What to Read Next

How do you find good books to read?

Probably you do as I do–listen to recommendations from friends. Many have similar tastes, which is great. But many have different interests. And I try to listen to them too because that expands my range.

I recently listened to How to Stay Married by Harrison Scott Key. That didn’t sound like a book I’d generally put high on my list, but a friend said it was funny, insightful, and a crazy honest memoir. But mostly it was funny. And she was right!

My grandson was reading Artemis Fowl and I asked what he thought. He was enthusiastic. I also found the book to be fun and creative, a wild and entertaining ride.

Like you, when I enjoy a book, I read other things the author has written. Friends put me on to Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. After the first, I was delighted to keep moving though all the rest.

Goodreads is another way to find out what friends are reading and enjoying. When I see several people giving the same book a high rating, I make note. This (along with the neighborhood book club I am part of) is especially helpful for reading a diversity of author’s and genres.

Finally, I pay attention to books that are referenced in more than one book I’ve read. The one that has risen to the top in recent years is A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. The book came out in 2007, and I have read a half dozen different books which make major use of Taylor’s framework and ideas. I confess that I have delayed diving into it because it is almost 900 pages and probably not the easiest read. But I think the time has come.

I am aiming to read it this year. I’ll report back and let you know how it goes.

Reading Among Friends

Fifteen years ago Sandy and Jim invited us and three other couples to form a neighborhood book club. We’ve been meeting ever since.

We rotate hosting our get-togethers, with the hosts selecting the book and leading the discussion. Without trying, our books (and occasional movies) have been split almost evenly between fiction and non-fiction. We’ve enjoyed history, science fiction, mystery, memoir, classics, and current best-sellers.

Some themes have emerged. Several titles have had a Chicago connection, since that’s where we live. One person in our group is a chef so food has been a focus for his choices. Some authors we’ve liked have been repeated (Mary Doria Russell, Erik Larson, Fredrik Backman, Ta-Nehisi Coates).

I prefer our system of making selections over voting as a group which can result in choosing everyone’s second or third choice. That could also keep the range much more narrow and perhaps less challenging to our own tastes or viewpoints. I enjoy being stretched by the personal selections of my friends.

We see the personalities and interests of each person reflected in their picks. But we are all aware of finding something we think the others could like. As a result we (consciously or unconsciously) don’t get too idiosyncratic.

Reading is a wonderfully rich solo activity. It can be even richer in the company of friends.

Chart: Some of the books we’ve selected over the years.
Image credit: James Black

Finding Good Books

I am always on the lookout for something good to read. By that I mostly mean books.

I love browsing books at a library or at a bookstore or online, but that can be hit and miss. Sometimes the title or cover or back cover pulls me in, and then I am disappointed when I do read it. Also at the back of my mind is this nagging fear that in just browsing I may have missed something better.

I also get recommendations from friends, read books by authors I’ve already read and enjoyed, and look at bestseller lists. I can usually get higher quality, more focused suggestions in those ways.

Another avenue I’ve found helpful in recent years is Goodreads. This social networking site is just about books. Friends post what they want to read, what they have read, give books a rating, and sometimes offer a review. Every day I get an email listing about two dozen books my Goodreads friends have read or want to read. (You can change the frequency of these email alerts too.)

Unlike other social networking sites, the goal is not necessarily to gather as many friends as you can—at least that’s not the way I use it. Rather, I try to find people whose tastes and interests overlap with mine.

When I see a book given good ratings and good reviews by several different people, I pay attention. That’s how Where the Crawdads Sing and Educated have made it on my “Want to Read” list. And that’s why I read The Lager Queen of Minnesota which proved to be just right for me.

Since I tend to like history, science fiction, biblical studies, and literary fiction, I try to get people on my friends list who do too. At the same time, I don’t want my list of friends to be too narrow. I want to be stretched to read in areas I might not ordinarily think of. Sometimes I just want beach reading. So I have friends who read a lot of those. Sometimes I want to read something from a different political or theological perspective. I have friends who point me to those as well.

Goodreads has lots of other features for those who like to track the books they are reading or who want to comment on a friend’s review. You can also suggest something to a friend.

Aggregate ratings and all the reviews for a particular book are available from the whole Goodreads community—not just those from your friends. I find that reading the most positive and the most negative reviews helps me get a handle on whether a certain book could be for me.

Goodreads is an excellent tool. But however you pick books, by all means, read books.

The Day I Flunked English

When I was in elementary school, I struggled to read.

I remember one particularly embarrassing episode when I was required to make a oral book report in third grade. I chose Winnie-The-Pooh, thinking it would be relatively easy to get through.

Whether due to lack of discipline, lack of focus, or lack of confidence, I only managed to struggle through one chapter. I still remember the look on my teacher’s face and the question when I finished my much truncated report: “Is that all?” Yes, I had to admit, head hung low, that was all.

Then there was the F in English I got in seventh grade. That called for a family meeting, with me at the center. I couldn’t figure out then and I still don’t know how that happened. I thought I was doing fine. I didn’t remember getting low scores in tests or failing to turn in papers. But there it was. I had flunked.

Yet one year later, in the summer before high school. I thought it would be a good goal to read Moby-Dick. And I did.

What changed? What transformed me into not just a good English student but someone who loved to read and loved to write?

I am sure part of it was just taking time for my brain to mature. Part of it might have been simply needing years of practice till the disciplines of study finally became second nature.

One important factor, though, that I still remember is the influence of my older brother and sister. I always saw them reading. They had books on their shelves and belonged to a book club. Seeing those arrive in the mail every so often was always exciting. Since I wanted to be as smart as they were, I thought I needed to read.

Do you want your younger siblings, your children, your grandchildren to become readers? By all means, read to them. But let them catch you reading too.

How Has the Internet Changed Reading and Writing?

Recently I was interviewed by Melissa Wuske in Foreword Reviews, which has focused on independent book publishing since its inception. To whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt below. You can find the whole interview here.

Accessibility has been a huge boon to writers and editors. With so much information digitized, in a few keystrokes we can track down books, articles, quotes, and facts that forty years ago could take days and weeks to research. Information is truly democratized.

All is not paradise, however. We have tradeoffs. Today as readers and citizens we are drowning in data yet are in desperate need of wisdom. We have accelerated life (including our reading) to such a pace that it is hard to take time to stop and reflect. Even our habits of reading short snippets make long-form writing a challenge. Yet in such a complex world, we are kidding ourselves if we think we can live by sound-bytes alone.

One way I have tried to deal with this is by focusing my reading in books. I tend to stay away from magazines and newspapers (print or digital) as well as radio, TV, and social media to keep up with the news, though all these media have value. Obviously I believe in the importance of the open flow of information (and I hear about significant events anyway and can follow up if I wish), but what is reported on today will almost never be remembered or have much significance next week.

Books can take a longer and more measured view on what mattered in the past, what matters now, and what will matter in a year or a decade. Books also help strengthen our ability to think through issues in a more sustained, reasoned way that fights against the sometimes trifling and impulsive urgency of the moment.

What books have you read recently that has been helpful in this way?

One of the most important and fascinating is Factfulness by Hans Rosling. He details with data and stories how the world is much better than we think in many realms, even though much work remains. Another excellent volume is Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal by Ben Sasse. He gets us outside the most recent news cycle to see deeper issues. Two others are A History of Western Philosophy by C. Stephen Evans and The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma.

The British to the Rescue

The story is classic. The main character enjoys prominence and prestige only to sink into obscurity before slowly rising again. Mark Noll tells this tale in his benchmark book on the history of American evangelical scholarship (1880-1980), Between Faith and Criticism–a book full of insights which still bear fruit today.

Some reasons for the decline are well-known but Noll adds other significant factors. One is the professionalization of academic study beginning in the late nineteenth century. Biblical studies were no longer the exclusive domain of denominational seminaries but became ruled by the technical, research-oriented graduate schools of major universities. In such an environment, assumptions of faith were thought to taint academic pursuits.

Though scholars like A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield at Princeton had the stature and substance to maintain some degree of standing in the field, shortly after 1900 such influence hit bottom. The next generation was one of exclusion and retrenchment, highlighted by the writing of The Fundamentals and the highly publicized Scopes Monkey Trial.

The issue which most divided evangelicals from modern or “liberal” scholars and vice versa, was biblical criticism. Noll, assuming his audience knows the term, never defines it (also called higher criticism) which does not mean negative evaluations. Rather it concerns a range of “scientific” approaches (which gained prominence in the nineteenth century) for analyzing texts to determine their meaning and historical accuracy. Many evangelicals objected to conclusions from these methods which included, for example, doubting Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and assigning a second-century BC date to Daniel. The result, they often felt, called the authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture into question.

How evangelical scholarship pulled itself out of these doldrums takes us to Britain. First, as members of the established Anglican church, some evangelicals there were always part of the faculty at the elite universities. They were never excluded the way their American counterparts were. Second, through the work of what became Tyndale House and Tyndale Fellowship (both under the umbrella of the InterVarsity Fellowship student ministry), serious scholars and scholarship were nurtured and encouraged. These included F. F. Bruce, G. T. Manley and others.

Via publications and some transatlantic travel both ways, the Brits had a salutary effect on American scholarship. Of ten evangelical commentary series available in the early 1980s, only one had a majority of American contributors.

Noll also offers a taxonomy of evangelical scholarship that is still useful thirty years after his book was published. (1) Critical Anti-Critics “regularly put scholarship to use in defending traditional evangelical beliefs and in attacking the nontraditional conclusions of other scholars.” (2) Believing Critics (led by British scholars) accept that new research may overturn traditional beliefs but that this need not undermine an inspired Bible. They “find insight as well as error in the larger world of biblical scholarship” (p. 158). Generally, then as today, members of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) are in the first category while members of the Institute of Biblical Research (IBR) are in the second.

Ultimately, the challenge for evangelicals has been to develop a comprehensive method for understanding both the divine and human aspects of Scripture. Do minor errors or a failure on the part of the biblical writers to (anachronistically) follow 21st-century historiographical conventions call the reliability of the whole Bible into question? Do the fallen and finite human contexts, cultures, and origins of the Scriptures somehow negate their divine inspiration and authority? Or is there a way both can be affirmed? In answering these questions, our British brethren have led and continue to lead the way.

F. F. Bruce photo credit: InterVarsity Press

Making the Rough Places Plain

Philosophy, notoriously, can be abstract and obscure. Yet philosophy is also a noble effort to grapple with some of the most difficult and pressing questions humans can face. What is the good? What is real? How can we know and be certain?

In A History of Western Philosophy C. Stephen Evans provides a model of conciseness and clarity in telling the story of Western philosophy from the days before Socrates to the present. As much as is possible Evans uses plain language to briefly tell the story of each key figure and of their ideas. Obviously, some passages can be hard but that is due to the difficulty of the material not the style of the author.

Rather than merely presenting each person in isolation, Evans shows how each one built on and often reacted against those who came before. Key turning points and emphases are highlighted as well. Socrates shifted the conversation from “What is real?” to “What is the good?” Descartes inaugurates modern philosophy by seeking to start from ground zero and focus on “How can I know?” And “modern philosophy may begin with doubt, but ancient philosophy clearly began with wonder” (p. 577).

He rounds up the usual suspects for major attention (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Marx, Neitzsche). Yet Evans gives good consideration to Philo, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Hegel, Mill, and many other lesser known figures.

Another virtue is the even coverage he gives. The Middle Ages, for example, are not ignored. Not only does Aquinas get his due but so also do Bonaventure, Scotus, and Ockham. While some would separate religion from philosophy, Evans argues that these concerns have always intertwined whether Greek, Christian, or atheist. So throughout he tells that story as well. Besides even coverage, he is evenhanded–never disparaging while showing strengths and weakness of each person and viewpoint.

Evans shows where his own thinking leans by devoting chapters each to Thomas Reid and Soren Kierkegaard. While they are quite different they overlap substantially in that they recognize the limits of reason while also having a certain confidence in what can be known.

Okay, now time for some true confession. I invited Evans to write this volume for IVP Academic. But I had retired before the volume was completed and was not involved in its development, revision, or final form. Honestly, I still think this is a dandy book.

One final bit of praise: The last chapter offers a number of helpful summaries and evaluations of the whole philosophical enterprise, especially in the last hundred years. While we must give up the quest for absolute, objective certainty, this need not lead to despair or skepticism. As with Reid and Kierkegaard, hope for drawing close to truth remains.

Heads Will Scroll

One of my favorite YouTube videos spoofs what a medieval help desk would look like as monks sought to transition from the traditional technology of the scroll to the new technology of the codex. Keeping the debate alive between eBooks and pBooks is Lev Grossman in the New York Times. His observation? That eBooks are a step backward from pBooks.
Continue reading “Heads Will Scroll”

Discovering the Gospel of Mark

For the last ten years I have lived with the Gospel of Mark–poring over its text, tracing down every Old Testament allusion, reading books, commentaries and journal articles, teaching the book in week-long intensive courses, letting its currents roll over me. All this is no accident, because I am the inheritor of a tradition.
Continue reading “Discovering the Gospel of Mark”

Who Do Books Make Us?

Maybe I’m old fashioned. Maybe I’m out of style. Maybe I’m the hipster culture’s worst nightmare. But I still think books make a difference.

David Brooks’s piece in the New York Times cites another study that shows the power of print. When students take books home for the summer, the impact is as great as attending summer school–aligning with the 27-country study I mentioned here previously.

Brooks makes the interesting point though, that books not only improve our thinking or reading abilities, books make us into different people. They shape not only how we see the world but how we see ourselves. We gain an identity as a learner or science fiction fan or lover of history or maybe just as a reader.

Books help make us who we are. And I think that’s a good thing.