The other day I mentioned that 300,000 new books are published each year in the US. With so many new books to choose from, one blog reader asked why he should read my new book? What original contribution does book 300,001 make? Is Lit! worthy of a reader’s precious time?
Those are all fair questions to ask of my book or any book. And while I cannot answer these questions for you personally, perhaps it will help if I explain why I wrote my book.
For the last several years I have read any author who addresses the topic of book reading. And I wish there were more authors and books to choose from. I’ve read Mortimer Adler of course, and also Harold Bloom, but also a number of modern Christian authors like James Sire, Gene Veith, Alan Jacobs, C.S. Lewis and Leland Ryken. Not to mention a number of patristic and reformed writers throughout the centuries. Each of these writers has much to teach us about reading books and I commend each of them.
But as I read these books from a pastoral and Christian perspective my mind kept returning to two important themes that seem to be neglected or assumed in many of these books: (1) clear and transcendent theological convictions for why reading matters, and (2) practical tips to help struggling readers.
Out of those burdens emerged a book idea.
First, I had a vision for celebrating the inerrancy of Scripture and the sufficiency of Scripture, but in a way that is careful not to diminish the contributions of all other books. John Broadus once wrote that Chrysostom and Augustine speak not so much as loving pagan writers less, but as loving the Scriptures more. I agree. When we look back to our forefathers we see men who do not diminish the value of books in order to distinguish the value of one Book (Scripture). A very high view of Scripture can coexist with a high view of great literature. This theme became chapter 1.
Next, I had a conviction that faith in the gospel fundamentally alters our literacy. To date I have not read anything that connects how the experience of personal conversion changes how we read books, even — to choose just one example — how we read a contemporary business book. Yet as I studied Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3:14–16 I began to discover how the gospel influences our literacy, and I wanted to write about it. This became chapter 2.
Next, I wanted to explore the challenge of prioritizing book reading in an image-driven society. Do we discover truth and meaning more clearly through language or images? The answer is language. This is an important conviction, but one I could not find articulated in a way that satisfied me. I wanted the discussion to honor the value of images and artists, while carefully showing the distinct value of language and books to communicate meaning. This became chapter 3.
Next, I wanted to show how the biblical worldview equips readers to identify what is true, good, and beautiful in the books we read. I am grateful for the narrative worldview framework emphasis (creation > fall > redemption > restoration). This approach brings clarity to the metanarrative behind all of creation and recreation. But the narrative approach has one weakness in that it tends to minimize the fruit of common grace in the world round us and can lead us to neglect what is true, good, and beautiful. To identify these things we must also develop a Christian worldview in the aggregate form, and so I sought to explain why this is critically important for discerning and cherishing books. This became chapter 4.
Building on that chapter was my conviction that God uses non-Christian books to benefit the life of Christian readers. I’ve been thankful for the many different ways this general theme has been communicated in the past, especially by John Calvin and his view of common grace. As I studied, I discovered seven concrete ways in which non-Christian books benefit Christians – spanning everything from mathematics and scientific discovery all the way up to matters of spiritual edification. I wanted to summarize my findings in one chapter, something brief and cohesive and yet also carefully nuanced. This became chapter 5.
Next, I believe that cultivating the imagination requires disciplined reading of imaginative books. Our imagination is actually one means by which God grows us in holiness, which is obvious in the use of such powerful imagery in the book of Revelation. This conviction about the imagination, and about the value of books to help us develop our imagination, became chapter 6.
I also wanted to express the conviction that fiction literature makes a valuable contribution to the life of the Christian. This is a conviction that took many years to develop in my own life. I’m a non-fiction, theology, and biography guy myself. If it didn’t really happen, then it’s fake, it’s make-believe, it’s un-true. That’s what I believed for many years. But as I have come to learn that fiction offers many benefits to the Christian reader. In chapter 9 I build off of the work of Christian literature scholars, especially Leland Ryken, to help Christians who are less convinced.
Next, I wanted to transition into the practices of effective book reading. I begin with the most important practical consideration that often goes unconsidered: What do we want our book reading to accomplish in our lives? By failing to answer this question we fail to identify reading priorities that will help us make wise book choices. In chapter 7, I explain how I developed my filters and I encourage all book readers to set aside time to develop these personally chosen priorities.
The reminder of the book elaborates on various reading practices. I wanted to write a chapter to help readers find the time in their busy schedules to read books (chapter 10). I wanted to explain how poor online reading habits lead to poor offline reading habits, and how ebook devices actually exacerbate the problem (chapter 11). I wanted to explain why and how I mark in my books and what those markings are intended to do (chapter 12). I wanted to explain how books can be used to build the local church community (chapter 13). I wanted to encourage pastors and parents to train up a new generation of readers (chapter 14). I wanted to explain the value of re-reading books, the joy of reading old books, and the danger of using books as idols (chapter 15).
I wrote this book to help Christians make book reading a priority in their lives. But for us to prioritize any discipline in our lives we must first have firmly rooted biblical convictions. This book is my attempt to explain and defend the most important convictions book readers need. Once those are settled, I want to explain certain practices that have helped me to become an effective and efficient book reader.
This project was quite ambitious. Was it too ambitious? Can one book accomplish all this? Will the scope of the book scare off Christians who don’t really read books to begin with (thus defeating my whole purpose for writing it!)? It is too soon to tell. But for now I can say that I am very grateful for a publisher who supported my attempt, a team of diversely gifted scholars who sharpened my thoughts, dear friends who encouraged me in the task, and an understanding wife who made it all possible.
My book, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books, releases at the end of September from Crossway and is now available for pre-order here. It’s 200 pages long, and was written for Christians who want to improve as book readers.
Note: And if you’re in the Gaithersburg area, I’ll be teaching from the content of my book in a 3-week course on Sunday mornings at Covenant Life Church titled “How To Read A Book.” It should be fun. Classes will meet on September 11, 18, and 25 at 9:30–10:30 am with classes repeating at 11:00am–noon. I’ll post audio on the blog when it’s available.