I Want to Read, but Where Do I Start?
Searching on the internet for “How many books exist printed in the English language?” will bring back all kinds of large numbers collected over the last few years. The Library of Congress in 2019 reported at least 39 million books in their records. A stack of 39 million books is more than anyone could ever hope to read!
So you may want to read, but you wonder which books to devote your time to? Here is how I decide.
Devote your time to the best books. There are millions and millions of books out there. Yet, you only have so much time in life, and so much time in your day. You cannot possibly hope to read a fraction of all that is out there. Because of this, you need to spend your time with the best books. Don’t waste your time reading anything else. Be quick to put a book down if you realize half-way through that it isn’t worth your time. Pick the books that will be worth the read—the best books.
The best books are relevant books. Choose reading that will impact your thinking and your life, the way you see the world, your grasp of truth, beauty and what is good. All the great books in the world do this. Of course, you will have to put effort into reading and living differently as a result. But the best books consistently have this kind of impact on the lives of readers. After aiming for this standard in my reading, I try to filter book-choice through the following categories. There are exceptions to these, but generally I stick to these lanes.
Devote your time to good authors. Find reputable authors. Before you buy a book, do a google search of the author. Read into their background. Do they have a website or an organization that they run? What seems to be their focus? What credentials or experience do they have that would give them the tools they need to write the book you are considering? What are their most foundational beliefs? Are there any endorsements in the front of the book? Who wrote the endorsement and what did they say?
Understanding who the author is, is absolutely essential for reading. Is this author someone you can trust, or not? You will want to read critically no matter what, but you will inevitably read differently depending on who the author is.
The best authors for me are those who come from the perspective of Biblical, historic, orthodox Christianity. I find that the writing that comes from this perspective pushes me to seek, know, treasure and live in light of truth. I enjoy this writing the most as hardy meat to chew on with my mind. Some of my favorite contemporary authors in this vein are the late RC Sproul, Mark Noll, John Piper, Ed Welch, and Paul David Tripp, who I recommend highly.
My advice is to choose a great author and make your way through as many of their books as you can. Do this with a few great authors. If you commit to this with an author or two, you will likely have a stack of books taller than yourself.
Devote your time to good publishers. Half Price Books is one of my favorite places to go. I could spend a few hours there just scanning, hoping to find some gold (i.e., a great book for cheap). As I scan the shelves, I always look at the bottom of the spine of each book until I find the publishers I like to read. These publishers for me line up with the criteria of the authors I noted earlier. Crossway, Reformation Trust, and Banner of Truth are just the first few that come to mind.
Spend time reading books published by the best publishing companies. These publishers will lead you to the best authors and the best books; and the best books and authors will lead you to the best publishers. Do some searching for yourself online. Spend most of your time in this circle of greats!
Spend lots of time with old books. C.S Lewis wrote an introduction to a little book called On the Incarnation (this is one of the greats!) around 80 years ago. In this introduction, he spoke about what he called a “shyness” toward old books, especially among Christians. In other places, he called this idea “Chronological Snobbery”. By this term, he meant that we have the tendency to believe our own times are wisest, or advanced in such a way as to not need any wisdom from the past. Because of this, we ignore the old. This is a tragedy, because the old stuff still around today is still around for a reason—it is written by a great author and is a great book itself.
C.S. Lewis himself is one of those authors, but even he was pointing much further back. The book I mentioned, On the Incarnation, was written by a man named Athanasius around 1700 years ago. Look to authors like Athanasius and Lewis, and many more in between. Find those books that have influenced history and have stuck around even up to our own day.
Still, spend time with newer books, but make sure they are the best-new books, ones that will eventually become the old books people are still reading years, decades, or even centuries from now. It is admittedly idealistic to say we can choose for certain only those kinds of books, but it is still worth a try.
You will not live forever. If you are committed to reading while you live, don’t waste your time on books that aren’t worth it. Devote your time to the best books, authors, and publishers, especially those that have stood the test of time.