Why I’m Not Obsessed with My Goodreads Reading Challenge

Goodreads Recent Updates

My Goodreads Reading Challenge as of 5/18/17

I guess there is something to our nature as human beings that needs challenges. It could be losing weight. Or running a marathon in under three hours. Or getting 10,000 steps on your Fitbit. Those of us who are bibliophiles have our own challenges. And one of the most popular is the annual Goodreads Reading Challenge. This year, over 2 million people have set reading challenges for themselves. As of right now, their challenges add up to 94,585,110 books, or roughly 46 books a person. I’ve seen challenges anywhere between reading one book to hundreds. This year I set a goal of 110, five more than my goal last year. I do it mostly for the fun of seeing the goals of my friends. I always read more than my goal without really trying.

I’m writing about this today because of an amusing article in Bookriot titled “Why I’m Obsessed with My Goodreads Challenge Tracker.” I think for this writer (and apparently a number of commenters!) that this really is an obsession. Would you consider reading a bunch of children’s books, graphic novels and novellas at the end of the year just to make your challenge obsessive? Would you consider yourself an abject failure, a wipeout, if you got behind on your reading goal, or horror of horrors, finished the year short of your goal? Apparently this writer is far from alone.

I guess there is one simple reason why I do not obsess over my challenge. And that is that, short of an emergency, I set a goal that I will reach with time to spare, given my reading habits. That way I get to enjoy all those good feelings the writer describes of seeing her list of completed challenges and being ahead on the current one. Shouldn’t something connected with your favorite activity make you feel even better about it?And by most standards 110 books (a bit over two a week) is a goodly number of books. Some think I’m crazy that I read that many.

I don’t like the idea of worrying that I’ll fall behind if I sink my teeth into a really long history or Russian novel. It’s nice to have some slack if other things rise to greater importance and I have to set aside my books.

Jesus of Nazareth once said that we should be careful in trying to remove a speck from someone else’s eye while we have a log in our own. As I thought about this, it occurred to me that I may have book-related obsessions that make the writer’s look benign.

Probably one of the biggest is simply keeping up with my “to be read” piles, or for that matter, the “to be reviewed” pile. I swear that when I turn out the lights at night, they multiply! Actually it is a case of requesting more interesting books to review from various publishers than I should. I probably shouldn’t buy any. That, as much as anything accounts for reaching reading goals–it is not the goal, but the burgeoning TBR pile that can sometimes lead to obsessive reading (“gotta get through this–it’s been three months since the publisher sent it on my request!”).

Objectively, I haven’t done too badly with this, reviewing 30 books that were advance review copies so far this year. It’s fun when a new book to review comes in the mail–until you add it to the pile and queue it with the others and have that realization that it will be a while until you read it unless you read faster! Funny how you don’t think of that when you are reading the description of a book you are considering requesting! Then the rationale is, “that looks like an important book, I’ll fit it in somewhere!”

Well, I think all I’ve accomplished here is to demonstrate that booknerds are indeed quirky people. But you already probably knew that, whether you are a booknerd or not. But to paraphrase my favorite teacher–“let him (or her) without obsessions cast the first stone!”



Why The Disclosure on Reviews?

Flag_of_the_United_States_Federal_Trade_CommissionOne of the curious things I discovered when I began receiving books from publishers to review on my blog was that I need to disclose my “material connection” with the publisher that provided the review copy. On my blog, it appears at the end of the review of any book I have received for free for review purposes. It is usually some variation of this:

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

I wondered whether this was some kind of “urban myth” circulating on the internet. I learned that this is a real deal and that while I haven’t heard of bloggers being prosecuted for failing to disclose “material connections” I’m given to understand it could happen. This blog is simply a labor of love. Besides some free books, I do not get paid for writing it, and I consider the effort of reading the books and writing honest reviews a fair exchange. Simply put, I have no interest in shelling out legal fees, so I include the disclosure, even though it seems kind of unfriendly.

This all comes from rules the Federal Trade Commission put in place in 2009 for online media that is called “16 CFR Part 255” or “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” There are a few important things (do not take this as legal advice, I am not a lawyer) that I gleaned in reading this.

  1. I need to disclose a material connection each and every time I review a book I received for free for review purposes from the publisher. A single disclosure on my home or about page isn’t sufficient. I don’t have to include a disclosure on books I review that I’ve purchased and you will not see such a disclosure in those reviews.
  2. Disclosures need to be “clear and conspicuous.” It should be close to the content or claim, in easily readable print (or if it is an audio blog, it needs to be audible and read at a speed that can be followed.)
  3. There is no single legal template that must be followed, simply a brief disclosure such as “I received this product for free in exchange for a review.” I drew my language from this site. For a while I included the legalese about the FTC regulation but eventually dropped it because the FTC doesn’t require this.
  4. If you are paid in exchange for a review, you should disclose that but do not need to specify the amount. Likewise, if you are an affiliate marketer for a retail site and provide links to that site that allow you to receive payment if people make purchases by that link, you should disclose that. This article provides pretty good help on what you need to do if you do this. I do not include links to online retailers other than the publisher and I receive no compensation for this. I try to encourage people to buy from local booksellers, especially independents.

A question that may have occurred to you is “why don’t print media reviewers have to make similar disclosures?” The best answer I can find is that people understand already that reviewers receive review copies from publishers. They do not necessarily know this on social media (this also applies to other products). This disclosure protects consumers by letting them know that there is a relationship with the publisher or manufacturer of the product that may influence the review.

Does this relationship influence me? I don’t think so but it is probably best to let others judge. I know I have been critical of books I’ve received as review copies (including one I received this week). I’ve not had the experience of publishers no longer sending review copies because I wrote something critical. I always try to be fair, and affirm what I think is good or helpful in a book, whether I paid for it or not. I realize authors have invested deeply in what they have brought to print. I make it a point to leave the decision of whether to buy a book or not up to the reader. I will never say, “don’t buy this book.”

Actually reviews may be more influenced by those who view them and follow the blog. Publishers ask for these statistics and base decisions on who they send review copies to on who you write for and how many they are. It’s odd that I don’t have to disclose on the blog. It’s my observation that most bloggers are far more driven by this factor than “material connections.” Actually, I’m quite grateful for those of you who read, comment and follow–you make this worth it!

So, I will keep providing those disclosures. I suppose it is a way of keeping me honest. I hope you will do that as well. If a review is helpful, I’d love to know that, but equally, if you think I really got it wrong on a book, let me know. No refunds, but you will keep me mindful of those I really write for!


Ten Books For Understanding Evangelicalism

The God Who is There.jpg

My copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There, purchased c. 1972.

In a review of Carl F. H. Henry’s classic The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism the other day, I mentioned a conversation in which I wondered aloud how many of those who leave evangelicalism understand the rich, if imperfect, part of the Christian family they are leaving. My own sense is that often, though not always, they are responding to distortions or downright contradictions of historical evangelicalism. I recognize that for some it is a matter of leaving the incredibly painful, and may well be warranted, but I sense for others, it is wondering whether the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. I won’t try to answer that, but would propose that it might first be important to appraise the grass on the evangelical side of the fence.

The friend I was talking with asked me about some books he might consider. This is a kind of expansion on my response. I suggest two kinds of books here. Some are histories, which go back to Great Britain as well as our own national beginnings. The others are “classics”–books that for many of us shaped an evangelical outlook. At the end, I provide links to some other lists–mine is hardly exhaustive–but rather a starting point.


David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern BritainLondon: Routledge, 1988. The history of Wesley to John Stott is covered here, as well as Bebbington’s crucial delineation of four evangelical distinctives: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism.

Donald W. Dayton and Douglas M Strong, Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage, 2nd editionGrand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014. An updated edition of a study of the pre-Civil War nineteenth century roots of evangelicalism in the United States and the combination of piety, preaching, and social reform characteristic of this movement in this period. (From my review).

George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American CultureOxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. This book looks at the retrenchment of evangelicalism into fundamentalism in the U.S. post Civil War, with the rise of Darwinism, European biblical scholarship, and the “social gospel” associated with theologically liberal Christianity. The new edition tracks this movement since the 1970’s in its more politically engaged form.

Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical MindGrand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995. Noll explores the historical reasons for the lack of evangelical influence in the academy, the arts, and “high” culture. This book served as a kind of rallying cry for a group of us involved in launching a national ministry effort with graduate students and faculty.

Brian Stanley, The Global Diffusion of EvangelicalismDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. This is part of InterVarsity’s “History of Evangelicalism” series (all worth reading) that covers the post-World War II rise of modern or neo-evangelicalism–the evangelicalism of Billy Graham and John Stott, and an increasingly global leadership. Here is my review of the book.

Classic Formative Works:

Charles W. Colson, Born AgainGrand Rapids: Chosen Books, 2008 (revised edition). The biography of White House aide and Watergate conspirator Charles Colson and his conversion to a socially engaged evangelical faith that led to launching Prison Fellowship, and a career as an influential social commentator within the evangelical community.

J. I. Packer, Knowing GodDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993 (revised edition). This was a classic for many of us that explored how we may know God, the attributes of God, and benefits of knowing God. You read a few pages, and then had to stop, think, and worship.

Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is ThereDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998 (revised edition). Schaeffer was the prophet of L’Abri whose analysis of a culture that had moved further and further from God gave us a framework to make sense of our times.

Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of HungerNashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005 (revised edition). Sider was one of the voices that re-awakened the slumbering social conscience of evangelicals, challenging the privatized versions of the Bible with it social teaching, as well as exposing American Christians to the challenge of global hunger.

John R. W. Stott, Basic ChristianityDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012 (revised edition). This was a book that taught many of us the basics of our faith and how to explain it to others.

The histories, I think, are even-handed, showing both the best and the worst. Likewise, the “classic” works I’ve selected are not without their flaws, but are representative of books that reflect some of the “best” of evangelicalism and were important in shaping the outlook of many of us.

The list is hardly exhaustive. My friend said, “there is only so much I can read. But as I researched this post, I came along a few other lists you might visit:

The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals. A list published in 2006 by Christianity Today.

10 of the Best Books About Evangelical Christianity. I appreciate Kyle Roberts inclusion of Amos Yang’s work and also Soong Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism.

Five Great Books on Evangelical Christianity. Thomas Kidd narrows it down even more and includes Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith–a very important book!

What all these do is go beyond the media soundbites which rarely do justice to any religious tradition. Whether you are an evangelical or someone diffident about this identity, or you are just trying to understand this group of people who seem to be so much in the news, these lists should help. Happy reading!


Visit Your Favorite Indie Bookstore This Saturday!


The delightful children’s section at Gramercy Books, an independent bookseller in Bexley, Ohio.

This Saturday, April 29, would be a good day to visit your favorite independent bookstore. It is Independent Bookstore Day in the U.S. and at least 458 stores are participating according to Publishers Weekly.

Just to go on record, in case you haven’t noticed, I am a HUGE fan of indie bookstores–whether they are retail or re-sale. It’s not just that I like bookstores, but there are several things I especially like about independent booksellers. One is that they contribute to the fabric and cultural richness of our communities. Two is that they contribute to the relational richness of our communities. Independent booksellers livelihood depends on knowing their customers. I’ve been in some stores that have an atmosphere a bit like Cheers–everybody knows your name and they are always glad you are here. And finally, these booksellers help us connect both with the books we are looking for and the books that are looking for us.

Stores have come up with some novel attractions, according to the PW article. Brazos Bookstore in Houston is giving out Cormac McCarthy self-published coloring books. They come with two crayons–red and black. Parnassus Books, Ann Patchett’s store in Nashville promises, “a brand new, never before seen, original story created before your very eyes by Nashville’s finest literary talents!” In some cities, including Minneapolis and Chicago, indies are teaming up to offer discount programs tiered by how many stores you visit. One of the weirder giveaways at some stores are literary themed condoms (sigh…).

The real point of the day is to encourage people to visit and leave with books they and those they care for will love. For many stores, this day is like Christmas in April. What I hope it is for many of us is the first (or second or third) step in cultivating a habit. These stores won’t thrive if those of us who are book lovers simply say, “someone else will buy from them.”

Some of us may struggle with the bargain-hunter mentality that tries to find the book at its lowest price. In addition to the fact that this may tempt us to buy more books than we will read (guilty as charged), the care of selecting a book we will buy to read and keep may be another benefit of buying our books at stores that don’t buy in bulk.

Finally, most of these stores take orders over the phone or online. If you can’t go visit them this Saturday, why not support them this way? You might consider doing so early because it sounds like they could be busy on Saturday. For the love of books and for the health of our communities, let’s hope so!

A Poet in Your Pocket


John Adams, by Gilbert Stuart, 1815

John Adams once said, “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.”

In reading Marilyn McEntyre’s book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, one of the practices she commends is the reading and memorizing of poetry. In a later chapter, she writes about the delights of wordplay, including wordplay in poetry. In her chapter “Practice Poetry” she writes:

“What the discipline of poetry requires most of all is caring about words and caring for words. I do not believe we steward language well without some regular practice of poesis–reading poetry, learning some by heart, and writing–if not verse as such, at least sentences crafted with close attention to the cadence and music and the poetic devices that offer nonrational, evocative, intuitive, associative modes of understanding” (p. 145).

Reading this chapter made me realize the relative lack of poetry in my life. Apart from the Hebrew poetry of the Psalms, which I find myself regularly turning to, to give words to my prayers, I have little poetry in my life. You may notice I have not reviewed works of poetry here.

In college I first came in contact with the poetry of T. S. Eliot. As bleak as “The Wasteland” was, I felt it captured an essence of his time, and our own, in words that resonated deeply. I thrilled to the mysterious question in this stanza toward the end:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?


Who is the third…I wonder still?

Another memory of a poem shared was the time our Dead Theologians reading group, between books, spent a morning parsing preacher and poet George Herbert’s “Love (III),” one of many in a collection known as “The Temple.” He wrote,

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
        Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
        From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
        If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
        Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
        I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
        “Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
        Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
        “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
        So I did sit and eat.

It left me with a deepened sense of wonder of the “Love that bade me welcome.”

There was a time when people memorized both the scriptures, and poetry, two things very akin to each other, it seems to me. There was a day when both the psalms of the Bible and the sonnets of Shakespeare were things we carried around with us, either in our pockets, or in a pocket of our minds. I wonder if it led to a different sensibility, and as McEntyre suggests, a care for words?

In researching this post, I learned that there is a Poem in Your Pocket Day each year during April, National Poetry Month. This year, it falls on April 27, 2017. I discovered that the day was initiated by the Office of the Mayor of New York City in 2002. I found this poem posted at the Mayor’s website (I’m not sure if it was from that first day):poem6-monday

It was plainly intended to be cut out and placed in our pockets. I wonder what would happen if this practice were adopted by more of our political leaders?

I also discovered that Everyman’s Library has a collection of more than sixty “Pocket Poets” books, allowing us to have a somewhat more durable and attractive way to carry poets in our pockets.

I wonder if it might not in fact be time for me to have some poetry in my life. Maybe some of you are further along this way than I. I would love to hear your suggestions of poems that have been life-giving to you, or at least taken you deeper into a care for words. If I receive some suggestions, I’ll post them on Poem in Your Pocket Day!

Reading Rituals


One of the most famous Presidential readers

The pleasure of reading for so many of us is not simply the book itself but also in the rituals that surround our reading. I often read early in the day, before my wife awakens. Before I read, I pray, exercise, and shower. I brew a pot of coffee, unload the dishwasher and set out our breakfast dishes. By then the coffee is done. In the morning, I will sit in the rocker my wife usually sits in. I understand why she likes this chair so much. It is comfortable, and the fidget-er in me is satisfied because I can move.

After the first sip of coffee, which sits comfortably at my right side, I open the book I’m reading, pull the marker out and pick up where I’ve left off. Often, this is the time of the day when I do my most challenging reading. My mind is clear, the house is quiet, and I usually have an hour before I plunge into the day. Gradually, the light outside the front window brightens as the sun rises. I read for about an hour, maybe 30-35 pages and finish that first cup of coffee.

Some evenings or Sunday afternoons, I like to go down to the family room, also known as “the man cave.” Often I will bring a cup of decaf coffee or tea, a mystery or biography or history, and put on some good music, which could be anything from a Haydn quartet to the Modern Jazz Quartet. If I want to mix a nap in, I’ll stretch out on the sofa. If I really want to read attentively there is a nice cloth chair with a firm cushion and the best light. And if I really want to savor the music, I’ll choose the leather chair situated just right for the full stereo effect. I’ll kick my shoes off and hopefully get lost in a good story.

I’m one to read myself to sleep. Often I take a few minutes to read compline, a prayer to end the day, and read something light on my Kindle, which I can do without my glasses. This works well because I often will fall asleep after a few pages–the Kindle shuts itself off, my wife shuts off the light and I wake just enough to put the Kindle on the nightstand and kiss my wife goodnight.

Sure, I may read in some other times and places, but these are my favorites. None of this is terribly dramatic or exciting, but the rest of life has enough drama and excitement. Perhaps what these reading rituals have in common is the savoring of simple but good things, a mug of something in the hand, a comfortable chair or perhaps my bed, a moment of quiet, or perhaps of musical richness, and a good book to inform, to provide material for reflection or insight, or just a good means of stepping into another world to get a better perspective on life in this one.

What are your favorite reading rituals and what do they add to the reading experience?

Reviewing From E-Galleys


Do you read on an e-reader or tablet? Are you interested in getting books to read ahead of publication from hundreds of publishers, at no cost? Then you might consider signing up on one of the e-galley websites. There is just one hitch–you need to be a serious book reviewer with a website or blog.

There are two major sites that provide e-galleys of forthcoming titles. The better known of the two is NetGalley (https://www.netgalley.com). NetGalley has what I think is the more visually elegant and easily accessible website of the two. When you sign up, you create a profile, which tells publishers about yourself, your audience, and helps answer the question of why they should approve your requests for e-galleys. The homepage features new recommended books based on your profile information. Across the top of the page, you have four clickable boxes. Dashboard features available titles in your categories, shows the different categories of books you are interested in reading and any “favorite” publishers. Your Shelf shows books you are currently reading, books you’ve downloaded that you have not given feedback on, those you have, and those that are “not active,” usually those you’ve been declined or those where you have requests pending. Find Titles allows you to search for titles you can request. There are options to see those from your favorite publishers, books that you are auto-approved for (usually from a publisher you frequently review books for) and from a whole list of categories. Browse Publishers allows you to see the list of all publishers on NetGalley, and to search the offerings each publisher currently has available. You can also find out what kinds of reviewers they are most likely to approve requests for.


Screenshot of NetGalley Homepage (part). Accessed 2/6/17

The other source for e-galleys I’ve worked with is Edelweiss (https://www.edelweiss.plus/). Personally, I’ve found Edelweiss a bit clunkier to work with (although their Edelweiss+ website seems an improvement and will be the basis of my comments even though it is currently in Beta). One thing I notice is that the Edelweiss home page is much more content rich. The unique feature of Edelweiss is that it also allows you to access publisher catalogs as well as new review copies. The Home page has a column on the left with a publisher list. Then there are four horizontal rows to the right. The topmost is “My Edelweiss” summarizing your activity. The next is a list of recent catalogs, followed by a list of new books, and last is the list of books you have reviewed. There is also a menu bar at the top of the page that, besides Homeincludes Catalogs (with more detailed info about each new catalog and a clickable link to search all the books in the catalog), Buzz (logs your activity on Edelweiss in the last month), Review copies (what is new in the last month and your own request history over the last three months), People (which I haven’t figured out but it appears to connect you with other users somehow), My reading (which includes what you anticipate reading, are reading, and have reviewed), Tags and Orders I have not used. I also receive a weekly email from Edelweiss that alerts me to newly available books and catalogs on the site.


Screenshot of Edelweiss Homepage at 50%. Accessed 2/6/17.

I’ve reviewed about 50 titles on NetGalley, only six so far on Edelweiss, not including one I am currently reading. Both sites work similarly in that you request a review copy which the publisher must approve. Then you are able to download the e-galley. Both allow you to send it to your Kindle email address if you read on that platform or download and transfer files. You do need to watch. Some books on NetGalley are only available as .pdf or Adobe Digital Edition versions, the latter not readable on a Kindle, although I am able to read these via the Aldiko app on my smartphone. There is also a reader you can download for your computer, but I don’t like reading books on my computer.

I suspect publishers like e-galleys as a much more economical way to get advanced review copies out to readers, particularly with the explosion of online book blogging and e-readers and apps. It is also a much quicker turnaround from request to obtaining the e-galley for review. This service is paid for by the publishers, but these “gateways” serve to connect publishers to a wider audience of early readers, which along with the lower costs are the argument for the use of such sites.

For the reviewer who reviews a lot of books, it reduces the amount of books you physically have to store or get rid of, as well as the dilemma of selling advance copies which technically you are not supposed to sell! It is also one more source of learning of new titles, whether you request them for review or not.

There are several downsides to e-galleys.

  • In common with e-books, the reading experience is different and I find them less preferable for many of the theological texts or other closely written books I tend to review. But sometimes this is the only way you can get approved for a review copy.
  • E-galleys are not finished versions. They are not always in final format which can mean variable type sizes and missing material. A book I am currently reading leaves out all the “fi” and “fl” combinations in words, so I have to supply these as I read. It also leaves out nearly all numbers, and since the book features quite a bit of quantitative data, I feel I’m missing a good bit. And the numerous tables don’t render. I do feel here that if publishers are going to take their reviewers seriously, they would provide a closer to finished version.
  • E-galleys often lack hypertext links from chapters to the particular part of the book and other such features that you would find in a final digital version of a book.
  • It’s also easy to request more books than you will read but this can hurt you when you make future requests and have a low feedback percentage.

Most of us who review a number of books can’t afford to buy them all. E-galleys are a good source of advance review copies in many cases if you are willing to live with the downsides. You get to pick, you learn of a wider array of books, and you don’t have to figure out what to do with them afterwards.





Literary Advocacy


Harriet Beecher Stowe

A book group that I am in, the Dead Theologians Society, has just begun reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I think this has always been a controversial book. In its own day, it galvanized opinion around the abolition of and defense of slavery. Later, it was debated on its literary merits (and perhaps still is). More recently, there has been a discussion of its racist stereotypes, even while being a key anti-slavery work. I am not qualified to opine on any of these matters and so I will leave them to others.

What intrigued me in this week’s reading was a statement by Stowe in her Preface to the work:

“The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it.”

If awakening “sympathy and feeling” was her object, Stowe wildly succeeded. In the first year of publication (1851), the book sold over 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over one million in Great Britain. It was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century, and second only to the Bible in overall sales. It is legend, not fact that when Lincoln met Stowe in 1862 he said of her, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” Slave-holders in the South roundly criticized the book, even while it helped fuel the growing abolitionist sentiment in the North. Part of the impact of the book was the exposure of the systemic evil of slavery enshrined in law, that permitted cruel slave owners to do their worst and diminished even those kindly disposed.

The question I am curious about is whether literature, and particularly the novel form, could still have such impact? Or has visual media (or something else) displaced the written form? I’d love to hear from others on this, particularly on the visual media question, because I would confess I am pretty ignorant of what is happening in that world. I really am a book guy. I am aware that there is both a genre of apocalyptic writing (much of it popular among young adults) and series like Game of Thrones that explore dystopian worlds. What I am curious about is how this translates into discourse about our own society.

It strikes me that there are certainly contemporary published works that have led to significant public conversations. On the question of race, I think of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me as well as his other books and Atlantic articles. Both have evoked significant national conversations (and controversy) around race, incarceration, and other issues. But are there works of fiction that have provoked similar, and widespread conversation?

Someone in our group noted that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked after weekend controversies over “alternative facts”. The Associated Press reports that Signet Classics has ordered an additional 75,000 copy press run of the book, which portrays a totalitarian society controlled by “newspeak.” What is intriguing to me is that this is not a current work creating a conversation, but an older work, in which people are recognizing resonances with our current situation.

It strikes me that part of the challenge is the divide between popular fiction and serious literature. To this day, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is criticized in part because it is a popular work. In addition to the invidious stereotypes, others criticize its sentimentality at points. But readers loved it. I wonder if there is a bar against exploration of serious issues in popular literature, one that Stowe transcended?

Finally, while I don’t think you can blame the Civil War on Stowe’s book, it is striking that it contributed to inflamed feeling all around, and to a breakdown of political discourse leading to southern states withdrawing from the Union and the outbreak of hostilities. One wonders what the consequences of a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or a popular video equivalent, would be given the fragile state of our public and political discourse?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I sense we are in a time of great ferment. Can fiction, as well as other forms of writing “awaken sympathy and feeling?” And to what ends. What are your thoughts?




Walking While Reading


Reading While Walking”  by Vonderauvisuals, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is an older gentleman in my neighborhood, not unlike me in appearance, who likes to read while walking. I find myself chuckling to myself that here is someone even more fanatical about reading than I am! The only place I have ever read while walking is on my treadmill at home, to while away the monotony of wracking up those steps. Actually, even there, I often prefer to pray or meditate on my day. I’ve never gotten “read-walking.” (I will admit that sometimes, when I’ve had to read something and I’m sleepy, I may pace back and forth and read.)

Partly, it is the fact that when I am walking, I like to really give myself to the physical world around me, to savor and enjoy the smell of the air, the rustle of the leaves, the blueness of the sky, the bubbling of the nearby creek, or the variety of people in more crowded areas. All the delights in the world are not to be found between the pages of a book. Wherever they are, in a book, or in my surroundings, I want to savor them as fully as possible. At least for me, a multi-tasking approach of read-walking diminishes both.

I’ll also confess to a bit of clutziness. I’m near-sighted of eye and not exactly agile of foot. I probably need to pay attention when I’m walking or I’ll be endlessly scraping knees and hands and walking into trees, or other people. Perhaps there is a bit of an element of not wanting to appear even more of a book nerd than I am, but that is a minor concern.

So what has provoked my thoughts on this subject? Like many of my posts “on reading” it was a recent BookRiot guest post by Ilana Masad titled, “Readwalking: A Reader in Motion.” While she acknowledges the downsides–the hazards and the taunts of teenage boys among them, she also recounts the reasons why she loves to do this. One is that she really is a book nerd, and wrestles with the reality all of us do–that there are so many books, so little time. She’s an introvert, and sometimes the external world can be overwhelming and the retreat to a book a way to cope. Finally, and we really differ here, she likes the duality of real world/book world at the same time.

Obviously, there are people who see this differently than I do, enough apparently that there is a “WikiHow” with tips on “How to Read While Walking.” Some of the tips confirmed why I don’t do this–things like “have one hand free in case you fall” or “try to look up in front of you every couple of sentences or “every paragraph.” It seems to me that this makes for pretty distracted reading.

A few things do make sense, if you are still inclined to do this–don’t do this with books you want to mark up or write notes in, find books that are light weight, have large print, don’t read library books that could be damaged, particularly if it is threatening to rain, and don’t try to do this on a windy day. The books that have worked best for me on the treadmill are the page-turners, the same type of book that works well in an airport waiting area. You want something that you holds your attention, and that you can easily pick up when you are distracted with things like crossing streets, or stopping to talk to a neighbor who insists on talking with you even though you are giving off your best “I’m reading vibes.”

For me, a walk is its own joy, even in a crowded airport or city street. And curling up with a good book is a different one. It seems that too often we sacrifice savoring for just “getting things done.” We too often seem to define life by how much we can cram into it rather than by how fully we’ve lived each experience, each moment.

But that’s just one way of seeing it. If you are a reading walker, I’d like to hear your take on this. There are obviously a few of you out there!

Bob on Books in 2017

happy-new-yearIt is always perilous to make New Year’s resolutions. Many don’t last past January 2. So, you might consider some of my thoughts on the direction of this blog in 2017 to be aspirations rather than resolutions. There are a few things I can clearly say I will keep doing:

  • I will keep reviewing both new and classic works on subjects of faith as well as fiction and literature, history, biography, science, as well as a few good baseball books–and an occasional book off the beaten path of my usual reading. I would contend that any of us who want to keep growing intellectually and in our awareness of the world throughout life, read deeply in the area of our vocational life and widely to see how our work and life fits into the bigger picture of God’s incredibly beautiful, diverse, and complex world.
  • I will keep posting about the world of books and reading. When I get the chance, I will write about bookstores I visit, resources for readers, and more. I did not get to do this beyond a review of a book on debates among librarians, but this year I want to explore more of the changes in technology shaping libraries and how libraries continue to promote literacy as well as serving other information and media needs for patrons.
  • I will keep writing about Youngstown as long as I keep coming up with ideas and memories about my hometown. I’m open to ideas from my Youngstown friends as well.
  • A continuing concern for me is how, in our divided society, we foster better conversations, and relations. The alternative is not pretty! I also am concerned with how our faith perspectives, which are important in so many of our lives, can be part of those conversations rather than being relegated to private life, or dismissed or discounted. I do believe those of faith need to speak with conviction, cogency, and charity, hopefully in a context that welcomes, if not always agrees with that kind of discourse.

And some aspirations for 2017

  • I want to explore the idea of what Peter Berger has called “mediating structures” which stand between individuals and political structure. It seems to me that in our mass media age, we focus so much on “big government” that we overlook the importance of mediating structures–everything from churches, neighborhood associations, leagues, and hobbyist groups to advocacy groups.
  • Inspired by C. Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good, I want to explore how books and shared reading might strengthen mediating structures, the real communities many of us are a part of.
  • I want to explore some of the places beyond books where we go to read, on and off the net. Related to this, I am particularly interested in how we find reliable information sources and how we sustain them. Two of my favorite journals, Conversations Journal and Books and Culture ceased publishing at the end of the past year. Thankfully others, like The New York Times, have seen a growth in their subscriber base as people realize we need reliable news sources in this “post-truth” era.

The demise of Books and Culture leaves, it seems to me, a great void in connecting Christians (and other literate fellow travelers!) with great writing on books and culture informed by a faith perspective. At the same time, I’ve wondered about whether some form of curated platform for blogs that are attempting to do this kind of work might go a significant way toward filling this void. While none of us has the expertise or bandwidth to fill that void on our own, might there be a way that in the aggregate we could, giving our work a wider audience, and serving a wider network of “mediating structures” by connecting them with the best that is being thought and written? It’s an idea I want to explore–for all I know someone else is already doing this somewhere!

I so appreciate all who follow this blog, and all the comments you share that help me grow in the writing of it. Bob on Books is now in its fourth year, having launched in August 2013. I hope you will keep pressing me to be a better writer and I would love to hear your ideas about what I’m doing here.