Bob on Books Tips For Reading Well in 2018

man-reading

Man Reading, Vaino Hamalainen, 1897

Among the resolutions people make each year is some variant on “read more books.” That’s certainly a goal that I can applaud when the average number of books read by adults is 12 a year (a number skewed by avid readers; most read about 4 a year). But I have a hunch that many of these resolutions fare no better than those of losing weight or exercising more, and probably for the same reasons: lack of specific goals that are realistic, forming a habit, social support and a good coach. I will come back to these but I want to address something I hear less about–reading well.

For a number who read this blog, I don’t have to convince you about the value of reading, and in many cases, you already have good reading habits and exceed that book a month average. And even if you don’t, you probably sense that reading isn’t about numbers of books but part of a well-lived life. You read not only for amusement or diversion but to better understand your world and how to live one’s life in it. That can be anything from understanding the inner workings of your computer and how to use it better to a work of philosophy or theology or even a great novel that explores fundamental questions of life’s meaning, living virtuously, or the nature of God.

So a few thoughts on reading well, and then a few tips for those who do want to read more:

  1. Reading well is an act of attentiveness. We read well when we read without external and internal distractions. A place of quiet and a time when we are not distracted with other concerns helps us “engage the page.” It also helps to turn off the notifications on your phone or tablet, or better yet, put the electronics in another room. Read on an e-reader without other apps if you prefer these to physical books.
  2. Visual media often encourages us to passively absorb content. Books of substance require our active engagement–noticing plot, characters, and the use of literary devices like foreshadowing, allusions and more. Non-fiction often involves following an argument, and paying attention to the logic, the evidence, and whether the argument is consistent. Reading well can mean jotting notes, asking questions, or even arguing with the author. Above all it means reflecting on what we read, and how the book connects with our lives.
  3. Reading well over time means choosing good books to read. What is “good”? I’m not sure there is one good or simple answer. There are a number of “great books” lists out there and they are worth a look. You might choose one of those to read this year. One test of a book’s worth is whether people are still reading the book and finding value in it long after its author has passed. Also, in almost any genre, there are reviews, websites, and online groups. Over time, you will find sources of good recommendations.
  4. Finally, I’d suggest choosing something to read off the beaten path. Reading authors from other cultures, or a genre you don’t read can stretch your horizons. This year, I want to work in some poetry and get around to the Langston Hughes and Seamus Heaney that I’ve had laying around.

And now a few thoughts for those who simply want to read more and get into the reading habit.

  1. Set a realistic goal. Rather than focus on numbers of books, figure out where you can regularly find 10-15 minutes a day to read. You probably spend more time than that on social media. Do you know if you read 15 minutes a day, you will end up reading 15 books a year?
  2. Start with something you like. Don’t choose something others say you should read if you don’t think it is interesting. Choose something you’ve always wanted to read.
  3. Try doing this for a month–15 minutes a day with reading you enjoy. The idea is to form a habit. I started an exercise routine taking 5 minutes a day, then gradually expanded it. Forming the habit was the most important part.
  4. Finding some friends who read, or are trying to, and getting together to talk books can help. Many of us find exercising with others helps. Reading and talking books can work the same way.
  5. Finally, get a good coach. I have a number of friends who work with personal trainers or life coaches. But book coaches? Where do you find those? I’d start with a local bookseller or librarian. Any of them worth their salt can learn about your reading interests or topics you’d like to read about and suggest some good things to read.

I mentioned that finding good sources of book reviews can help you find worthy books that you will love. Hopefully Bob on Books will be one of them. My goal in writing reviews is to tell you enough about a book to help you decide if it is something you will want to read, or just something it’s good to know about. I’m looking forward to digging into the books on my “to be read” pile and telling you about them. To reading well in 2018!

Banning…Or Curating?

pyramid of transparency_updated“Every time you turn around, it seems a school somewhere is banning a book after parental complaints. What we should or shouldn’t be allowing–or requiring–students to read is a topic of constant, heated debate.”

This is the opening paragraph in a recent Bookriot article. I would contend that the writer is engaging in a bit of hyperbole. In 2016, according to the American Library Association, there were 323 challenges of all sorts, including challenges to databases, filtering, speakers, programs, or social media, as well as to books. That is less than one challenge per million people living in this country or just over six challenges in each state, on average The ALA contends this may be only about 10 percent of all actual challenges, which would mean there might be 3230 challenges, yet they quote a number of 10,766 but give no rationale for this number. Furthermore, these numbers are dropping. In 1995, 762 books were challenged. The reality is, in most cases the challenges are unsuccessful.

I do think we have to take a look at the reasons these books are challenged. Primarily, especially in the most recent top ten, the subject matter of the books which is objected often has to do with content that is sexually objectionable for a particular age group, or is “transgressive” on terms of sexuality, violence, drug use or language. One of the top 10 books was by Bill Cosby, challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author. Particularly in the light of #MeToo allegations, I think a credible case could be made for not promoting works by this author. We are “banning” figures facing similar allegations from political office, media positions and other workplaces.

The puzzling thing is that on the one hand we are promoting books that violate traditional sexual moral standards, and then attacking people, mostly men who make unwanted sexual advances against women. In no way, in writing this am I justifying these acts, which are inexcusable, nor suggesting that the one causes the other. Nor am I necessarily contending that such books should be “banned” from schools or libraries, particularly if they are of high literary merit, or if non-fiction, represent a well-argued and researched account the deals with different views fairly.

What troubles me more is the double rhetorical standard applied to this discussion. When parents object to books being available to their children that seem to affirm what they would view as transgressive, it is called “challenging, banning, and censorship.” But what is it called when librarians decide not to acquire books by white supremacists, by homophobic writers, or others of their ilk? It is called “curating” and even though the decisions they make affect the selection of books in the stacks for adults (not children), few people challenge the librarians for violating intellectual freedom. If one flipped the rhetoric, one could contend that librarians are the single largest group of book banners around, making conscious decisions to exclude far more titles than parents or patrons ever do.

I happen to think the librarians who make such choices are entirely justified in doing so and I would agree with them. But is there any role parents have in “curating” the books their children are exposed to? At very least, is there not a place for them in the decision processes, particular given the fact that there are only so many books that can be included in a curriculum, or in a library?

I would also observe that no one is banning these books from book stores or challenging stores for selling them. And with our online sellers, anything in print or e-book format is a click away. In fact, “banned books” are a bonanza for booksellers who promote them each year.

If we really care about “banned books” we may want to look at the books that are truly banned in other countries, beginning with the sacred scriptures of any religion not in the majority. In repressive regimes, books about democracy are often prohibited. In patriarchal regimes, books advocating the rights of women are banned. In some countries possession of some books is considered criminal.

Personally, I think trying to challenge or ban a book is a fool’s errand. I think a better tactic is for parents to read these books with their children and talk about them. I also think some questions we might explore more in curating books that our children are exposed to are:

  • What are some of the best books by age group, across different subject areas, that have stood the test of time, as well as newer books of widely recognized excellence, to which we want our children exposed?
  • What books will encourage our children to be readers?
  • What books will cultivate a sense of our history, our shared values, and highest aspirations, appealing to the better, rather than lesser, angels of our nature?

One thing everyone in this discussion agrees upon is that books matter. They shape our view of the world and the way we live. In an era where people may be reading less, might there be more discussion of how we might foster literacy and a lifelong love of reading. That seems to me a far more worthwhile endeavor than discussing what not to read.

My Favorite “Bookish” Things

20171129_185514A certain TV personality is famous for the show she does each holiday season sharing her “favorite things.” For me the phrase brings back memories of Julie Andrews as Maria Von Trapp singing about “these are a few of my favorite thing.” That got me thinking about a few of my favorite “bookish” things.

  1. Attractive and durable bookmarks. My favorite is the genuine leather bookmark pictured above that a friend brought back from a trip to Italy. I use it to mark my place in the Bible I use for my daily devotional time. I’ve had it for years and it shows no sign of wear–unlike most of my bookmarks!
  2. Well-made books to put them in. It is always a delight to read a book with a fine paper, readable print, and elegant binding.
  3. Elegant shelves lining one or more walls of a library room. Mostly, this is a dream for me, and as I’ve written recently, I think I’ve reached the stage in life where the prescription is not more shelves but less books! The closest I get to this most of the time is the East Reading Room in Thompson Library at The Ohio State University.
  4. Attractive dust jackets or book covers. This adds to the aesthetic of reading. I would also include the spine of the book, which may stare out at me for years on my shelves.
  5. Bookish t-shirts. I treasure my “so many books, so little time” shirt, which might be one of my life mottoes. I could probably use a few more.
  6. Book weights. Something I wouldn’t spend money on but I’ve thought to be extremely useful for books that won’t lay flat on their own, particularly while I am writing reviews or copying out a quote. Usually I end up using another book or a stapler on my desk.
  7. Chairs that are still comfortable after you’ve been sitting for half an hour reading. I have a few in my house. My son’s middle school football coach once said, “the mind can’t absorb more than the seat can endure.” Every bibliophile totally understands.
  8. Knowledgeable booksellers who actually seem interested in talking with patrons. Given that many bibliophiles are introverts it’s easy to see how you can get one without the other. When you find a bookseller like this, take good care of them!
  9. Bookish decor. We just cleaned and re-hung our bookshelf wall-hanging in our living room. One of the “shelves” from that wall-hanging serves as the header for this blog.
  10. A helpful review or a book recommendation that helps you find a book you really like. Hopefully, you’ve found a few of these here (and none that were unhelpful). I even enjoy books on books and perusing book lists!

With the holidays approaching, some of these might spark some gift ideas for the bookish person in your life (although booksellers are hard to gift wrap!). And if you are that bookish person (and why else would you read this?), I’d love to know some of your favorite bookish things.

 

Book Covers

A secular age

Over the weekend, I found a used, hardbound copy of Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age for twenty percent of its retail price. Needless to say I was pleased. I did encounter an interesting anomaly, though. The dust jacket is designed to cover the bottom three quarters of the book leaving the top, on which Charles Taylor’s name is embossed, uncovered on the front and spine. Needless to say, it further piqued my curiosity about a book that has long been on my “want” list.

It has been said that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” which is quite true. I’ve read truly important books with prosaic covers and dull or unsubstantial books with attractive ones. But one thing can be said about book cover design–it is meant to get the reader to pick up the book and at least consider buying it (or read an online preview). I think one of the delights of a physical bookstore is the visual delight we gain just browsing the covers of books.

My wife and I are fans of the British comedy, As Time Goes By. The leading male character, Lionel Hardcastle, is an aspiring author who manages to get his memoir, My Life in Kenya, published. He is alarmed when he becomes the subject of a photo shoot for the cover dressed in khakis and bush hat with a rifle in arm and a scantily clad woman clinging to his leg. His publisher, Alistair, tells him that all this has one object–to visually say “pick me up and buy me.”

That worked like a charm for me as an young teenager picking up copies of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Yes, you guessed it–Bond in some exotic setting surrounded with buxom women in bikinis. At least it worked until my dad found my stash of Bond paperbacks and tossed them.

My first edition of Lord of the Rings was the Ballantine Books paperbacks published in the 1970’s with artwork that formed a triptych. I’d heard from my friends that this was an incredible adventure fantasy, and the cover art suggested the same thing.

lotr

I am a fan of the work of David McCullough, and one of the things I have found is that the cover art on his books always represents what I will find within the pages, something I think should be a criterion. Here is his cover for The Greater Journey, about Americans who lived in Paris during the nineteenth century.

the-greater-journey

Last fall, while recovering from foot surgery, I re-read Anna Karenina in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. It is a great translation of this sprawling Tolstoy work centered around Anna’s illicit love affair. While I didn’t buy the book because of the cover (I had heard great things about the translation–really!), the cover leaves no doubt about the sexual undercurrent of the book, without being distasteful.

anna-karenina

Over the years I’ve admired the cover art on a number of books published by InterVarsity Press (I will acknowledge that I work for the parent organization with which this publisher is associated). I do know that this reflects an intentional effort as expressed in their statement of values where they state “Aiming for thoughtful integration of the whole person and placing emphasis on the dignity of people and relationships, IVP practices beauty and stewardship in our work.”

One of their books that caught my attention over forty years ago, not only for its astute cultural analysis, but also for the graphic design of its cover was The Dust of Death by Os Guinness, which included a work of contemporary art against a white background with the title and author in a very clean font. Here it is:

Dust of Death

That tradition of aesthetically striking design combined with content has been carried on down to the present. Here is the cover of a publication I recently reviewedOur Deepest Desires:

Our Deepest Desires

I realize this is quite subjective and others may choose different, and surely better examples, but the covers of books, much like LP album covers, are a part of the reading experience. We encounter books primarily through our eyes (although touch and even smell are also part of it with physical books, and sound with audiobooks). I have to confess that some books I’ve kept not only because of content, but for how they appear on my shelves.

I’ve just scratched the surface and would love to hear about and see book covers that you love, and the role book covers play in your own reading experience.

Getting Rid of Books

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The latest installment in the Great Book Purge!

I have become increasingly serious about getting rid of books over the last few years. I find myself reaching a junction in life where the answer is not more bookshelves but less books. Right now I have six boxes of books that I will be donating in various ways. Sold off a couple other boxes of books yesterday–and didn’t buy more.

One of the things I’m discovering is that the more I cull books from my personal library, the easier it gets and the more ruthless I am about what stays. There are books I’ve not read that I just have to admit to myself, “I’ll never read that,” as interesting as it looks. There are times I’ll put a book back on the shelf, and a week later say, “no, I really do not need this.”

Increasingly, I find myself asking, “which books are like old friends, that each time I visit them, the experience is richer?” Many are books I bought years ago, and a number are classics of history, literature, and theology.

Some of the easiest to get rid of are the “trendy” books–when the trend is ten years old or older. I suspect they won’t get picked up by anyone else either. I look back and wonder why I hadn’t been more selective.

There are other books that still are good reading. But the subjects and the lessons are ones that were of greater interest in earlier seasons of life. Seems best to me to get them to people who are facing those seasons.

I wonder how others who cherish good books as I do deal with the realities of parting with them. How have you made these decisions? Was it easy, or hard? Maybe we can learn from each other.

Curious Bibliophiles

Karel_Rélink_Der_Bibliophile_1902

Karel Rélink [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bibliophiles are curious people. That may be taken in two ways and both are true. They are “curious” in the sense of being kind of odd or unusual. Books are part of their home decorating scheme. When packing for a trip, the question of “what books will I take?” may be more important than what clothes will I need. A great day is when I discover a new bookstore, or find a book I’ve always wanted to read. We are “curious” people, to be sure.

We are also curious people in that we read to understand our world. At least one of the reasons for at least some of our book choices begins with, “I always wanted to learn about…” or “I came across a book about…and I decided that might be fascinating to read.” Sometimes our curiosity is driven by real life concerns, such as when I read an in depth account of the battle of Gettysburg before visiting the battlefield. And sometimes, our curiosity seems just sparked by a whim.

Curiosity has taken me all kinds of places, from exploring the doctrine of the Trinity to the everyday phenomenon of rain. It has led me into the delightful world of Wendell Berry’s Port William Society, and through a friend’s suggestion, into the fantasy world of Middle Earth, a place I’ve visited again and again in every decade of my life. It’s taken me into darker places as well–the specter of eviction, the “problem from hell” of genocide and the evil of human trafficking.

This brings me to a question I’ve been thinking about lately. Ought we have any boundaries on our curiosity? I’m not talking about boundaries others set, which I would consider an improper, and in the American system, unconstitutional intrusion upon our liberties. The question was provoked for me when I read Bookstore, and particularly passages in which the store owner spoke of her fascination with reading about inter-species sex and about cannibalism. I think my first response was “yuck” and my second to wonder “why ever would you be interest in that?” Then it occurred to me that, much as I find these things repugnant, the truth is that they are part of the human experience, and it might not be utterly bonkers that someone would research these things and others understand them. As far as I know, this person never participated in such things and curiosity to understand phenomena like these no more necessarily leads to doing them than reading about human trafficking inclines me to traffic human beings.

I do wonder if there might be two situations in which curiosity might exceed the bounds of health. One is where that about which we are curious leads to an insatiable quest to know more and more, to the neglect of duties in real life. Do you know those who have developed an unhealthy absorption with conspiracy theories, who are constantly reading about them, talking about them, worrying about them, and in the process, alienating their friends?

The other is when curiosity leads to our minds and emotions going to places we know that for us are not healthy or even tempt us to act out in ways that are morally wrong. And here, two people may be very different. Descriptions of violence, even when not gratuitous, or erotic scenes may affect two people very differently. I had to set down the work of one science fiction writer, fascinating as I found his writing, because there was something in his recurring portrayals of violence that was not good for me. Nor do I think exploring the world of the occult, with the view of searching out the things God has hidden to be a healthy exercise of curiosity.

That said, for the most part, I think curiosity a good thing–that we were given minds of such capacity to explore every nook and cranny of God’s good world. Books are a wonderfully convenient way to do that. I don’t just read pages, but embark on a journey of discovery, whether it is of astrophysics or the composition of a Mozart. I think curiosity is one of the reasons for why we read. Curious bibliophiles, indeed!

What do you think?

Arts & Letters Daily

Arts Letters Daily ideas criticism debate (1)

Screen capture of part of Arts & Letters Daily main page, as accessed on September 21, 2017

One of the things I love doing is helping connect people with books that will inform, entertain, and perhaps transform them. One of the ways I do that is through various newsletters and websites that alert me to new books as well as information about the literary world, authors, book selling, and all things related to books. At the same time, I realize that this blog can’t be a “one stop shop,” and so I also like to pass along the resources I’ve found useful in discovering news about books and all things literary.

One of my readers recently commented with regard to a post about one such site, “One more alternative to actually reading books??” His question raises a fair point. I really could spend all my time reading what is on these sites rather than reading books. But I think most of us have figured out how to skim them to discover what catches our attention. Sometimes, they inform me about books I decide I don’t need to read. Sometimes they pique my interest in something I want to read and review. And I think you will admit that I read and review a few books (over 100 so far this year).

That’s a long introduction to a site I discovered recently, Arts & Letters Daily, published by the folks who put out The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is the Wall Street Journal of the academic world. That should tip you off that you will find a high standard of writing in the articles aggregated on this website. Unlike The Chronicle, all content is available without subscribing, although there is a link in several places to “Support Arts & Letters Daily”

Like Literary Hubthis site curates articles on books and the literary and publishing world from all over the internet. It does so under three categories:

  • Articles of Note: Currently (September 21, 2017), the top articles on the page are on Hemingway in LA (from the LA Times), hallucinogenic fungi (from hyperallergic.com), and Kingsley Amis at 70 (from The Guardian).
  • New Books: The first three articles in this column currently are a review of a book on what writers wear from The Times Literary Supplement, a review of Why Poetry? from the Washington Post, and a  book on the evolution of beauty reviewed in The New York Times.
  • Essays & Opinions: Currently the first three are an article on Evelyn Waugh’s Catholicism from First Things, an article in The Jacobin on James Burnham’s journey from Trotskyite to conservative editor, and a London Review of Books review article by Pankraj Mishra on a collection of books exploring the future of liberalism in the age of Trump and Brexit.

The site is much less flashy than Literary Hub, being organized around three columns of articles under the three categories listed above. It adds no images to the article summaries and so allows for a great deal of content in a small online space.

The other feature of the site is the column of links on the left hand side of the page. From top to bottom following a box allowing you to subscribe to a weekly email newsletter, these are grouped under “Nota Bene” (a collection of miscellaneous articles), “The ALD Archives,” “Newspapers” (26 newspapers from around the world), “Breaking” (links to breaking news on various media outlets), “Magazines” (a long list), and “Book Reviews” (another long list of links). One fun feature under “Archives” is a “Random” link which randomly selects an article in the archives to show you.

Essentially, this is a portal into the literary world. I like the simple organization without the distraction of visual images that links you to content that appears of interest. The alphabetical lists of links to magazines and literary reviews is handy to have in one place.

As noted above, Arts & Letters Daily also sends a weekly email of its “Top Reads” each Friday. Here is a screen capture of the web-version of the September 15, 2017 newsletter:

Top Reads From Arts Letters Daily

The motto of Arts & Letters Daily is “Veritas odit moras,” a quote from Seneca that translates “truth hates delay.” I don’t know if this is what the editors were thinking, but the format and content of Arts & Letters Daily seems designed to get the truth out without delay, a mission ever more crucial in our day.

Flash Fiction

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Photo by J.D. Hancock [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This is perhaps the classic example of something I just learned about today — flash fiction. This six word story has a beginning, middle, and end and leaves us wondering about the rest of the story. It was attributed to Ernest Hemingway, crafted to win a bet. This Quote Investigator article suggests the actual origins of this quote. The attribution to Hemingway makes good sense. Hemingway was a master of economical use of language, and in 1931 published a collection of 18 stories taking up a total of 31 pages titled In Our Time.

“Flash fiction” is a catch-all term for very short fiction works. A maximum might be 2,000 words, but can also include “Six word stories,” “Twitterature” (stories in 140 characters or less), and stories within various length limits: 50 words (the “dribble”), 100 words (the “drabble”), 150, 300, or 1,000 words (source: Wikipedia). Other terms include short short stories, micro fiction, sudden fiction, or quick fiction.

David Gaffney, one of the better known authors of flash fiction gives these tips for writing flash fiction:

  1. Start in the middle. You don’t have time in this very short form to set scenes and build character.
  2. Don’t use too many characters. …
  3. Make sure the ending isn’t at the end. …
  4. Sweat your title. …
  5. Make your last line ring like a bell. …
  6. Write long, then go short.

Writer’s Digest describes the appeal of writing flash fiction in this way:

Why would I want to write flash fiction? Flash fiction slush piles tower as high as those for longer forms, but the rewards are similar—and with a flash story, you’ve likely spent less time writing and revising. Opportunities run the whole gamut of publishers, and flash publishing credits can count toward those you need to qualify for membership in professional writing organizations such as the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. And no matter what you write, stringent word limits can challenge and sharpen your skills in ways that can improve even your long-form work.

So you might be wondering where you can go to read examples of flash fiction. Here are some websites I found that were a good starting place for me:

100 Word Story. It’s just what it says, an edited collection of 100 word stories.

Vestal Review. Claims to be the oldest flash fiction literary magazine, beginning publishing in 2000.

The Drum is an audio flash fiction magazine, for those who would rather listen than read.

Flash Fiction Online includes a graphic image and quote for each story.

Flash Fiction Magazine publishes a daily story and also offers a free e-book of stories.

Well, I’m approaching 500 words, positively wordy in the flash fiction world. I would be interested in hearing if others follow this genre, your favorite authors, sites, etc.

Shelf Awareness

 

Shelf Awareness (2)

Screenshot of top portion of Shelf Awareness home page, accessed September 19, 2017.

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.”  –Winston Churchill

I do think it is valuable to be aware of the books on our shelves and I love this Churchill quote. But that is not the focus of this post (although I thought you would enjoy the quote).

I subscribe to various newsletters and online publications to keep up with the publishing world, and the related worlds of literary figures, bookselling, libraries, and of course, new books. I’ve recently come across a new source of book news, Shelf AwarenessI’ve included a screenshot of the home page, as it appeared on Tuesday September 19.

Shelf Awareness is designed for two groups. One group is readerswhich probably includes anyone who follows this blog. Each week they identify 25 of the best books coming out during the current week and provide reviews of those books. These include categories of fiction, mystery and thriller, science fiction and fantasy, food and wine, biography and memoir, history, business and economics, body, mind and spirit, social science, nature and environment, children and young adult, and poetry. Not all categories are included in every issue. There is also a “book candy” section with newsy tidbits, and an author interview. In the current children and young adult section, for example, you will find a review of a children’s version of It Takes a Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The other group is people in the book tradeShelf Awareness describes its effort for this group as follows:

“Shelf Awareness was born out of a need to provide a range of people in the industry–booksellers, librarians, book buyers at nontraditional stores, members of the media, marketers, salespeople, publishers and others–with essential information for their businesses, including news about titles coming out now, titles getting buzz in the media, authors on major shows, movie tie-ins, sleepers, news about the business, tips on how to sell, etc. We publish daily–first thing in the morning.”

In today’s issue, I learned that Amazon is opening two new warehouses to join two others in Ohio, one near Cincinnati, and one near Cleveland in North Randall (the other warehouses are near Columbus). There is also news of a bookstore closing (openings and closings are announced on many days), the theme for University Press Week (“Knowledge Matters”), an image of the day, Top Library Recommended Titles for October, a book trailer (a pretty common site on publisher websites these days), and more.

All this may be accessed on the Shelf Awareness website, but may also come to your email inbox. The readers version is called “Shelf Awareness for Readers” and is sent out twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The booktrade newsletter is called “Shelf Awareness Pro” and is sent out daily. There is a checkbox that allows you to subscribe to both. The subscription is free. Of course, a service like this includes advertising and “advertorials” including links to buy books (not in the reviews however).

One of the leading alternatives in this field is Publishers Weekly, which also puts out a variety of daily newsletters. While the two overlap around reviews of books and news about the publishing industry, Shelf Awareness, at this point at least, seems much more streamlined, offering a much more reader-focused newsletter, and what seems to me a wider spectrum but more concise daily news summary of the book world.

If you are interested not only in what is on your personal shelves, but what will be appearing on the shelves of your favorite bookseller, Shelf Awareness is a great new resource. Give them a visit!

What to Read

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Long Room, Trinity College, Dublin. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia

In one sense, answering the question of what to read is truly daunting. In 2010, Google ran an algorithm to estimate the number of books ever published in its efforts to develop the capacity to catalog all these books. They came up with the number 129,864,880. That brings new meaning to one of my favorite laments, “so many books, so little time.”

That does make the choice of what we read worthy of some thought. This is also part of the “battle” we readers face. Consider, if we read 50 books a year for 40 years, that is 2,000 books out of all those ever published. This is one of those FOMO (fear of missing out) moments all of us encounter. We will inevitably miss out on many books. For me, the question comes down to what book, or at least what types of books, do I not want to miss out on. Here are some considerations I bring to this question:

  • I want to read books that have stood the test of time–decades and even centuries have passed and they are still influential. I don’t just want to read about them, but want to follow advice Marilynne Robinson gave in a lecture: “Read the primary sources!” I’d class The Bible, works of Shakespeare, Plato, Homer, Augustine, Calvin, Doestoevsky, among others in this category. C. S. Lewis recommended we read one “old” book for every recent book we read in an essay introducing a very good old book, On the Incarnation by Athanasius
  • I want to read the best books I can in genres I’ve found life-giving, which for me ranges from mysteries to presidential and other leadership biographies, American history, and science writing.
  • Finally, I read books related to my own work and calling. In my case, I work in a Christian ministry among graduate students and faculty and hold a Masters degree in biblical studies. So I try to keep up on current literature in biblical studies, theology, and other ministry-related fields, as well as reading books on current developments in the world of higher education.

Your answers to these criteria will be different from mine, but they will help you think with greater discrimination about the books you choose to read, and be able to give better criteria to booksellers and librarians who may help you connect to these books.

There are a variety of reading lists one may find online that may help with the first and, to some degree, the second of my three criteria. For the third, so much of this comes from reading reviews of books in journals related to your field of work, or just going to those sections at a good university library. Here are a few sources of  book lists that I’ve found helpful:

  1. For books that have stood the test of time, the Great Books lists can be helpful, although they may be criticized as Western-centric. Other lists may compensate for that. Wikipedia provides the list of books that comprised the Great Books series as well as a list of universities that still have “Great Books” programs. One of these is St. John’s, which provides PDFs of the reading list by semester through the four years of their program.
  2. There are numerous lists of “100 greatest books,” some which may overlap with the Great Books. Wikipedia has gathered the most prominent of these lists in an article with links, including lists for genres like crime fiction, fantasy, and science fiction as well as more general lists.
  3. For the thoughtful Christian reader, James Emory White at his Church and Culture website, has a wonderful collection of lists including “Ten to Begin With,” “Twenty Five Toward a Christian Worldview,” and a “One Year Reading Program” of 26 books and twelve other topical lists. A personal favorite for discovering thoughtful Christian writing is Byron Borger’s “Booknotes” blog which connects you with his store, where you can order the books you read about, usually at a discount. Byron is one who can listen to you, and on the basis of what you tell him about yourself and your interests can suggest ten books to you–and they will be good suggestions. He typifies what is best about brick and mortar booksellers.

Of course, I hope you will follow Bob on Books if you do not already. Over the course of a year, I will review about 140 books along the lines of the books I like to read and think important, and I hope some of these will find their way into your hands as well. Equally, I hope some of my reviews may help you choose not to read certain books in favor of others more congruent to your answers to the question of “what to read.” That, also, is a good thing.