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On the Reading of Many Books

On the Reading of Many Books

I have fallen into the habit of reading of many books. This is partly my own fault. This past New Year’s Day (also my birthday) I made a New Year’s resolution to read more books. It’s not as noble as it sounds. I was really making a resolution to spend less time on my phone…and having recently read this article about how to read more (*spoiler* you need to put down the phone), I decided I could avoid the cliché “I’m going to spend less time on my phone” resolution by accomplishing the same thing with the more noble sounding “I want to read more books” resolution. It turns out that putting down the phone and iPad—with their time-wasting addictive games—really does give one more time to read.

It was recently asked of me how I read so many books. Less screen time is definitely one way it gets done.

Another way that I read books is that I have deadlines. It’s a long story of how this arrangement came to be, but as it stands, CPH gives me access to free “advanced-reader-copies” of their books. I try to read them and then publish my review on the day the book is released. This arrangement results in me having a deadline. And nothing quite motivates a reader like a deadline (that’s why you read more books when you were in school rather than when you were not).

Another motivating factor that helps me in reading books is that I see it as a service that I can offer others. This helps two groups of people.

First, it helps the authors. I have never written a book.[1] Writing a book is a daunting task, and if someone bothered to write the book, then they must think it’s worth reading. I’m willing to read their book if they don’t mind me being honest about what I think of it when I write my review. Because of the 8th Commandment’s injunction to “explain everything in the kindest way,” I err on the side of gentleness and try to give the author the benefit of the doubt. And yet, I don’t want to just be a cheerleader and lose my credibility as a reviewer, so I try to be honest about my criticisms too. I like to pretend that every author is familiar with Psalm 141:5, “Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it.”

Second, my reading of books helps other readers…and not just because I write reviews. The reviews are obvious. I try to include in my reviews the types of things that I’d like to know about a book before I opt to purchase it. I also try to be honest in my critiques. Sometimes people disagree with my assessment and review. That’s fine. I take those as opportunities to see what people are looking for or are sensitive to when they read. I learn from those things and try to take that into account in my next review. But aside from writing reviews, simply becoming familiar with a wide range of books helps me as a pastor. I’m more confident in recommending books to others because I’ve actually read them. In general, authors are more articulate than I am. If I can point people in the right direction about a particular topic—and do so with confidence—that makes for a better pastoral care experience.

Reading lots of books is very much an issue of priorities (as said above). I don’t exercise (I should), I don’t garden (I often think I’d like too), and other than hunting and fishing, I don’t have many hobbies (I’m not a woodworker or mechanic or tinkerer). I really like to read, and I really like to talk about the stuff I read.

I don’t feel like I read a lot. I definitely read more than I did last year, but I know others who read far more than I do…they just don’t broadcast it to the world with reviews all the time. I also wonder if the impression of me reading a lot stems from the reviews I write. Some of my reviews are of children’s books. The last such book, The Love Bridge, had all of 202 words. I think this gives the impression of me doing more reading than I actually am.

I take seriously the Lord’s command through His prophet Jeremiah and repeated by the apostle Paul, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (Jer. 9:24, 1 Cor. 1:31). And writing this post recalls to my mind an experienced I had seven years ago.

In November of 2010, I went to a theological conference near Minneapolis that was organized by Rev. Jeff Cloeter. In his opening presentation that kicked off the weekend of presentations, I remember him saying to all those gathered, “If you’re reading more Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels, or Timothy Keller than you are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, then it’s time to repent.” As much as I enjoy people benefiting from my reviews…I’d rather they read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

Qoheleth says something similar. “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much studying is a weariness of the flesh” (my emphasis. Ecclesiastes 12:11–12). I am not the “one Shepherd” referenced here.

Martin Luther likewise says, “The number of books on theology must be reduced and only the best ones published. It is not many books that make men learned, nor even reading. But it is a good book frequently read, no matter how small it is, that makes a man learned in the Scriptures and godly.”[2]

Priorities. This post started with a link to an article that states that priorities are what lead to copious amounts of reading. Make reading a greater priority than watching Netflix. It’s a priority. And yet, when it comes to reading itself, priorities come into play once again. What are you reading, and why are you reading them? And are you reading some things to the neglect of reading the Word of God or the Lutheran Confessions? If so, then as Pr. Cloeter once said, “It’s time to repent.”

Having pontificated on the reading of many books, here’s how I have managed to read so many books. It’s presented to you as a list of “tips” for doing more reading.

1.     Make your “book time” greater than your “screen time.” Rather than binge-watch something on Netflix, read something instead. If you struggle with this in practice, try promising to yourself, “I won’t turn on Netflix until after I’ve read a chapter of a book.”

2.     Read with a purpose. Having a purpose to my reading has greatly increased the volume of my reading. I have many purposes: (1) I’d rather have my children see me with a book in front of my face than a phone, (2) I’d like to be better equipped as a pastor to address certain topics that my parishioners face, such a barrenness (a review is coming soon), (3) I like to help out authors and promote their works, (4) Sometimes it helps me sleep.

3.     Read more than one book at a time. Right now I’ve incorporated Donna Pyle’s book Forgiveness into my daily devotions. I started it a month ago and then put it down. Then I picked it up again in earnest last week. By reading a lesson a day as the book is designed, it’ll take me another five weeks to finish it. When I’m done, a review will follow. It’ll be a good review because I read the book in the manner in which it was designed to be read, rather than blitzing through it just to write a review. While I’m reading this book though, I’m also reading He Remembers the Barren. This book has really short chapters and is only about 100 pages long. I set this by my computer desk and punch out another chapter when I’m procrastinating on writing a sermon or waiting for five minutes before my elders show up for a meeting. I’m also reading Kristin Lavransdatter for fun (no review will follow).

4.     Keep different books in different places. Keep a book by your bed. Keep a different book in your office. Keep a different book or two in your car. Keep one in the living room of your house.

5.     Set a deadline. I have a significant advantage over the average person in this regard. CPH sends me early copies of books with the understanding that I’ll try to get them read before they’re published. So far I’ve been pretty good at keeping up. If you’re a pastor, write a review of a book and publish it in your church newsletter. If once every month is too much reading, then try it once every other month, or once every quarter. Those are some deadlines that might help.

These are my thoughts about the reading of many books. I hope they help you in your quest to read more too.

Rev. Timothy A. Koch. Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches of Cresbard and Wecota, SD.

[1] This isn’t entirely true. I did write a book geared for 3rd-5th graders when I was in college titled Richard’s Revenge. It rightfully remains unpublished.

[2] Martin Luther, “To the Christian Nobility,” LW 44:205.

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