Read Widely, Read Well

The end of a calendar year always brings with it a cavalcade of “Best of” lists from all corners of the evangelical world. Pastors and scholars, bloggers and lay-people trot out the best things they’ve read, watched, heard, or eaten (yeah, this exists too). These lists are so predictable and so prevalent that even mentioning them will cause some people to roll their eyes. But I have a confession to make.

I love them.

I absolutely love them! Especially the book lists. I love perusing the covers, reading the short excerpts and summaries, and comparing the lists and disagreeing with people a lot smarter and more well read than I am (What!? Tim Keller is all the way down at #7????). If I had it my way, I’d by every book on every list, stack them all neatly (or maybe not so neatly) in a bookcase and have at it until the next list-making season.

But I’m a seminary student. And I’m married with children who can’t eat a paperback and don’t want a relationship with the spine of the latest theological treatise. On top of that, buying books normally requires buying them. You know. With money. So, like everyone else in the world, I have to be selective about what I read. I don’t have time to grab every bestseller or every next great church growth scheme or leadership manual. I’m sure that guy who built a technology empire by age 20 has a lot of really interesting things to say, but I have a few other things on my plate.

So instead of a “best of” list, I thought I’d share the decision I’ve made on how I approach my reading. Maybe it will help you as you swim through the ocean of Amazon book sales.

Read Widely

What can I say, I read what I like. If you give me a choice between a biography about Margaret Thatcher and reading Jurassic Park for the zillionth time, I’ll always go for the dinosaurs. But there’s a really big world out there with a lot of different voices and frankly, I need to get a little more cultured. So, with apologies to the late great Michael Crichton, I made a decision to broaden the kinds of things I read. Read fiction and non-fiction, biographies and short stories, plays and how-to books.

But perhaps more important than what you read about is who you read. I realized as I scanned my bookshelves that most of the people I read were white men (there are a ton of factors behind this that deserve some serious consideration, but I’m not gonna do that here). Crichton, Piper, Platt, Chandler, Lewis, Tolkien, Keller, King (Stephen). And believe me, these are all important people to read. If you’ve never read them, do it!

However, I realized that I needed to be listening to other voices from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities. If I wanted to know how the world speaks and thinks, I need to listen to a more diverse group of speakers and thinkers! So I walked through a big bookstore with my phone and just started writing down the names of authors and book titles. I wrote down fiction writers I’d never heard of, included top journalists and historians, and even left the worlds I was familiar with to start pulling down titles dealing with things like economics (shudder).

Now the list of authors in my Amazon Wish List looks a little different: Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel, Jhumpa Lahiri, David McCullough, Herta Muller, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I have to be intentional about this; it’s not what I’m prone to do (none of these books have dinosaurs in them). But if God is calling us to love and care for one another, wouldn’t it help to try and understand one another?

Naturally, the subjects diversified too: fiction, hard sciences, economics, memoir, history, and biographies of some of the greatest politicians, composers, coaches, and missionaries. There’s even a biography of Margaret Thatcher.

Read Well

This is the other key component. Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of crap out there. Bookstores may be facing extinction but thanks to places like Amazon, books aren’t going anywhere soon (and praise God for this!). Everyone with a whim and a prayer is releasing an e-book. But that means we need to be discerning about what we read. We have limited time and limited resources. Why wouldn’t we want to read the best?

Here’s what I did. I added to the list every book that has won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction since it was a category (I’m definitely a bigger fan of fiction than non) and every book that won the Non-Fiction prize for about the last 20 years (science changes, historical data grows, stuff like that; a book on medicine from 1950 my be fascinating on one level, but maybe things are a little different now). I then added the Book of the Year Award, the Man Booker Prize, and the best work (according to the critics) of every winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It’s a long list.

And I’m never going to get through it. Every year I’ll add a couple more books to the list and I’m not going to be able to knock everything else off as I go. I’m definitely going to try, though.

I encourage you to do the same thing. Reading is a dying skill. Movies and tablets (for crying out loud, buy hard copies of these books and build your own personal library) dominate the entertainment world. I’m not gonna lie, I love a good TV show and I think I’ll openly weep when I finally see the new Star Wars (tomorrow night!). But reading pries the imagination open, builds stories that could never be replicated on a screen, and helps you know which “their” to use in your status updates. Read the best that the world has produced. Read the people you vehemently disagree with (but make sure they’re intelligent about it. Sorry Bill O’Reilly.) and read the people who inspire you.

Read. Start small if you have to. Don’t try and read a new book every day. Heck, you might not read a new book every month! But as you think through New Year’s Resolutions and pick through “Best of” lists, I encourage you to Read Widely, and Read Well. You may find that you enjoy it (especially if you go back to a book about dinosaurs once in a while)!

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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