Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Books Page 2 of 19

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?


Anything by C. S. Lewis

Orthodoxy – G. K. Chesterton


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

The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous

I’m preparing this post on a Thursday night. Tomorrow morning I will meet my friend, Dr. Rook, at our local Starbucks. He will be sitting at the same table he always sits at. He, like me, is a man of routine. He will be drinking his morning coffee and he will have a stack of books in front of him. One of them will be a novel by Philip Dick and another will be something on Zen Buddhism, unless he has left that for the time being to return to exploring the biblical book of Job. I know this because we talk about these things. When we meet, I will ask him about his books, and he will ask me about how I’m doing with the Joyce Carol Oates book I’ve been laboring through. I will tell him that contrary to my tendency to dutifully plow to the end of any book I start, I’m abandoning her after giving her 400 pages of my time. We’ll talk about other things, of course, but since books are a part of our lives, we’ll talk books.

And that is as it should be. Reading, though a solitary endeavor, is still a communal affair. Books are meant to be talked about, and some of that conversation has been going on here in the comments to the recent posts. I have decided to extend that conversation.

Over the next few weeks, perhaps longer, I am going to share with the readers of this blog interviews that I’ve conducted with a number of people known to me and known to be readers. Some of these will be people others know well, and some not. But as I’ve conducted these interview and gotten a variety of replies, I believe all will find these of interest.

I’ll begin shortly by sharing the responses of my friend Dr. Rook. Though he has taught literature at both the high school and college level, his reading habits and recommendations don’t read like a syllabus at all. As well, I look forward to introducing you to the reading recommendations of a fellow pastor and those of a home school mom / part-time engineer, both of whom read surprisingly and widely.

Steve Brown

Eventually we will hear from those who write books as well as read them. Steve Brown, former pastor, current author, and founder and director of the radio and on-line ministry of Key Life will reveal what’s on his night stand.

Wesley Hill

We will get a chance to look over the shoulder of Biblical studies professor and acclaimed author Wesley Hill. There will be others to surprise us along the way.

I hope there will be encouragement here, as well as fun. We never read alone.

Of Serendipitous Plans and Obscure Napkins

My wife and I were having lunch with a young woman a few months ago when she reported having purchased some books from the local “friends of the library” sale. Among the titles she listed for us, one caused her to stumble because it seemed so odd to her, almost embarrassing. She is fascinated with Rome and so seeing a book titled Rome, 1960, she grabbed it, having no idea what was in it.

I knew what was in it. Cassius Clay (aka Muhammed Ali) was in it. Wilma Rudoph was in it. A barefoot Ethiopian shocking the world was in it, as well as Americans tempting Russians to defect. Racism, sacrifice, triumph, and disappointment were in it. Two years before I had asked a friend who teaches sports writing at Rollins College in Orlando for an example of really good sports writing. This book by David Maraniss was his answer, a fascinating story of the 1960 summer Olympics, “The Olympics,” the subtitle tells us, “That Changed the World.” She had snagged a gem.

Choosing a book can have that kind of serendipitous air about it just like taking unplanned walks in the woods will sometimes bring us to places more surprising than we would find on a systematic tour. And yet sometimes without a plan, we just never get to see that Grand Canyon we’ve heard so much about.

My reading is a combination of the planned and the serendipitous. I outlined my plan with a friend over lunch once. It looks like this:

Translation available upon request. Please allow six weeks for delivery.

I’m clearly in need of therapy.

It struck me long ago that without a plan in my movie watching, then what I watch is dictated by Hollywood marketing or Netflix algorithms and I miss the gems which might otherwise enrich me. The same logic applies to reading.Enjoy the bestsellers and and blockbusters. But set aside some time to find out what all the fuss is surrounding books (and movies) that you have heard about and never tasted.

Plan to read Anna Karenina even though it’s been a long time since it’s been a best seller. Or maybe it’s time to read To Kill a Mockingbird to see what all the fuss was/is about. And Crime and Punishment really isn’t that long. Give it a shot. Don’t shy away from having a plan, even if that plan is simply to read one classic each year.

Part of my plan is to read ONE Patrick O’brian Aubrey/Maturin novel each year. The logic in this, besides their being so good and a wonderful treat, is that there are over twenty and so I’ll have to live to be at least 80 to finish. Friends are telling me to step up the pace and read one after the other. I think they want me to die young.

But don’t be ruled by your plan. Occasionally, just take a walk in the woods and see what you can find.

And walk with friends. Reading is never a solitary endeavor. Some of the best books I’ve read (like Rome, 1960) have come from the recommendations of others.

Ultimately, reading is one area of our lives where we are permitted to follow our hearts. And that’s not a bad thing.

You are finally out of school

Too Many Books!

[Before Christmas we began a conversation about reading for pleasure. The previous two posts can be accessed here and here.]

The journey from the parking lot at the local mall to the Apple Computer store inside runs through the Barnes and Noble bookstore, a not unpleasant feature for sure. After walking through it the other day, I stood at the far end and looked back across that space and thought, very profoundly, “That’s a lot of books.”

I think even Solomon, who was more aware than most (“Of making many books there is no end….” / Ecclesiastes 12:12), would at the sight have run to a safe corner and melted into an overstimulated lump.

I can’t pick a Christmas tree from the mere forty or so on the lot. How daunting picking one book to read can be. The “Books in Print” people catalogue over 20 million books worldwide and the International Publishers Association tell us that over 300,000 annually are added domestically to that list. You might need to hurry to catch up. Or join Solomon in the corner over there.

And yet, if want you to pick one, how can you?

You could ask me, but I’m reticent to do so. I can tell you what I like, but that might not correspond to your passions and may do little to rekindle your wonder. More importantly, I think many of us have lost the ability to feel curiosity and have forgotten how to feed it. I want us to again experience the magic of our desires fixing upon a book that shows itself worthy of our attention.

A recently minted college graduate asked me recently what to read. As we discussed it, I suggested he answer that question by asking himself some questions first. Perhaps thinking about these will help others navigate the myriad choices before us.

  1. What questions do you want to have answered?
  2. What concerns would you like to think more deeply about?
  3. What things interest you that you’d like to explore?
  4. What books/authors have you always wanted to read (or types of books) but have never had time to do so?
  5. What genre of books would you like to explore that perhaps you’ve not explored before?
  6. What people would you like to be better able to communicate with or understand?

Perhaps you’ve heard a lot about this Tolkien fellow (question 4) and have always wanted to check him out. Or maybe mushrooms fascinate you (question 3). Out of 20 million books in print, surely there is a good one on mushrooms. Or maybe you have a Muslim neighbor and want to enter into his experience (question 6). Surely there is good book that will help you do so. (NOT a “How to Share Jesus” book, but one that helps you understand his or her life.)

Of course, I’d be happy to offer a suggestion or two. But my goal is not to get you to like the things I like. My goal is to rekindle the curiosity that possibly our education has dimmed.

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