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How To Know What To Read

Mar 3, 2020

With so much great stuff out there to read, where do I begin?

If you don’t like to read, you may want to give this article a miss. Indeed, I take it that you are already giving this site a miss if you detest reading – even more so if you are unable to read! But for those who can read and do like to read, you know full well that there are far too many books out there, and one can only read a tiny percentage of even the best of books. So one must be selective, and greatly narrow things down.

But how do we determine what books to get? Any advice on what to read depends on what you are interested in. You may like to read only fiction. Others may like mostly non-fiction. And the latter can be broken down in countless ways: maybe just biographies, or books on history, or volumes on economics, or technology, or theology, or politics, or devotional writing, and so on.

So my advice on what to read and how to select your titles is rather limited, and is in part based on what you like to read. If you wanted advice on what to read in great works of fiction, you would need to ask my wife. She is a major reader of fiction, and she in fact likely reads even more than I do.

But let me lay out a few general principles that may be of help to some of you in terms of deciding what to read. As to non-fiction – including things like biblical studies, commentaries, theology, ethics, apologetics, philosophy, church history, Christian biography, the culture wars, and so many other related fields – I have written numerous articles on new titles worth being aware of, or authors that you should be familiar with, etc.

And if you think a person is reliable enough to follow on book recommendations, you can look at their book reviews. I happen to have 542 book reviews on my site which can be found here: billmuehlenberg.com/category/book-reviews/

If a book reviewer has done a good job, even if you cannot read the book he has reviewed, you should still be able to get a good handle on the volume and learn a lot about it. Related to this are things like reader’s digest type books, although I do not necessarily recommend that, but it might work for you.

Also related are various audio books you can listen to while driving, etc. And some offer just the main points or key thoughts of a famous book. Again, for some, that may be of use in your busy lives. The trick is to be disciplined in the use of your time. If you find yourself sitting in front of the TV or playing video games for hours a day, then you of course will not have much time to read. So choose what is more important.

Let me offer three general rules of thumb that I have taken on board from others. All three of these I have mentioned elsewhere. My first comes from C. S. Lewis who spoke of the value in reading old books. In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation he said this in part:

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. 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…

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

My second rule of thumb comes from J. Oswald Sanders, one-time director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. In his 1967 classic work, Spiritual Leadership (Moody Press) he had a chapter on “The Leader and His Reading.” Let me offer a few quotes from it:

“The man who desires to grow spiritually and intellectually will be constantly at his books.”

Image of Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence For Every Believer (Sanders Spiritual Growth Series)
Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence For Every Believer (Sanders Spiritual Growth Series) by Array Amazon logo

“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.”

He mentions the example John Wesley who “had a passion for reading, and most of it was done on horseback”. Sanders writes, “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 told the younger ministers of the Wesleyan societies either to read or get out of the ministry.”

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. And he gives us 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’.

My third and final point is the ‘ten-cent rule’ that I heard Kiwi Christian Winkie Pratney discuss. Around 40 years ago he offered this rule for determining what books to buy: for every ten cents you spend on a book, it should have that many good, new or important ideas in it. Thus if you spend two dollars on a book, expect 20 good ideas in it. Of course we must account for inflation, so today we might call it the ‘one dollar rule.’ If you spend 20 dollars on a book you will want to find at least 20 good or vital truths or ideas in the volume.

In closing, I mentioned that you and I can never read all the books that we might want to read – or even read from what we might own. There are over 2 million new titles published worldwide each year, with over 300,000 in the US alone, and nearly 30,000 in Australia.

The Italian novelist and professor Umberto Eco – who had a 30,000-volume library of his own – once did some quick calculations and came up with this sad fact (sad if you are a bibliophile): if you read one book a day, every day, between the ages of ten and eighty, you will only read about 25,200 books in a lifetime.

Yet many of us keep buying new books! There is a Japanese word for all this: tsundoku. It refers to the stack(s) of books you’ve purchased but haven’t read. While I have read at least some of every book I own – all 7000 of them – some books one need not read every word. You may need to only read parts of various reference works and commentaries for example.

But the important thing is to read, and to read wisely. There is plenty of junk out there – even in most Christian bookshops. So be discerning and selective in what you buy and what you read. But do devote yourself to at least a little reading every day. And remember, leaders are readers!

Let me conclude with three quotes – one scriptural, one serious and one silly:

“Give attendance to reading.” The Apostle Paul, in 1 Timothy 4:13

“Why does today’s Christian find the reading of great books always beyond him? Certainly intellectual powers do not wane from one generation to another. We are as smart as our fathers, and any thought they could entertain we can entertain if we are sufficiently interested to make the effort. The major cause of the decline in the quality of current Christian literature is not intellectual but spiritual. To enjoy a great religious book requires a degree of consecration to God and detachment from the world that few modern Christians have. The early Christian Fathers, the Mystics, the Puritans, are not hard to understand, but they inhabit the highlands where the air is crisp and rarefied, and none but the God-enamored can come. . . . One reason why people are unable to understand great Christian classics is that they are trying to understand without any intention of obeying them.” A. W. Tozer, “The Use and Abuse of Books”

“Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.” Dr Seuss

But enough talk about books and reading. I think I will go out and buy some more books!

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6 Responses to How To Know What To Read

  • Ha ha. Tsundoku. So that’s what it is that I constantly stare at. There are presently 13 books on the floor surrounding my reading chair. Another 8 on the table beside it. I appear to be reading most of them. I am pleased to learn this new word, tsundoku. I missed the library the past two days, because I forgot to take my list of books required. It has been this way for as long as I can remember. It’s a good thing to be in good company.

  • Hi Bill, when i get a chance i enjoy your uploadings. Bit of inspiration in contemplating timeless truths.
    Some time ago i read – The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer. (Eric Hanson).
    He writes so well and shares his journey. Thanks for your contributions.
    Ron

  • Who has time for books? I’m away from things for a few days and already I have five new Bill Muehlenberg articles to catch up on.

  • Yes it is a problem Michael!

  • I would also say for the Christian don’t forget your other interests as well. Sometimes it helps to take a break from theological reading and focus on something else for a while. Like with fine dining it helps to cleanse your palate.

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