Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Books (Page 1 of 18)

Bookish Habits #7: Bill Gates

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

This series has sought to encourage wide reading by pulling the curtain back on the reading habits of a few readers of varying ‘celebrity.’ I’ve wanted to interview the genuinely famous and have approached a couple, but, to date, none have found sufficient time or whimsy to respond.

Image from Time Magazine

Until now.

Well, not really.

No doubt Bill Gates would have jumped at the opportunity to be profiled in this space had I asked him. Instead, Time Magazine, with questions oddly similar to my own, published an interview with him in the May 22, 2017 issue. It’s a fun interview to which I cannot resist adding my annotations. The quotes are all Gates’.

Warren Buffett loaned me his copy of Business Adventures by John Brooks many years ago.

A man who could probably buy Amazon borrows, instead of buys, a book. Maybe that’s why he’s rich and I’m not.

Melinda and I both love the book [The Great Gatsby], and it’s the novel that I reread the most.

Reading is best as a communal activity. To share what one reads, to discuss it, to savor it with another, is part of its joy. If one can do that with his partner, so much the better. Good for Bill and Melinda!

And some books are so rich that they bear re-reading. The experience of reading them does something to us. Returning renews and deepens that experience.

I read the whole set of World Book encyclopedias when I was a kid.

What was I doing when I was a kid? Not that.

My elementary school librarian, Mrs. Blanche Caffiere at Seattle’s View Ridge Elementary School, introduced me to biographies of famous figures throughout history.

Each of our lives is littered with people who simply in doing what they love and being who God made them to be touch us in profound ways, ways they never could imagine in the moment. This librarian no doubt knew she had a bright kid. She never could have imagined that he’d be talking about her in Time Magazine 60 years later.

The biggest problem I have is that I refuse to stop reading a book in the middle, even if I don’t like it.

I get that, and it is a problem. Right now I’m 490 pages into George Elliot’s Middlemarch still waiting to meet a character I care about.

I love the way good fiction can take you out of your own thoughts and into someone else’s.

This is the primary reason I urge those who preach or teach to read widely and wildly. Otherwise, we get stuck with singular perspectives.

I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read.

So did I. I wish I could thank them for it.

Great Scott! Gadzooks! Television and Reading Books!

Life has been busy for me recently, with little reading, less writing, and no posting. As I make the necessary in flight adjustments to my life’s trajectory I am lifting a post from 9 years ago and pasting it here. It seems appropriate to reprint this post, given we have spoken much about reading recently in these pages (and given that I’ve just finished binge watching my favorite detective show, Amazon’s Bosch.)

So, enjoy the wisdom of Roald Dahl, appearing here first on August 29, 2008. And then go pick up a book.

The simplest explanation for the lost passion for reading is to blame the television. My favorite presentation of this charge comes from Willie Wonka’s Oompa Loompas as they sing regarding the demise of poor Mike Teevee. This is especially fun to read to children. But there are plenty of us adults who might need to pay attention to it as well.

Enjoy!

The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set —
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink —
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!
‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY… USED… TO… READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole-
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start — oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

(With gratitude to Roald Dahl.)

Time to Read

I was speaking with a woman after church a couple of Sundays ago about a book she had read and which I was reading. In that conversation I started a sentence, “The book you really should read…” and she stopped me protesting, “Don’t give me another book! My list is already too long! I don’t have time!”

I gave her the recommendation anyway, and she dutifully wrote it down.

But time is an issue, isn’t it? The question I most often hear in discussions about reading is, “When?” We are busy people. When in the midst of our busy-ness can we pause to read? I get that. So when I received the answers to my survey questions from Staci Thomas I followed up with a question along those lines. Her answer deserves a post all its own.

When, Staci, do you find time to do all the reading you do in the midst of a life that would by itself exhaust most of us?

Staci: I don’t have to force myself to read. I love reading. I only read books that I will love, I enjoy the process, and it’s not an activity like, say, doing the dishes, that I have to make an effort to do. Now, making the time to do so is another story. To make the time to read, this is what I do:

– I only pick books I like so it’s not drudgery to read.

– I always listen to a book when I am exercising (so, a minimum of six hours of book listening happens each week).

– I always turn my current Audible book on in the car when I’m not driving kids places.

– I turn the Audible book on when I’m getting ready for the morning or cleaning or making dinner.

– I’ll pick up the hard copy of the book I’m reading and read while I’m blow drying my hair.

– If I am stirring something while cooking, I have a book in my hand.

– I never leave the house without a book so when I am waiting somewhere (there is a lot of waiting when living in the city and raising four kids here) I pull it out and read.

– I read aloud to my kids for at least 30 minutes every night (kids are 17, 14, 13, 11). (Some parents bond while hiking or playing video games, but we read.)

– I read every night before I go to sleep…sometimes it’s only a page, sometimes it’s 30 minutes.

– I read when I’m waiting for a file to save that I’m uploading for work.

– I read when I’m on a plane for work, which is happening more frequently lately.

– I HEAVILY limit time on social media in favor of reading a book.

The before bed reading is the time of day when I am the most free to read. I try not to get in bed to read, as that lends itself to falling asleep quickly. I try to read in the family room before bed so that I can get a few more pages in before sleep. I read so many articles about reading in the early morning before the day starts, but I save that time for devotional/Bible reading so that is not free-type time for me. And – I’ll add this – there was a time when I slept about four hours a night. I cannot do that anymore. I sleep about six hours each night now, and I’m reading more than ever using the above techniques.

Thanks, Staci. I have only this to add:

©Stephen Pastis http://www.gocomics.com/pearlsbeforeswine

 

Bookish Habits #6: Staci Thomas

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

The title of the originating post in this series makes mention of the rich and famous. My friend Staci is neither, if measured by dollars in the bank and widespread name recognition. She is, however, rich relationally, with a husband and four adopted daughters and friends scattered over many states and several continents. And to those who know her, she is famous for her passion for Jesus and for representing him with integrity by loving the world around her. She should be famous for being a consumer of books. Her volume of reading is such that it will take two posts just to keep up with her, and then we will have to stop and catch our breath. If you like to read or want to begin to read more widely, I commend Staci to you. To Staci I owe my introduction to some of my favorite books (Gilead and The Elegance of the Hedgehog, to name a notable two.) It is to be lamented that this homeschooling mom who also works as an engineer and as an advocate of adoption (currently Family Program Director with Chosen, and for some reason, long ago, gave up trying to find time to continue her blog (last updated in 2014). I’m happy to introduce you to Staci and her reading habits.

Randy: In the past year, approximately how many books did you read for ‘enjoyment’ (that is, books outside your direct professional interest)?

Staci: I read 42 books for enjoyment in 2016.

What motivates you to read books outside your profession?

Simply put, my life is better when I’m reading profusely. I’m a sharper employee, a more compassionate mother, a more connected wife, a better friend, and a kinder person. I would rather read than do anything else, so it’s not too much of an effort to make profuse reading occur.

How do you choose what books you will read?

The Sunday New York Times Book Review – I read it every Sunday and if there is a review of a book that sounds good, I add it to my TBR list, which I keep on a spreadsheet.

You sound like an engineer. The answer to every problem involves a spreadsheet. What other sources add to your spreadsheet?

What Should I Read Next Podcast – I listen to this podcast and read this website daily for book recommendations.

Book lists – I am obsessed with reading book lists, and if I see a title that repeatedly shows up on various lists, I add it to the spreadsheet. Every year I read the New York Times’ Top Ten Best Books of the Year, and then I’ll work through their top 100 picks for the year if I need something else to read. Last week I found a list that took all of the best of the year books and put the most frequented books on one list. All 20 of those books went on the spreadsheet.

Author Ryan Holiday sends out a monthly email of the best books he’s read each month; he recommends quality non-fiction titles.

Slate has some great book reviews and lists that I look at.
I do not read fluff; I know what I like and so it’s extremely easy for me to choose books that I know I’ll love. I rarely read something that I don’t like because I research pretty heavily.

How do you choose what books to read next?

I look at my spreadsheet and figure out how to read each book the most economically. Every day I look at Modern Mrs. Darcy Kindle Daily Deals. She does the hard work of putting together the quality titles that are on sale, and if I can get a book on my Kindle for $2.99, I’ll download it that day. If I have credits to use on my Audible account, I’ll download a book there that is on my spreadsheet. And if neither of those options are grabbing a book on the spreadsheet, I’ll reserve from the library. If the list at the library is too long, I’ll order it used from AbeBooks or used off of Amazon.

I always make sure that I have two fiction titles and at least one non-fiction title going at the same time. I despise reading only one book at a time unless it’s a classic, and then I have to only concentrate on the classic.

What book or books are you reading now? [Note: I asked this of Staci in December of 2016.]

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan (on Kindle)

Evicted by Matthew Desmond (on Kindle)

The Nix by Nathan Hill (on Audible, so listening when exercising and in the car)

Emotional Agility by Susan David (hard cover)

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart (aloud to my kids)

Counter Culture by David Platt (aloud to my older teens)

What three or four books do you find you most often recommend to others?

Anything by Marilyn Robinson to people who like deep stuff and who want their lives to be changed – Home is my favorite

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery for people who want to laugh and like beautiful writing;

Anything by Stewart O’Nan for people looking for not so deep but quality writing;

Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra because life is too short to not read a book this good (note: R-rated material and very sad);

Bonus pick for Christians: The Grammar of God by Aviya Kushner because I LOVE this book and I think every studier of the Bible should read this as soon as possible. Get this one in hard cover because you will want to visit with it more than once.

Bonus kid pick: Mysterious Benedict Society series because this is a great series and a lot of parents don’t know about it.

A great list! Thanks, Staci. I will follow up soon with a question about finding the time to read.

A Very Unpleasant Person

I suppose we all have people we don’t want to see or with whom we’d simply rather not have any kind of social intercourse. But few, if any, have the kind of impact on us that Charles Augustus Milverton had on Sherlock Holmes.

Illus from Wikipedia

“Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo, and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me.”

I have read that sentence probably a dozen times over the past few days and it still strikes me with its vivid sense of revulsion. Those of us who would write something like “Sherlock did not like Milverton” can only dream of creating images like that.

🔍

The sentence sounds even better read out loud by a gifted performer, which is my real reason in bringing this to your attention. The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes is playing again in my Audible app and I could not be more delighted. A gifted reader reading Doyle’s great stories: what more could one ask to enliven long (or short) drives?

Bookish Habits #5: Dr. Steve Brown and Dr. Bryan Chapell

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

Steve Brown

Several weeks ago I sat down with noted authors and teachers Dr. Steve Brown, the founder and president of Key Life Network and Dr. Bryan Chapell, the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church of Peoria, Illinois, to discuss their reading habits.

To be honest, I did not sit down with them. I emailed them. But I like to picture myself sitting with these two men, whose ministries have been so helpful to me,  discussing, among other things, the books we enjoy.

Bryan Chapell

Both men have lengthy careers in ministry and both have well-deserved reputations as being superb preachers. And both have written extensively. I direct you to their Amazon.com author pages (here and here) to sample their works. Personally, I’ve been helped by Steve’s A Scandalous Freedom and by Bryan’s Christ-Centered Preaching and Christ-Centered Worship.

Though I reproduce their answers to my questions with complete accuracy, I may have elaborated the dialog a bit. May have.

Randy (RG): Steve and Bryan, I’m thankful that you have both taken time from your busy schedules to meet with me this morning.

Bryan Chapell (BC): Happy to do so.

Steve Brown (SB): Same here. Mind if I smoke my pipe?

RG: No problem. As you know, we’ve been discussing the kinds of things people read when they simply chose to read for fun and enjoyment. So, in the past year, approximately how many books did each of you read for ‘enjoyment’ (that is, books outside your direct professional interest)?

SB: Forty to fifty, maybe more.

BC: Wow! That’s impressive, Steve. For me it would have been somewhere between twelve and fifteen.

RG: I find it all impressive. What motivates you to read books outside your profession?

BC: For me, really, it is something of a hobby. It enables me to pursue other interests, and honestly, I do it for the pure enjoyment of it.

SB: Similarly, for me, it is both escape and curiosity.

RG: How do you choose what books you will read?

SB: Mostly from friends… or authors with whom I’m familiar or friends who have written books. I also review and read books when someone wants me to write a blurb.

BC: I, too, depend upon the recommendation of friends, as well as book reviews, recommendations in magazine articles, or awareness of particular author emphasis.

RG: It seems that books reach readers like churches reach visitors: mostly through networks of friends. So what book or books are you reading right now?

BC: Those that I’m reading currently are all related to my role as a pastor.

Reformed Catholicity – Michael Allen and Scott Swain

No God but One – Nabeel Qureshi

Serving a Movement – Timothy Keller

The Day the Revolution Began – N. T. Wright

The Family Life of a Christian Leader – Ajith Fernando

RG: What about you, Steve?

SB: Currently I’m reading

The Fellowship: The Literary Life of the Inklings – Philip and Carol Zaleski

Father Brown Stories – G. K. Chesterton

Takedown (5th in The Scot Harvath Series) – Brad Thor

Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religion – Ryan T. Anderson

RG: The books that stick with us and are meaningful to us are the ones we will often recommend to others. What books do you find you most often recommend to others?

SB:

Anything by C. S. Lewis

Orthodoxy – G. K. Chesterton

BC:

The Discipline of Grace – Jerry Bridges

King’s Cross – Timothy Keller

Mere Christianity – C. S. Lewis

Sacred Marriage – Gary Thomas

RG: Thanks to both of you. This has all been very helpful.

BC: You’re welcome, Randy.

SB: Glad to do it.

Bookish Habits #4: Jim Jones

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

It took a hurricane to bring my friend Jim Jones and I together. Katrina, specifically. Jim was at the time the East County editor of the Bradenton (Florida) Herald. He lived near the church I pastored, and he had come to visit to see what a local pastor might have to say in the wake of that overwhelmingly devastating storm. Being one deeply committed to the best journalistic ethics, he introduced himself before the service (and I laughed at his auspicious name). He heard me preach and then did a wonderful job of summarizing my point for his article on Monday morning. From there developed a fruitful (for me, at least) friendship.

That friendship led to the formation of a book discussion group formed, Jim, my Muslim neighbor, a retired professor from Cornell’s college of architecture, and me. It was short-lived (we only got through two books) because of time, not interest. But through this I learned that Jim was a reader.

Jim served in Vietnam for 33 months between 1968 and 1971, and is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Upon leaving active duty, Jim earned a BA from the University of South Florida. His entire journalism career has been in small Florida newspapers. His 2013 ‘retirement’ only lasted six months after which he returned to the Herald’s newsroom. He continues as a working journalist at age 70. In the interest of probing the reading habits of a committed journalist, I submitted my questions to Jim.

Randy: In the past year, approximately how many books did you read for ‘enjoyment’ (that is, books outside your direct professional interest)?

Jim: I am very much a sporadic, occasional reader because words are my business as a newspaper reporter/editor. My brain tells me reading is work. That said, there is usually a specific reason for me to pick up a book.

Recent examples include

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Patricia Schultz, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die

What motivates you to read books outside your profession?

I have been working on a small manuscript for several years about my experiences in Vietnam and after the war. Several people have read it, invited to offer criticism, or rip it apart, to make it more interesting and readable. One of my readers asked, “Does the world  really need another book on Vietnam?” My response was that it depends on the story. The world is always ready for another Vietnam story as long as it’s an interesting read.

The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. That tells me that the world does need another book on Vietnam. I read Nguyen’s book because I was interested in what is Pulitzer worthy these days, and also because I was intrigued by the story of a Viet Cong agent who masquerades as a refugee. It is a story told from a minority viewpoint that will sometimes baffle and infuriate. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s parents were Vietnam refugees who settled in California after the war. He is now a college professor on the west coast. All of that makes it  interesting to me because of my own Vietnam history, including having a Vietnam war bride and returning to Vietnam several times after the war.

Nothing Ever Dies landed on my reading list because I wanted to see what else Nguyen had written.

How do you choose what books you will read?

Biographies and history are some of my favorite reads. Alexander Hamilton and Richard Nixon are among the bios in my little library, along with books on The Beatles, Ronnie Spector, Chuck Berry, Grace Slick, and Keith Richards.

I have just finished the Springsteen bio (for which he received a $10 million advance) and highly recommend it to anyone interested in popular culture. Springsteen is the rare clear-headed entertainer who eschewed drugs, and goes into details about his struggle for success, and the creative process involved in some of his best songs, including “Born to Run.” Although he never served in Vietnam, he talks about the significant impact that war had on him (seeing a pattern here?).

Keith Richard’s bio is amazing as well, given his well documented destructive lifestyle which he survived and remained a creative force. But I would have preferred to read more about Richard’s music and less about his substance abuse.

With Springsteen, there are personal connections we can make (dysfunctional family, struggle with playing the guitar, struggle, struggle, struggle), and things that are more mysterious, such as how one leaves a field of competitors and contemporaries and becomes a megastar.

What book or books are you reading now?

In front of me now is 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I am planning a trip to Europe in the late spring-early summer. Practical tips on maximizing my time and making travel as efficient as possible are valuable.

What three or four books do you find you most often recommend to others?

Most recently I recommended the Springsteen book to a young reporter. She had been told by others that it wasn’t so good. I can only speak for myself and found that it was one of the best pop bios I have ever read. Springsteen is a surprisingly good writer.

Thanks, Jim. I hope your writing goes well, and that you land a Springsteen-like advance. I look forward to reading it.

Bookish Habits #3: Dr. Wesley Hill

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

Wesley Hill is a man who clearly loves to read and loves to read all kinds of books. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and Bethlehem College and Seminary in the United States as well as Durham University in the United Kingdom. He is a theologian and a teacher, serving as an assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

Wesley Hill

He not only reads books, but he writes them. He is the author of a number of books and countless articles spanning several interests. The honesty and sensitivity of his writing have helped many, particularly as he works through what it means to be a gay Christian in today’s complicated world. In addition he writes regularly for the magazines “Christianity Today” and “First Things” and he blogs at Spiritual Friendship.

Also, on Sunday, August 13, 2017, the church I pastor, Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oviedo, Florida, will be blessed to have Dr. Hill preach.

If you gain nothing else from this interview, hear here a voice of grace and passion. Perhaps you will be inclined to pick up one of the books he has written as well as those he recommends. I would encourage that.

Randy: In the past year, approximately how many books did you read for ‘enjoyment’ (that is, books outside your direct professional interest)?

Wes: This is a hard question to answer because my personal and professional interests line up so closely. If I weren’t a seminary professor, I’d be reading all the theology books I read for “work” simply for fun. There’s not a clean or easy separation for me here. As I’ve described in a column for the First Things website, I am a big believer in the importance of “irrelevant reading” for “work”: Often novels and books of poetry end up being important for my “professional life,” and my “professional” reading often worms its way into my daydreams and prayers and personal musings. Here’s how I put it in my column:

“I sometimes tell my students the most important reading they’ll do for one of my classes at the seminary where I teach may well be the reading I never thought to assign. They’ll be working away on an essay for me on the theme of faith in the Gospel of Mark, and something in an Auden poem will be just the thing that connects the dots for them. Or they’ll be writing about the motif of light in the Fourth Gospel, and something about the way Wallace Stegner described the character Charity by the lake in Crossing to Safety opens a wider vista for their reflections. This is what broad, indiscriminate reading of interesting texts does—it furnishes the raw materials for unexpected correlations and associations to spark. It’s often the irrelevant reading that does this, the reading you’re not supposed to be doing, the reading that’s not related at all to that project you’re meant to be completing.”

I remember that article and was encouraged by that idea that everything relates. I tell those learning to be pastors that in a very real sense EVERYTHING is sermon preparation. So, what else motivates you to read books outside your profession?

Before I discovered what my profession would be, I was already a voracious reader. I grew up reading mostly pulpy detective novels and some pretty bad Christian fiction. But I also started reading people like C. S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen—neither “professional theologians,” as I am—in high school. Those habits have stayed with me. I once heard a theologian on a panel critiquing The Da Vinci Code boasting that it was the first novel he’d read in decades. And I thought, “How sad!” What an impoverished life it would be if I could only read “theology,” narrowly circumscribed.

How do you choose what books you will read?

Basically, I do what my friend Alan Jacobs has advised: I read at whim. I am a woefully undisciplined reader. At any given time, I have five or six books going, and I’m always picking up another based on changing moods or interests. In my professional life, I am a bit more systematic, but even there, I rely on personal impressions and the recommendations of friends just as much as I do on the advice of professional journals.

Several more considerations shape my approach to reading. One is from Alan Jacobs’ book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. He recommends “reading upstream,” which is to say, once you find a book or an author you love, read what they read and loved.

Another thing I often do: When I find an author I love, I read all their books. (Right now I’m doing this with E. L. Mascall, one of the great Anglican writers of the twentieth century, and Robert Farrar Capon, the late grace-addicted Episcopal priest-cook.) I’ve also been influenced by the theologian Fred Sanders’ advice: If you’re a theologian, as I am, he says you ought to (1) pick a doctrine and read everything you can on it and (2) pick a theologian to ‘make your own’ as a touchstone for all your work. In my case, (1) is the doctrine of the Trinity and (2)… well, I haven’t done it consistently, but the closest person to that for me is probably Karl Barth.

What book or books are you reading now?

I’m just finishing Luther’s 1535 Lectures on Galatians—wonderful! And I’m in the middle of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels, which aren’t quite what they’re billed as being (a story of friendship) but they’re immensely insightful and rather harrowing actually.

I’m also reading a collection of essays by younger people of color, edited by Jesmyn Ward, talking about race, called The Fire This Time. The essay on “Walking while Black” by Garnett Cadogan is worth the price of the book.

What three or four books do you find you most often recommend to others?

I often find myself telling students and friends to read the novels of Chaim Potok. Better than virtually anyone else I’ve read, he understands the growing pains of a childhood religious faith as it moves into adulthood.

In my discipline of New Testament studies, I regularly point people to God Crucified by Richard Bauckham and The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays. On a personal, spiritual, emotional level, probably no book has actually helped me more than Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet.

I love Potok. Glad we share that. Thanks for taking part and expanding my vision of what is worth reading. My ‘wish list’ of books to read is now expanded, probably beyond reason.

Bookish Habits #2: Rev. Mike Osborne

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

I have asked several pastor friends of mine about their reading habits, and their answers have varied widely. When asked about books he had read for fun in the past year, one pastor responded, “Only two I can think of.” Some of us do better than that.

The answers to my survey questions below come from a good friend of mine, the Reverend Mike Osborne, associate pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Orlando. Mike is a (rather proud) graduate of Clemson University and of Covenant Theological Seminary. He has been a pastor since the mid-80s and he himself has written a wonderful book on persevering in ministry, Surviving Ministry, which I reviewed here. Mike is a perceptive and wise pastor and friend who blogs occasionally at SurvingMinistry.com.

Randy: In the past year, approximately how many books did you read for ‘enjoyment’?

Mike: 10 plus parts of 4 or 5.

That’s tough for me. I’m obsessive enough that once I start a book, I feel morally obligated to finish it. Why do you stop?

Sometimes the book doesn’t hold my interest. Some books say everything they need to say in the first few chapters and the rest is either obvious or redundant. And, of course, sometimes the problem is not the book but my lack of discipline. Unlike you, I do not feel morally obligated to finish a book.

In that, you are a better man than I!

Another thing… If I see a book in a bookstore I might be captured by its cover or subject, but then after I’ve bought the book and started into it, I find I’m actually not all that interested in the content. It was flirtation rather than true commitment. Like when I was last in Chicago, having just seen the Cubs play, I was browsing in a used bookstore and found a book on baseball history. I thought how great the book would be. When I got home and the baseball thrill was gone, I had more objectivity and found the book to be not well written. So I stopped.

Even pastors flirt and can’t commit, I see. I just gave up on a book, but it took me 400 pages to do so. What motivates you to read books merely for pleasure?

The need to relax, to think about things other than ministry, to learn about history and popular culture, to grow more well-rounded.

How do you choose what books you will read?

I get interested in one thing or another at random times. I may watch a TV show that sparks my interest, let’s say, one set in WWII. I may get on a kick to read biographies from a certain time period or about a certain songwriter. As soon as a new book by Erik Larson comes out, I’ll get it and read it no matter what it’s about.

On Larson, we are agreed! What book or books are you reading now?

Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love (Beatles bio)

Amity Shlaes, Coolidge

Don Carson, Praying with Paul

R. C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols, The Legacy of Luther

What three or four books do you find you most often recommend to others?

Within my ministry interest –

Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life

John bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress

C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Outside of ministry –

Anything by Erik Larson

C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia

Ron Chernow, Hamilton

Do you ever recommend fiction to people? If so, what?

I’ve read so little fiction that my answer would probably be no. I recommended Kite Runner some time ago. And Stephen King’s 11/22/63.

Two interviews, two recommendations of 11/22/63. I sense a pattern. Finally, you are a great fan of Erik Larson. Which of his is your favorite?

Devil in the White City

Mine, too. Thanks!

Bookish Habits #1: Dr. Roy Starling

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

Roy Starling recently retired as a teacher of English at Oviedo High School in Oviedo, Florida. Prior to that he was a professor of literature at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He has a PhD in literature from Florida State University. Though I never sat in his classroom, he has several attributes that  tell me he was a wonderful teacher: a love of his subject, a passion for his students, and a good sense of humor. I’ve observed all this in him over the years I’ve known him. Roy is a wonderful writer who blogs at StarkNotes.

Randy: In the past year, approximately how many books did you read for ‘enjoyment’?

Roy: 20+

What motivates you to read such books?

Pleasure, but not what is mistakenly referred to as guilty pleasure.

What is the difference between ‘pleasure’ and ‘guilty’ pleasure?

It might’ve been Stephen King who said it’s time for us to retire the ‘guilty’ in front of pleasure. If you’re reading and it’s pleasurable, why would you feel guilty? Infinite Jest gave me pleasure. Duma Key is giving me pleasure, but not the same kind. But it sure isn’t guilty. I haven’t done anything wrong. Also books not considered a part of the literary canon by academics would supposedly evoke guilt from a lit professor.

Language used well gives pleasure, end of story, turn out the lights, don’t let the screen door, etc.

How do you choose what books you will read?

Hearsay, plus knowledge of an author, plus a decent possibility that the book will be complex, True, aesthetically appealing, and thought provoking.

Exception: Stephen King for the pure pleasure of reading as a worthwhile pastime, and hence not guilty.

What book or books are you reading now?

Donald Barthelme’s short stories

Stephen King, Cell

Joyce Carol Oates, Little Bird of Heaven

What three or four books do you find you most often recommend to others?

To readers:

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life or A God in Ruins

Don DeLillo,  White Noise

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

David Guterson, Our Lady of the Forest

For non-readers (who are probably only going to read my recs):

Stephen King, 11/22/63 or Misery

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