what they are reading, as mentioned above.

In the piece by John Clark he looks at what we should be reading, but seem no longer to be:

Every so often, a reference to Aristotle or Cicero pops up in pop culture, but these only serve as faint elegies of what we have lost. As Allan Bloom observed, “We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. The shepherds play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part.”
More simply, through no fault of their own, generations of parents were never introduced to the classics texts of Western civilization. Perhaps most people instinctively know that when you’re talking about “the classics,” you’re not talking about The Hunger Games, nor are you speaking about the dismal Fifty Shades series.
What you are talking about is that body of literary works that has been collectively termed the “Western Canon,” that is, those books that collectively helped shape Western society.
Harold Bloom (not Allan Bloom) rather famously developed an outline of the Western Canon in his book of the same name, as did Mortimer Adler with his “Great Books” program. Though we may disagree as to precisely which works should be on that list, there are generally accepted entries such as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Plutarch’s Lives, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and so on.
I would observe that a parent reads for oneself and one’s children. Perhaps especially in the homeschooling family, this is of paramount importance. Because if we are not reading the classics ourselves—if we do not regard them as worthy of our precious time—why would our children read them either? Anthony Esolen recently observed that:
“…Any school librarian with a free hand and a very modest amount of money can quickly put together a set of a thousand or two thousand classic novels and books of poetry fit for children, that would have been far beyond the means of almost anyone a hundred years ago….For the most important thing that any teacher of reading can do for children is to read good and great books with them and for them, with imagination and love.”

Yes it is not just us, but our children and grandchildren we should be concerned about here. This is true whether you homeschool or not. Twenty-four years ago I reviewed a book by Australian author Susan Moore entitled What Should My Child Read? The advice she gave back then is still true today. Indeed, it is needed now more than ever: https://billmuehlenberg.com/1992/05/10/a-review-of-what-should-my-child-read-by-susan-moore/

The truth is, reading matters. Seven years ago I wrote a piece entitled “Leaders are Readers”. In it I wrote about J. Oswald Sanders and the importance of reading. Allow me to reprint that section here (slightly altered) as my conclusion:

The New Zealand-born man of God (1902–1992) was for many years director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, and was an elder statesman of the faith. He wrote over forty books on various Christian themes. In 1967 he wrote the now classic volume, Spiritual Leadership (Moody Press).

This volume should be read by all believers. It deals with the vital need, calling, and qualification of Christian leadership. Thus he speaks about the spiritual leader and his time, his prayer life, his character, and so on. But of interest is chapter 12: “The Leader and His Reading.” This ten-page chapter contains a lot of insights and spiritual firepower regarding the necessity of reading. He writes, “The man who desires to grow spiritually and intellectually will be constantly at his books.”

He mentions as an example John Wesley who “had a passion for reading, and most of it was done on horseback”. Sanders continues, “He read deeply and on a wide range of subjects. It was his habit to travel with a volume of science or history or medicine propped on the pommel of his saddle, and in that way he got through thousands of volumes.”

He notes that next to the Greek New Testament, three volumes especially fed Wesley’s soul: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis; Holy Living and Dying by Jeremy Taylor; and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law.

What Sanders says next is a real eye-opener: “He told the younger ministers of the Wesleyan societies either to read or get out of the ministry.” Sounds like pretty good advice for today as well. He goes on to say: “The determination to spend a minimum of half an hour a day in reading worthwhile books which provide food for the soul and further mental and spiritual development will prove richly rewarding to those who have been inclined to limit their reading to predigested or superficial books.”

Sanders then offers five reasons why leaders should read: for spiritual quickening; for mental stimulation; for cultivation of style; for the acquiring of information; and to have fellowship with great minds. He offers this bit of advice from Spurgeon:

“Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them, masticate and digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analysis of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. In reading let your motto be, ‘much, not many’.”

He especially highlights biographies: “Sir W. Robertson Nicoll, for many years editor of The British Weekly, found biography the most attractive form of general reading because biography transmits personality. One cannot read the lives of great and consecrated men and women without having inspiration kindled and aspiration aroused. The ‘lives of great men still remind us that we may make our lives sublime.’ Who can gauge the inspiration to the cause of missions of great biographies like those of William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, Charles Studd, or Albert Simpson.”

He concludes by referring to an Australian rural minister he knew who was a great lover of books. Says Sanders, “Early in his ministry he decided that he would aim at developing a biblically and theologically literate congregation. He succeeded in conveying to members of his church his own love of books, and introduced them gradually to spiritual works of increasing weight and depth. The result is that in that district a number of farmers have accumulated libraries that would be no disgrace to a minister of the gospel.”

Wow! Would that this was the situation found in pastorates today. As Sanders remarks, “Today, the practice of reading solid and rewarding spiritual and classical literature is seriously on the wane.” He reminds us that we have more leisure time now than ever before, so we are without excuse for this serious deficiency.


[1707 words]

9 Replies to “On Books, Reading and Libraries”

  1. There is something highly stimulating about a real bookshop that merely perusing digital files can never match. This includes the adrenalin rush of finding an unusual publication on the bottom shelves of a rickety old English secondhand bookshop. Our house has several hundred books, but what it hasn’t got is those paperback novels you can buy for 20p at flea-markets….they’re definitely non-starters. I confess it is only in recent years that I have read more biographies. I can’t see the printed book ever vanishing.

  2. Sanders in the quote above mentions Wesley’s insistence on his preachers reading. This is followed by the good advice to spend half an hour a day reading. In case an inattentive reader assumes this is Mr Wesley’s instruction his guidance could be explained. In “The Shorter Minutes” it states: as often as possible rise at four o’clock. From four to five in the morning, and from six to seven in the evening, meditate, pray, and read, partly the holy Scriptures and partly the most close and practical parts of what Mr Wesley has published. From six in the morning till twelve (allowing one hour for breakfast) read in order, with much prayer, the Christian Library, and all our other books, whether in prose or in verse, and especially all Mr Wesley’s Sermons.” The Methodist preacher was expected to do other things such as preach twice a day – every day if possible, visit assiduously, and all, but eight hours reading was the guidance!

  3. Thanks Bill.
    Interesting that you mention (via J.O. Sanders) the influence of Thomas a Kempis, Jeremy Taylor, and William Law on John Wesley. These were writers beloved of the Non-Juror party, who strongly influenced Wesley’s mother Susannah, and Wesley’s perfectionism is in part traceable to their views, particularly to William Law’s “Serious Call…” Although both Wesleys came to a solid evangelical experience in 1738, the mystical, high church/Non-Juror influence remained with them, especially with John. In my recently-published book, “Through the Christian Year with Charles Wesley” I argue that Charles eventually (by the early 1760s) gave up on the perfection doctrine and its high-church roots, but John never did. Indeed, he got into terrible hot water at the Methodist Conference in 1770 when he all but repudiated justification by faith (he later recanted what he had said – at least to some degree). John Wesley, an undoubted man of God, is nevertheless a study in contrasts and a certain confusion in regard to justification and holiness. I suppose – from a reformed standpoint – I warm more to Charles for that reason.

    BTW, if anyone would like a copy of my book send me an email with your address and I’ll post it to you: $35.00 post paid.

  4. Thank you Bill for yet another excellent article and goad to my soul. Thanks too for the interesting comments by your readers. In the “taking heed to Thyself” principle and with it the quote “Books do not the man made, sentences do” (or words to that effect, I have almost completed a task I set myself last year when recovering from bypass surgery – to take out of every section of Calvin’s Institutes, sentences and phrases which I hope will interest people in actually reading the master. I would be happy to pass the fruit of my labour on to any of your readers should they be interested. My next task is to attempt one of Owen’s works, but that might give me another heart attack! Keep up your excellent work Bill, you are a breath of fresh air to me.

  5. I read an article somewhere a couple of years ago about the lost art of reading a book right through. Apparently we are almost hard-wired these days to just read short articles, before our attention span fails. I have always thought myself an avid reader, but on critically looking at my own reading habits after reading that article, I was ashamed to find that I had come to the point where I was restless at the end of chapter 1 of a book, ready to move onto something new. I was reading widely still but not deeply. So I set about to reverse the trend and have rediscovered the joys of reading entire books again.
    Since then I have devoured such wonderful classics as Pensees, some CS Lewis and Chesterton, Schaeffer, Billy Graham, Bonar, and Athanasius, plus more recent writers such as William Lane Craig, Paul Copan, Berlinski, Lennox, Os Guiness and too many others to mention – after all this is not my column! But I do get excited about books and I think I spend more on them than food and clothes.
    There is also some wonderful classic fiction out there. My favourite this year has to be Silas Marner, but I have read some Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I’ve even read Pinocchio for the first time, Peter Pan and some other old children’s classics – plus a couple of Agatha Christie murder mysteries for good measure.
    I have also saved some of your previous recommended book lists, Bill, which I use as a resource to build up my own ‘to buy’ list.
    I have a much underlined copy of Sanders’ book which I last read about 5 years ago, and it has now been dusted off and is waiting on my ‘to read’ pile alongside some J.I. Packer and Lee Strobel.
    If readers are looking for a great place to start to build a classics list for yourself and/or your children, here’s a place to start – http://www.classical-homeschooling.org/celoop/1000.html

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