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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.