Lately I’ve been posting on social media a “book of the day.” It’s a combination of new books that I find interesting (which I may or may not have read), along with an assortment of books in my library ranging from antiquarian treasures to more recently published titles.
Here’s a recent example:
The feedback on these “bookstagrams” has mostly been positive, although a few people have teased me that my posts are not good for their wallets! But then recently, I got this message from someone who has been reading my blog for a number of years now:
Carl, I love seeing all the books you are adding to your library. How do you carve out time to read so much? My list of books to read is growing much faster than what I am getting through. Challenging as a busy professional.
Friend, I feel your pain. So let me offer a few thoughts under the rubric of “So many books, so little time.”
Walk into any bookstore and we are immediately faced with our own mortality. There are not enough days in a lifespan to read all the wonderful books that will cross your path. You could be the world’s fastest speed reader with the comprehension of the gods, but you still wouldn’t have time to get through all the great books of the past, let alone the thousands of new books published ever year (“thousands” is probably an understatement, especially when you take into consideration self-publishing. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicion that new books actually range in the millions, not thousands).
And even if you are only interested in a niche — say, for example, mystical Christianity — it’s still clear that between the great works of the mystics themselves, new books about mysticism or other aspects of spirituality and theology, books in related fields like history, philosophy, psychology… we just can’t get through it all.
So what do we do? Well, here’s what I do. Hope these thoughts might be helpful.
All Books Are Not Created Equal
I love books, which should be obvious to anyone reading my blog or following me on social media. I have almost every possible relationship with books — I read them, I collect them, I review them, I write them, I sell them, and I’ve edited a few. I’ve never worked directly in publishing, so I can’t say “I publish them” — at least, not yet. So, yes, I love books.
I’m very much aware that, as an educated middle class person in one of the most affluent countries on the planet, I have tremendous advantages when it comes to books, literature, and writing — I have a library in the thousands, and have access to millions more books, either through libraries or purchasing. It’s fun having so much access to great writing — but, as my friend who wrote to me noted, it’s also overwhelming.
Books are an asset — just like real estate or finances. We have to learn how to manage our money or our household, so yes, we have to manage our libraries as well.
For me, the key to enjoying my library and not being overwhelmed by it begins with the simple recognition that not all books have the same function in my life, my work, or my spirituality. I have a different relationship with the Bible than I do with the writings of the mystics or works of theology or the novels of James Joyce or The Complete Calvin and Hobbes.
- Some books I read for my work: research for my writing, or for upcoming speaking/teaching/retreat events that I’m part of.
- Some books I read for my spiritual growth (since I write about Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality, there’s a lot of overlap for me in “work-related reading” and “spiritual reading”).
- Some books I read for personal enrichment — books on history, or politics, or science, or any other field that I want to learn about, but is not directly related to my current work.
- And finally, I always try to read some books just for fun. Often here I’ll let my inner child (or teenager) out to play: I have a fondness for young adult novels, particularly magical fiction (I’m making my way through the Miss Peregrine books right now). But poetry, adult fiction, comics, and even “literary fiction” (here’s looking at you, Virginia Woolf) all fall into this category.
Plus I have a lot of books in my library that are there strictly for reference purposes; plenty of art books, poetry anthologies, study Bibles, and many books that I’ve already read but hold onto either because I think I’ll read them again some day, or else they will be useful for my work.
Here’s the key:
We have to learn that it is okay to browse and skim books, and definitely okay to abandon books that simply don’t speak to us. In any of the above categories, there may be books that we only “need” to read a chapter or two to get what we need to get out of the book. Naturally, books I read for pleasure I am more likely to diligently read from cover to cover — but only if the book is actually bringing me enjoyment. I’m not one to bother with a book just because everyone else is reading it.
So many books, so little time, remember? It’s just like you don’t keep spending time with so-called friends who are abusive or dishonest or untrustworthy. There are too many decent people to devote ourselves to. Likewise, books that are poorly written, espouse an unhealthy ideology, promote a toxic image of God, or in some other way are simply unacceptable: let them go! Too many books worth reading, to waste time on the duds.
And even good books might not require a close reading. I read a story once about someone who was in charge of a prominent theologian’s library after he died — I think it was Paul Tillich, but don’t quote me on that, it could have been another 20th century theologian. Anyway, this person was cataloging his books for his estate, and noticed something interesting. The oldest books, which presumably the theologian had read early in his career, were meticulously annotated from cover to cover. But books that were newer — that he had read toward the end of his career/life — often were only annotated in the first and last chapter! Somewhere along the way, the theologian realized that, for many books, you could get pretty much everything you needed, the gist of what the author was trying to say, by reading just the bookend chapters. I haven’t tried this — yet. But it’s a great illustration that you can use books effectively without necessarily reading every last word.
Then there’s the Japanese concept of tsundoku — I’ve written about this before — it literally means “to pile up books” and it refers to the practice of buying books faster than you can read them. While there’s a downside to this, ranging from clutter to hoarding, it can be seen as a kind of intellectual humility: a recognition that there are more books to read than time to read them, and that we acquire books not just to read but also to curate our intellectual and spiritual interests. I know that I will never lack for something interesting to read (I imagine that, reading several hours a day, I have enough books in my possession right now to keep me going for 20-30 years, which puts me well into my 80s!).
Finally, I love the idea that books are meant to be shared. Loan them out, give them away. At the very least, take a box or two to Goodwill or to your neighborhood used bookstore a couple of times each year. I occasionally see my own books (that I’ve written) in used bookstores, and I see it as a part of the book’s life-cycle: someone buys it, hopefully reads it, but even if they don’t read it, they pass it on to someone else, either as a gift, a donation, or a sell-back to a used bookstore. And then the book can bless someone else.
Yes, there’s a shadow side to tsundoku, to our affluence that means the average educated American has more books in their home than the average seminary library in one of the developing nations. We do have to be on guard against clutter, or hoarding. So I think it’s important to pass books on. If money is tight, sell some on eBay or get your trade-in value at Half-Price Books. But keep them in circulation, so your bookshelves not only stay neat and organized, but reflect your current interests.
One final thought, especially for those of us who read as part of our spiritual practice. One of my first teachers in contemplative spirituality was a Quaker woman named Isabella Bates; she was an associate of the Shalem Institute where I took several classes in the 1980s. Isabella said something to me one time that I found challenging, but also liberating. She pointed out that, for many people, “One of our favorite ways to avoid praying is by reading books about prayer.”
Wow. That struck pretty close to home!
Note that this isn’t a challenge to stop reading altogether; and I think if I asked her, Isabella would have suggested that we need to be choosy about what we read. Curate your reading list carefully. Read just enough spiritual writing, or pleasure reading, or books for work or personal enrichment, to truly enrich your life. But then put the books down — and live! And for us contemplative/mystical types, that means taking time for silence, each and every day.
Yes, you won’t read every book that looks interesting. But be choosy, and read the best books that appeal to you. That will be good enough.