Catherine from Stockport, England, asks:
As a (very) full-time hospital doctor and wife, I do not get the chance to read as many good books as I would like, and there are many tomes graciously waiting in line on the shelf for my long-overdue attention. I found in The Legacy of Sovereign Joy by John Piper some quotations from Martin Luther that would seem to contradict this, and with potentially good reason:
A great variety of reading confuses and does not teach. It makes the student like a man who dwells everywhere, and yet nowhere in particular. Just as we do not daily enjoy the society of every one of our friends, but only that of a chosen few, so it should also be in our studying. The number of theological books should . . . be reduced, and a selection should be made of the best of them; for many books do not make men learned, nor does much reading.
How would you answer Luther here? Assuming (and perhaps we shouldn't) that we are reading our Bible first and most, how widely otherwise should we read? Should we choose a few authors and learn well from them, or learn from many? Is his concern perhaps rooted in his own time where perhaps good and helpful books were fewer?
We posed the question to Tony Reinke, a content strategist for Desiring God in Minneapolis. He is the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Crossway, 2011).
We begin where many answers are found, on the screen of a calculator. John Piper and Martin Luther (whom you quoted) have combined to publish more than 130 individual volumes (all currently in print). With that calculation we can start off with one foundational assumption: the church needs lots of books.
Putting the calculator aside, we are faced with a new cluster of overlapping questions. What priority should books play in my Christian life? How do I prioritize Scripture alongside all these other Christian books? How many books are too many? And how do I prioritize book reading in light of Solomon's warning about the vanity of the ceaseless hum of the printing press? These are all somewhat complicated and overlapping questions, and I have tried to address them in more detail in my book. But I'll focus here on what you ask: How many books are too many for a Christian reader?
I suspect Luther's warnings about reading too many books at one level intend to comfort those who cannot afford great books, who have limited access to borrowing books, who have limited reading skills, or who simply cannot read. As you indicate in your question, the quality, quantity, and affordability of our books today was unimaginable to Luther. He was acquainted with the power of the printing press to spread ideas, but not with the speed and accessibility of digital books. And I doubt he would have a category for all of the book-buying options at Amazon.com (and certainly not the speed of overnight shipping!).
Life is different today. We can safely assume that a modern Christian reader can pick up and read a different solidly evangelical and edifying book every week for the rest of his or her life and never exhaust the supply of options. In fact, we know whole genres of Christian books (such as novels) that did not exist in Luther's day. So back to the question. How many books are too many for a Christian reader?
Partly the answer to this question will be found in a personal examination, not in a broad simplification. Are you a generalist reader or a specialist reader? Specialists are wired to deep-dive into a particular topic, and they tend to be contented with the works of one or a few selected theologians, or with a few books on one particular theological topic. Specialists want to exhaust everything they can learn about a topic or a person before moving on, and many spend their entire lives studying a few topics well. In contrast, I'm ageneralist, hardwired to read many different books on a variety of subjects. In any given week I'm reading six different types of books: Scripture, books on the work of Christ, spiritually devotional works, practical works on the Christian life, imaginative literature, and vocational books. But whether you read a library of books, or a carefully selected few, the end-goal is the same.
Reading is thinking. Of course there's a place for reading enjoyable books merely for fun. But for most of our reading, we seek to engage our minds. With engaged minds we position ourselves for discoveries into this world, into our own lives, and into worship with God in truth.
But here again it will be important to determine how you are personally wired. Is your mind more easily stimulated to thinking by reading one book for two months, or by reading six books at any given time? A lot of people assume you can think better with a slow diet of books, but that will not be the case for every reader. I prefer inundation.
No Substitute for Thinking
Reading is important, because reading is about thinking, and by our thinking we honor or we dishonor God. Lazy "thinking" dishonors God because it fails to love God with our entire mind (Matt. 22:37). God-less thinking dishonors God because it is built on false human autonomy (Rom. 1:20-21). But mature and godly thinking rightly honors God because it informs and promotes our dependence on him (Matt. 22:37, 1 Cor. 14:20). Ultimately, God honors our disciplined thinking by giving his children understanding (2 Tim. 2:7). God is eager for us to mature into disciplined thinkers, and that means reading is important.
But our book reading can become a substitute for thinking. Alan Jacobs sounds the warning: "most people read quickly because they want not to read but to have read." Ultimately it's not a matter of how many or how few books you read. Reading is about thinking, and we think in order to bring about life change.
While researching my book I discovered an old John Piper sermon manuscript (July 12, 1981). In it he made this point:
What I have learned from about 20-years of serious reading is this. It is sentences that change my life, not books. What changes my life is some new glimpse of truth, some powerful challenge, some resolution to a long-standing dilemma, and these usually come concentrated in a sentence or two. I do not remember 99 percent of what I read, but if the 1 percent of each book or article I do remember is a life-changing insight, then I don't begrudge the 99 percent.
Reading is about discovery, not full retention.
How Many Are Too Many?
So again we ask, how many books are too many for a Christian reader?
By now I hope you can see why this answer is such a personal one. I would say you are reading too many books (or reading those books too quickly) when you are "reading" them with your eyes, but your mind is unengaged, you are not thinking, and you are not picking up the life-changing insight because the reading is too superficial. It is possible to read too many books if you are merely trying to get those books "read."
But you can read too few books, too. I find myself more susceptible to errors when I read only one book on a topic, because in reading only one book I fail to balance myself with broader perspectives of other writers and thinkers. Reading only a few authors means you may more likely ingest their spiritual and theological blind spots. Just be aware of this if you choose to read only a few books.
Here's my main point: know yourself. Irrespective of how many books you read, the key is to read in a way that engages your mind. And no matter how many or few books you read, read those books in a discerning way. Read them in a way that operates out of the fear of God and read them out of gratitude to God, that he---for whatever reason determined in eternity past---has chosen to plant our brief little lives right in the middle of the greatest publishing boon the world has ever known.
So, Catherine, that is what I would say to Luther if I had the chance. And then I would probably pull out my iPad and let him browse his complete works on it.