Counsel to Younger Bibliophiles

This new year, I’ve noticed (and benefited from) a number of 2018 books-read lists, but here I want to address younger bibliophiles, and from a different angle.

Recently I estimated the number of books that I’ll read over the rest of my life, if God grants a full life, and given my pattern of reading, underscoring, annotating, and indexing. The estimate I came up with was 800 to 1000. That’s not many books. This number sobered me into thinking how I’ve often in the past read widely but not wisely. I’ve read thousands of books (I don’t know how many), and, of course, I wish I knew then what I know today about reading choices.

I began reading omnivorously when I was 10 or 11 years old. Aside from the Bible, the first book that I read, at least the first long book, was The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I was hooked. I was reading theology at 14 years old and socio-cultural works at 17 and 18.

I’ve never let up.

I’ve been so intellectually curious and such an excited and excitable reader that I’ve read widely on a number of topics, perhaps too many topics. While I’m not unhappy with my wide reading, I’m aware that had I read more wisely, I could’ve benefited more greatly from my reading.

My advice to younger readers: Try to discover the very best two or three books on any topic in which you’re interested. My practice was to read anywhere from 15 to 30 books on a single topic, when that wasn’t necessary. Unless you’re a scholar specializing in a particular topic, you don’t need to know everything that everybody has said about it. In fact, if you’ve read more than two or three books on the topic, you’ll probably find yourself consuming a lot of repetition. This happened to me. Because of opportunity costs, this meant that there were other topics that I simply left unread.

Don’t simply read a book because it is (or looks) interesting. Select your reading strategically. Compile a list of the books that you intend to read in 2020, and do your best to finish that list. Don’t be sidetracked by other interesting books. There will always be interesting books to read, but the most interesting books are not always the right ones for you to read.

There’s no substitute for disciplined reading choices.

I wish I’d known this in 1975–1990.


4 thoughts on “Counsel to Younger Bibliophiles

  1. Marty says:

    I became an avid reader about the same time but I had no boundaries or direction and defaulted to what came off the library shelf, my grandmothers shelf (she leaned toward romance novels) and whatever I could pick up at Walmart. I loved reading but I digested the equivalent of twinkies and never got into the classics despite reading a few in English classes in high school.
    Fast forward to being married to a man with much more discerning book tastes and having my children in a classical Christian school and I am working so hard to play catch up. It took a few years to develop a palate for better literature and I am so grateful that my children are and will be more widely exposed readers.
    Love the point you make here about narrow down the selection on a topic. It’s easy to get caught up and want to read everything.
    Happy new year to you and Sharon!

  2. Joel J. Miller says:

    You’re dead right about repetition. I’ve tried to read extensively in the medieval Latin church—dozens of books at this point—and there’s often substantial overlap between titles.

  3. Marty says:

    That would be lovely! I enjoy keeping up with y’all and your travels with Sharon on Facebook 🙂

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