Last year, I challenged Kingdom People readers to set a reading goal in 2010 and I offered some tips for how to reach that goal. Because I chose a high number (100) in the post title, I received some pushback from readers who thought my challenge was unrealistic or unhelpful. I responded by affirming the benefit of setting a goal and clarified that the actual number is not what is important.

This year, I’m not asking the question “Can you read 100 books in 2011?” Instead, I’m asking a different question: “Should you read this many books?” Is it wise to set a high reading goal? Is it beneficial?

John Piper thinks there is benefit in reading less. He encourages us, not to spend less time reading, but to spend more time with fewer books. In Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, Piper writes:

I [do not] want to give the impression that I think there is virtue in reading many books. In fact one of my greatest complaints in seminary was that professors trained students in bad habits of superficial reading because they assigned too many books. I agree with Spurgeon:

  • “A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed, lapping at them.”

God save us from the allurement of “keeping up with Pastor Jones” by superficial skimming. Forget about “keeping up.” It only feeds pride and breeds spiritual barrenness. Instead devote yourself to boring in and going deep. There is so much soul-refreshing, heart-deepening, mind-enlarging truth to be had from great books!

God forbid I be a Pastor Jones who is feeding pride and breeding spiritual barrenness by challenging people to read more books! Piper’s caution certainly gives me pause. Perhaps instead of challenging you to pick up 100 books, I should encourage you to dig deeply into ten. Pick the best books and live in them for awhile.

Still, there is something about Piper’s counsel that doesn’t sit well with me. I have a nagging sense that reading a large number of books, far from being a superficial and pride-forming habit, can and should be seen as an act of good stewardship. Here are some truths to keep in mind:

1. We are literate.

Compared to many people throughout church history, we are already blessed beyond measure in that we can read at all. Even today, large numbers of Christians do not know the thrill of a daily quiet time in the Word. Reading has long been the privilege of an elite group of people. Today, more and more of us have access to this privilege. We should not take it for granted.

2. We have books.

In the past, literacy didn’t necessarily ensure that you had a shelf full of books. Most readers had a very small library, leading them to cherish the few books they had. When your resources are limited, you return to books. You build a relationship with them over time. You read them again and again, each time finding connections you hadn’t noticed before.

It is very possible that you have more books in your home or office (or Kindle!) than Jonathan Edwards had in his personal library. Try to wrap your mind around that fact! Some of the greatest thinkers in the world have had access to a relatively small number of resources. Yet they knew how to drink deeply and become a fountain of deep thinking for others.

So there’s something very right about Piper’s caution against reading too much. There’s something to be said for immersing ourselves in a just a few sources of fresh, purified water instead of craning our necks to drink as much as possible from the tap. Piper’s mindset is: “You only need a certain amount of water to be refreshed. Choose the water wisely.”

3. Native English Speakers Have a Major Advantage

Still, I can’t shake the idea that for most of us, responsible stewardship will be exercised in our reading of many books. Perhaps a little personal history might shine light on my motivation.

While I was living in Romania, a great love for reading captured my mind and heart. The Christian university I attended had a large library with thousands of good, theological books – most of which were in English. As an American student in a Romanian university, I found it difficult to write essays in my new language (Romanian). However, I quickly realized that I had a great advantage in research: I could absorb information much faster than my colleagues because the best resources were in my native tongue. Gradually, it dawned on me: I was blessed to be literate, blessed to have access to great books, and blessed to be a native English speaker at a time in history when the majority of helpful books were written or translated in my language.

Books were so precious in Romania that the library did not allow us to check them out. They had to remain on the premises. So… during class breaks when everyone else would chill out, I was drawn like a magnet to the library where I would pick up a book and start reading right where I had left off. I still remember where I was sitting when I read The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll. I remember the desk I sat at while reading The Jesus Quest by Ben Witherington. I remember the months I spent in Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright, and the couch I sat on as I read D.A. Carson’s The Gagging of God. I perused the sermons of Charles Spurgeon, the works of Francis Schaefferthe novels of Dostoevsky and the big books of primary source material from the church fathers.

I can’t imagine someone telling me back then to read fewer books. Standing in a large library full of (metaphorically) chained books, I was overwhelmed by the incredible privilege of having access to so many great books in my native language. For me, reading was (and still is) an act of stewardship.

Different Ways to Read

At one level, John Piper’s advice to read more from fewer books resonates with me. We should be on the look-out for superficiality and deep-seated pride in reading. But I wonder if other factors come into play here, particularly – what it means to be a good steward of resources, and how much personality and temperament influences this discussion. While I can’t imagine John Piper reading two or three books a day, I can’t imagine D.A. Carson doing otherwise.

I keep coming back to the thought that there are some books you read, and then there are other books you read. For example, I am currently working my way through G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I’m in no hurry. Each page demands my full attention. I would be cheating myself if I read through this book too quickly, and therefore, I will linger in this book for several months. Piper is right. Some books need to be lived in for a time in order to fully come to grips with the glorious truths contained therein. Works by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and Barth are not for speed-readers.

On the other hand, there are books that can be digested quickly. In fact, I would be cheating myself if I were to read them too slowly. In the case of many (if not most) books, the reader can quickly come to grips with the main point, consider the author’s perspective, and then move on. Some books deserve careful attention and reflection. But many are practical and easy-to-comprehend. Get what you need and go on.

It’s a shame to wolf down a Ruth’s Cris steak in five minutes. It’s also a shame to spend two hours on a Big Mac. You may enjoy both meals, but you (hopefully) enjoy them in different ways. It’s the same with reading. So…

Be a good steward.

Read to the glory of God.

Thank Him for giving you access to so many good resources.

Use the mind He has given you.

Ask God for wisdom regarding the books you choose to read.

Once you’ve made your choice, maximize the time (whether short or long) you spend in those books.