Over the past several years I’ve transitioned from reviewing books simply being my way of remembering books to reviewing being a means of communication and dialogue about books through this blog. Along the way I’ve found that there are at least some aspects of reviewing that are in tension with just plain old reading for fun. A few of these are:
- The preference for new books. Reviewing tends to focus on recently published books. I was made aware of this the other day when I remarked that a book from 2009 (!) was an older book. When I was just reading, I paid no attention to these things.
- Reading to a deadline. This is particularly so if you request a review copy of a book. Most of the time, publishers hope you will write a review within 60 days. When you are just reading, you can get around to that book whenever you want.
- Thinking about the review while you are reading. Actually, I think this makes me a better reader as I am consciously thinking about the flow of the book, how I will summarize, what I want to highlight. I often don’t do these things if I am “just reading.”
- The temptation to read and review what people seem to be interested in. It’s fascinating that my most popular review of this past year was on Exposing Myths About Christianity. It wasn’t a bad book by any means but hardly the best I’ve read. Far less popular was my review of The Drama of Ephesians, which I thought a far better book. I just have to remember that I don’t get paid for this so viewer stats really don’t mean much. It’s what I’m interested in and even if just a few find out about a good book, it matters for them.
What all this does is help sharpen the focus of what I am doing. Above all, I am conscious that there are so few books out of the numbers being published that I can actually read in whatever life remains to me. I think about the exhortation of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
I don’t see this as confined to religious ideas which sometimes can be as untrue, ignoble, corrupted, unlovely, and despicable as any trashy novel. In whatever I read, I try to choose books that explore the good, the true, and the beautiful in life–whether in matters of faith, good science writing, a well-constructed mystery, or a biography of someone who has lived a worthy life. My tastes range across all these categories and more which is why you might encounter a review of a theology work one day and a baseball book the next. One day I’ll review a current book, another day one ten or fifty or a thousand years old.
And that leads to what I’m trying to do in this blog. David Brooks, in The Road to Character (reviewed here) speaks of wanting to initiate a conversation about our moral ecology and about what makes a virtuous life. While I have nothing of the reputation of a Brooks, it is something akin to this that I’ve been trying to do, whether writing about books or my experiences growing up in Youngstown. Along with classic thinkers, I believe that the well-lived life is one lived in pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful. In what I read, think, and write about, I want to explore the sources of goodness, truth, and beauty, celebrate the various expressions of that, and consider how we might pursue such things together in a civil society.
So, if you are trying to make sense of why I review the stuff I do, both new and old, and what might be behind the other things I write about, this is the best clue I can give you to the methods in my madness!