Book Filtering

Alan Jacobs makes a very good point about the importance of choosing the right books to read:

One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon—it comes from his essay “Of Studies”—concerns the reading of books: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” This is usually taken as a wise or sententious general comment about the worthiness of various texts, but Ann Blair shows that Bacon was making a very practical recommendation to people who were overwhelmed by the availability of books and couldn’t imagine how they were going to read them all. Bacon tells such worried folks that they can’t read them all, and so should develop strategies of discernment that enable them to make wise decisions about how to invest their time. I think Bacon would have applauded Clay Shirky’s comment that we suffer not from “information overload” but from “filter failure.” Bacon’s famous sentence is really a strategy for filtering.

Today American publishers are cranking out close to 300,000 new book titles (and new editions) each year. We need a filter. But how do we build such a filter to fit around the contours of our life? That is one of the major questions I sought to address in my forthcoming book Lit!, particularly in chapter 7, “Read with Resolve: Six Priorities That Decide What Books I Read (and Don’t Read).” My point there is simple: book readers must first determine clear reading goals. Once we determine what we want our books to accomplish (even if the goal is mere pleasure), a host of questions about what books you should read will resolve themselves, making the choice about what books to read, and which ones not to read, a more manageable decision.

7 thoughts on “Book Filtering

  1. It’s good to filter the books we read, because today’s “christian” bookstores are a danger. I think 85% or 90% of the books they sell are false doctrine.

  2. So this post really begs the question (in my mind at least): would your forthcoming book pass your own filter as a book worth spending money on and spending valuable time reading as opposed to the many other books out there? I don’t ask in an effort to be cute, I’m really curious how an author would respond to that question. I attended the Evangelical Theological Society meeting held around the time that Wayne Grudem and Stan Grenz both had their systematic theologies published. There was a panel discussion concerning their works and the question was raised (by Roger Nicole if recall correctly) and directed to Grudem about why, with all the theological works already on the market, he felt the need to write yet another systematic theology. In my time of ministry I have had a number of people prod me in an effort to get me to write a book and I have always gone back to that question asking myself: “With all that is out there that is so worth reading, what do I possibly have to contribute? Would I want people to read my book or would they be better off reading one of the books already published that I, personally, find so valuable?” In other words, would it pass the filter test? I have lately re-contemplated self-publishing an e-book but that nagging question keeps me from pulling the trigger. Have you asked yourself these questions and how did you answer them? Thanks.

  3. It can become very easy to get caught up in the continuous promo of NEW books, and completely miss the joy of great books. The only way around that is to think and plan ahead…. using forethought and intentionality. The best way to evaluate Christian books is to know Scripture inside & out. The best way to evaluate whether a book is good literature is to have read a lot of great lit, so that you automatically recognize good writing when you see it!

  4. Indeed, I used to work at a very well known Christian book store and most of what went out the door was what I would consider heresy. Whenever I would bring up the subject I was told that we weren’t there to debate theology but we were there to point people to resources that would help them…seemed a little wrong to me, since good theology is quite a help in times of trouble!

  5. Ekklesiablackburg,

    Two thoughts come to mind initially: availability and language.

    Not all great books are reprinted for every generation and only the most ardent bibliophile will put the required effort into obtaining their desired tome. Then there are cost restrictions associated with acquiring and maintaining antiquated excellence. Evidently, when Spurgeon bought his books, the Church was in such a sorry state that good literature was more economical and hence he had many first edition Puritan works that would quickly bankrupt the average pastor if he sought to buy those same works today.

    Assuming that you can find one, trying to read a fast-day sermon from colonial America (that has not been edited for modern American English) can be quite a daunting task if one is not especially dedicated to the endeavor. The sentence structure, vocabulary, and the thought process of previous generations were developed by a much more educated populace than the MTV or Twitter generations. IYKWIM, dude?

    What do you have to offer? If people are asking you to write then perhaps you have a style of communication that resonates with those who hear/read what you have to say. In addition, some subjects are of such importance that they demand numerous volumes to ensure that the message is circulated as widely as possible.

    In contrast to Solomon’s warning about the unending production of books, John tells us that the world cannot contain all the books that recorded Jesus’ works. From that, it sounds like there is still room for more!

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