Have you ever stood in front of bookshelf wondering what book you should read among a number of choices? It’s fairly easy to weed out books you don’t want to read, but how do you choose the right books for your interests?
There’s no shortage of good counsel about how to select books. Among my favorites are Alan Jacobs, Susan Wise Bauer, and James Schall. If you’re not reading the Farnam Street blog and consulting the book list there, you’re missing out.
But choosing books may not be as easy as finding a great recommended reading list. There’s a personal aspect of choosing books. Your criteria and needs for good books may not align with the recommendations of a renowned expert. One of the joys of becoming a curious reader is discovering an overlooked author who stirs your imagination and your thoughts.
“Whatever Blows Your Hair Back”
Here’s an exchange from one of my favorite movies, Good Will Hunting (edited from choice Boston expletives) about choosing books. Will, a young and troubled genius, sizes up his new therapist, Sean, by looking at the books in Sean’s office.
Will: You people baffle me. You spend all your money on these fancy books. You surround yourselves with ‘em. They’re the wrong books.
Sean: What are the right books, Will?
Will: Whatever blows your hair back.
I quote that line often when people ask me what to read. Reading should light a fire in our thoughts and imaginations. As C.S. Lewis said, if a book doesn’t grip you by 50 pages, it’s time to move on.
So Many Books…And Many of Them Aren’t Worth Your Time
I heard a story about Madeleine L’Engle and a moment in her later life when she realized she wouldn’t be able to read all the books on her reading list. It brought her to tears for the sadness of knowledge and beauty she would not experience. Authors and their books had become her friends. She knew and trusted the riches of the books she owned.
But not all books become like close friends. Some should be like acquaintances and most should be left as total strangers. Part of enjoying reading means putting a boring or poorly written book aside. Enjoying reading means overlooking thousands of books that aren’t creative or thoughtful. Time is limited and you have to make good choices given the limitations you have. And you never learn the limitations of time more than when you try to read with young children in your home.
Reading Before Kids, Reading After Kids
Before I had kids I would set a reading goal for the year. But my reading goal was more than a number of books I completed. I arranged my reading list around different subjects to learn based on topics that interest me. It proved to be a good method for growing in knowledge.
I have great memories from the years when I took that method and plan for reading, but it became unrealistic to keep my reading pace when kids arrived. But here’s the interesting thing about my reading habits now that I have two children: I may have read more books before I had kids, but I’m certain that I’ve become a better reader after I became a dad.
I think the reason I became a better reader is because I can’t afford to lose valuable time reading bad books. I no longer make the formal, structured reading plan each year, but I still read with some kind of purpose. I’m developing a better eye for choosing books that will shape me. In brief, I look for writers who make connections across different fields of knowledge.
I’m fascinated by a writer like Robert Hagstrom, a finance author who writes about investing and its connections to biology, literature, physics, and psychology. The Hedgehog Review has become a great repository of books and authors writing about culture across several different disciplines. When I read Christian authors, I’m looking for authors who demonstrate catholicity in their writing. I grow impatient with writers who aren’t fascinated with the world God has made. I want to read writers who have an ever-expanding imagination, who draw on sources both ancient and modern in their own thought.
Reading for Learning, Reading for Fun
Even though I look for books to inspire my heart and expand my thinking, it’s also important to read for fun.
Before I got married, I didn’t read much fiction and my wife didn’t read much nonfiction. Both of us have changed. I’m glad she encouraged me to read fiction because I’ve discovered some good novelists that convey truth better than some theologians. And I’ve discovered how much I love good detective stories and historical fiction.
Read a P.D. James mystery and you’ll definitely be entertained, you won’t guess the killer until the end, and you’ll also gain insight into the way evil resides in the human heart. The same is true with G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries.
It’s not often that a work of fiction takes a hold of me, but I remember having that experience reading Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev. I couldn’t put down Susan Howatch’s novel Glittering Images either. If I’m reading for learning, I want a writer who will stir my mind. If I’m reading for fun, I want someone who will stir my imagination, who can make me laugh, make me cry, or take me on an adventure while saying something about what it means to be human.
More to Come this Summer…
Over these summer months, I’ll have more posts on this subject. After all, summer is one of the best seasons of the year for reading. I’ll share some ideas about ways of choosing fiction, nonfiction, and theology. You may be better off finding your own way rather than following my method, but if you’re standing in front of book stacks paralyzed by indecision, I look forward to an ongoing conversation about choosing good books.