A room without books is like a body without a soul.
– G. K. Chesterton
For some time now I have been thinking about articulating my philosophy for reading and building a personal library. I have been engaged in this lifestyle since the middle of college (2009), where my passion for reading matured and blossomed. During the course of my graduate seminary studies, my personal library has ballooned from a mere 75 or so books to well over 2,500. Seminary opened up new worlds to explore and a seemingly endless list of books to read. I can’t get enough and there is no end in sight, which is good! However, reading so much and building a library is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, and I have had to defend myself on more than one occasion. So here are my thoughts, which I hope will not only be a sufficient defense, but also spur you on to read and build your own library.
Reading is one the best ways to learn
If learning was limited to first-hand, personal experience, we humans would be severely restricted in what we could know. For example, if I wanted to learn about Hinduism, I would have to see a swami, visit a Hindu temple, befriend a practicing Hindu, or travel to India in order to gain an understanding of Hinduism (I have been to Nepal and visited a Hindu temple). All of these things are legitimate and valuable ways of acquiring knowledge, but few of us have such opportunities. Reading is much cheaper, more accessible, and affords us the opportunity to learn about Hinduism (and many other things) from various perspectives–be it espousing, critical, objective, or subjective (depending upon the books you read). For example, you could read a book by Swami Prabhavananda describing the merits and benefits of Hinduism, or a book by Douglas Groothuis critiquing Hinduism from a Christian worldview and biblical perspective. Reading allows me to learn about history, philosophy, economics, world religions, counseling practices, and a host of other things without leaving my own room.
I am not suggesting that learning through first-hand experiences is wrong. To the contrary, this is an excellent and exceedingly rich way to learn. However, many people today think that experiential knowledge is the only kind of genuine knowledge. This is incorrect, as knowledge can be gained in one of three ways: (1) propositional knowledge (i.e., reading and study); (2) knowledge by acquaintance (i.e., experiential knowledge); and (3) competent knowledge (i.e., knowledge by practice, e.g., an instrument). 1 While reading primarily falls into the first category, I approach learning holistically: we should read widely, talk to people, constructively argue with teachers and colleagues, take online classes, travel, and take educational risks. What I am arguing here is that reading has often been neglected as an easy, accessible, and rewarding way to learn, making it one of the better ways to assimilate a lot of information and perspectives in a short period of time.
Reading cultivates the life of the mind
The life of the mind is necessary for human survival and is worth developing. As Christians, we are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37). To love God with our minds does not mean that our minds do the loving, but that we use our minds to cultivate our love for God. One way we can do that is by learning about ourselves and the world around us. God originally created this world “very good,” and as such, it is intrinsically good to know the world we live in, even if we don’t “use” that knowledge for specific ends. 2 Reading books about various topics, disciplines, and worldviews allows us to learn about the world and about other people (past and present), and in doing so, learn about ourselves. Reading also often exposes us to knowledge we would never have known otherwise.
Reading allows you to come to know people you otherwise wouldn’t know
Consider this quote from Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences:
I was aware that the reading of all good books is indeed like a conversation with the noblest men of past centuries who were the authors of them, nay a carefully studied conversation, in which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.
I agree with Descartes. Reading is having a conversation with someone – albeit in quite a different way than we normally envision conversation. In my room I can have a conversation with C.S. Lewis, Thomas Sowell, N.T. Wright, or Mark Noll. I can discover their knowledge and make it my own. I can test their ideas against each other. I can reveal their biases. I can learn from their writing styles and vocabulary. You find that each author has a voice, certain types of expressions and epigrams, and ways of organizing the material they want to present to you. All of this can help you come to “know” the person who wrote the book. Reading in this manner goes beyond the mere absorption of facts and information; it means reading biographies about the authors you read, understanding their lives and the contexts in which they wrote, and the motivations behind specific works. I find this to be enriching and valuable, especially since many of the authors I read are now dead and I will never meet them in real life.
Reading develops you into an introspective, historically- and culturally-aware person
Reading doesn’t just tell you about the world ‘out there’; it also can reveal what’s inside. Do you read something and it makes you angry? Do you read something and you exclaim ‘Yes! That’s it!’? Do certain books and stories bring you to tears? As you read a wide array of literature you can discover yourself and parts of you that you didn’t know were there–that is, if you are willing to engage the material and reflect upon it. You can discover human solidarity as you identify with the fear of Paris when he faced Achilles on the battlefield before Troy. You can discover dissimilarity as you read about life on the manor in Medieval Europe. In addition, reading can open up new worlds to you that you never would have known about before–the starving and uneducated child in Nepal, the suffering mother in Nebraska who lost her son in war, the uncharted and untamed terrain of the New World in 1492. You can become well-educated about historical people, events, and movements, and this will help you become culturally educated about the world you live in now. You will become more perceptive of what your own culture takes for granted, and what both its virtues and biases might be. In short, reading can help you understand yourself and the world around you.
Reading combats ignorance, self-deception, and arrogance
Thomas Sowell once said, “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.” This is quite true. Have you ever heard anyone say, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know!”? The more books you read, the more books you find to read. The more disciplines you study, the more you realize that it would take a lifetime to master any one of them. The more languages you learn, the more you realize there are thousands you will never learn. I could go on. You might be tempted to think that people who read and know a lot would become arrogant on account of their knowledge (it certainly happens), but often the opposite is true. It takes a knowledgeable person to understand human limitations and the vast amounts of information in the universe beyond any one person’s grasp. Such realization not only humbles a person, but should cause them to glorify God for his perfect wisdom and omniscience. It is often those people who know very little, but think they know a lot who act in hubris and arrogant ways.
In addition, reading is one of the best ways to guard against self-deception. Few of us realize how easily we can be deceived by others and ourselves. But the human heart is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9) and we should continually be on guard against it. I have personally experienced the damage of self-deception since I grew up in an isolated, abusive, and group-think environment. Reading with an open, yet critical, mind helps to combat arrogance (self-idolatry), false narratives and dangerous ideas in politics, economics, and social issue, religious aberrations and competing religious worldviews, personality cults, and the like. One aspect of cultivating the life of the mind is learning to be discerning and wise, knowing whom to trust and when, and whom not to trust.
It is also important that you purposely read those you know you will disagree with. Since what you read is up to you (unless you’re taking a class), you can become your own worst enemy if you selective read only those authors you like or agree with. This increases the chance of reinforcing biases, false ideas, and closing off the mind to the truth. Make yourself read books that promote or argue for the opposite of what you believe or think you know to be true. Do so with an open mind – but not an empty or uncritically accepting mind. Often you will learn the most from those you disagree with, either because they tear down a stereotype, they argue their position well, or they force you to more clearly articulate your own beliefs.
Finally, read primary sources! It is easy to settle for reading only secondary sources, other people’s accounts of what happened or what is true. Yet there is nothing more rewarding than reading an author in his or her own words. This can be difficult, especially if you are reading older literature where different words, idioms, analogies, and utterances were used than what you are used to. Yet tackling the works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Blaise Pascal, Thomas Paine and thousands of others is rich, inspiring, and rewarding. Reading authors in their own words also helps to clear away misconceptions, distortions, and stereotypes that have often been passed down in secondary sources and cultural consciousness.
Reading is an enjoyable, constructive activity
In our media-entertained and distraction-filled age, we forget that for centuries reading was a favorite past time and form of relaxation. Before TVs, cell-phones, iPads, and endless celebrity gossip, people spent much of their free time reading and learning (of course they did other things too). Reading was in. And of course, it was the standard way to gain an education. I am saddened that fewer and fewer people these days realize how important reading is and how enjoyable it can be. When Abraham Lincoln was a young man, he use to devour books – anything he could get his hands on – and he would slip away from work to read in a field or under a tree. He would stay up late at night exhausting himself with reading. How many of us do this today? (I’m not implying that we must be obsessed with reading). I understand that the life of the mind isn’t as important for everyone as it is for me, and some people sincerely do not enjoy reading, but the enjoyment of reading is something that we can – and should – cultivate and encourage. In addition, there are few negative side effects to reading (money and time, perhaps at the expense of relationships if you do nothing but read, which would border on irresponsibility). However, the negative side effects of playing hours of video games, surfing the internet, watching TV, and similar activities have been well researched and reported. Not only can reading be thoroughly enjoyable, personally and intellectually stimulating, but it is a constructive activity in and of itself. Reading is an intrinsic good, even if there is no other goal beside reading.
Why Build a Personal Library?
I have the strong and unwavering conviction that it is important to build your own library (either electronically or via real books), rather than rely upon checking books out from the library (nothing is wrong with this of course) or neglecting to build a library at all. Here are my top reasons.
Owning your books allows you to treat them however you want
Many people don’t mark in the books they own, but I do. In fact, I have developed quite an elaborate system of underlying, highlighting, and note-taking that allows me to pick out the most important information, discern the structure of the book, and record my thoughts and questions while still reading between 20-25 pages an hour (depending upon the book of course). I have trained my memory to remember how I interact with each book: I will often spatially remember where on the page I starred a paragraph, underlined a sentence, circled a word I don’t know, or wrote a comment. This allows me to read a book once, ingest the vast majority of it, and retain most of its contents. I almost never read books twice. Owning my books allows me to do this. In addition, owning my books gives me the opportunity to let others borrow them at no cost (as long as they don’t mind reading marked-up books!). I enjoy sharing my books with others, as it develops a mutual link in our knowledge and understanding of that issue. It is also a good opportunity for discussion and relationship building. Try book-swapping with a friend once a month as a change of pace.
While visiting your local library is a great idea and can expose you to many books and resources you might not otherwise come into contact with, checking out books from a library has a number of limitations. First, obviously, you don’t own the book, which means you must eventually return it. For people who read only one book at a time and in a short timeframe, this is no problem. However, I often read 8-10 books at once, reading a couple chapters in one book and then switching to another. For some reason my brain is able to compartmentalize each book and remember what chapters and content belong with what book. Therefore, it might take me three months to read a book, but in the meantime I’ve read another 10-12 books as well! Thus, for me, checking a book out from the library puts time constraints on me that I don’t like. Second, since you don’t own the book, you can’t write in it. For those who don’t mark in their books this may not be a problem, but for me it is beyond frustrating to read a book and not be able to underline or highlight. Third, you must return a library book, meaning, at some point in the future when you remember reading something that is pertinent to what you are currently reading, research, or writing, and you want to access it, you don’t have that resource anymore! It’s at the library, beyond your reach.
A personal library facilitates reading, learning, and ease of research
Having your own library isn’t just for fun; it is a valuable resource for you and others. More than once since I’ve been in seminary I have been able to research and write a paper without leaving my room, using between 15-20 resources. This is ideal. Having your own library also makes access to books easy, since you can just walk across your room and pick a book off the shelf. Another important point to make is the intellectual networking that can take place as you work and read in your own library. As I sit at my desk and read or write, I know that directly behind be are all my books on American history and church history; to my right are resources on economics, ethics, political philosophy, and world religions; to my left world history, African American history, military history, my Penguin classics, dating, marriage, and sexuality, and C.S. Lewis; to my left and behind me are New and Old Testament reading, Greek, theology, and other biblical resources. As I work I can think of these books, authors, and the ideas in each of them and how they might interact, influence, and add insight into what I’m currently working on. When I work at the library on campus, I never have this experience since I feel lost in a sea of books – most of which I haven’t read and I don’t know where to locate without a catalog.
Having your own library leads to a unique, personal knowledge unlike anyone else
At one in the same time this is a bold but also an obvious claim. Since no two humans are alike everyone learns, processes, assimilates, and recalls knowledge in a different way, and therefore has a unique understanding of life. However, think about this claim: no two libraries have ever been the same (if we are talking about libraries of significant size, say 500+ books). The acquisition of my library and the books I have read in the order I have read them are unique to me. Although I know that millions of people around the world own and have read C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, and Thomas Sowell, I highly doubt that many people (if anyone) have read Mere Christianity, Scripture and the Authority of God, The Great Divorce, and Basic Economics in the same order and way that I have (and this is only a small sample of the hundreds of books I’ve read). In addition, I am often reading 8-10 books at once, which means what I’m learning is being integrated from many sources at once. What does this all mean? It means that the sum of my knowledge stemming from my library and the books I’ve read is unique to me. This is exciting because it often leads to new understandings, connections between authors and ideas, overlap between disciplines, and original insights that no one has ever discovered before or that have long been lost or forgotten. A personal library is where this networking, creativity, and originality begins, and is, consequently, continually renewed.
One day you will be able to bequeath your library to someone else
As a Christian I believe that no material possessions from this life will follow me in death. I will leave everything behind, even my corporeal body. Thus, my library will be left on earth for others to read after me. For anyone who currently has a personal library, it is important to realize that your library will not stay your library for long. Taking the time and money to acquire a vast library is not selfish since it will (hopefully) one day be given to someone else (or many others) for their enjoyment and betterment. 3 Your library will make its way into other people’s libraries, and then their library will become someone else’s. I hope to personally give my library (in whole or in part) to someone else one day, whether this be a son or daughter, friend, student, or aspiring youngster. Since I have marked in most of my books, I have left behind a personal record of my own journey of learning that tells how I interacted with and acquired knowledge from that author at that time in my life. The person(s) who receive my books after me will not only be able to benefit from the contents of the book, but they will also learn about me. They will be able to trace when the book came into my possession, when I read it, and how I learned from it or thought it was trash. They will be able to see what I thought was important, what I agreed and disagreed with, where I had questions, and the new thoughts and ideas that came to me while reading it. Such personal history encased in each book, makes the book (and reading it) more valuable than it otherwise would be, and hopefully encourages and facilitates the current reader’s learning.
Drawbacks from Building a Personal Library
Building your own library takes time, pure and simple. It takes time looking through Amazon books online, creating wish lists, reading the back cover and table of contents; it takes time going to Tattered Cover, Barnes & Noble or other bookstores and browsing; it take time and considerable effort to buy bookshelves and keep your books organized and accessible. Be aware of this time commitment before you begin seriously building a personal library. It’s time well spent, but it does require effort.
Books are also expensive. They are a lot less expensive than they used to be, and since the advent of online shopping at Amazon, half.com, and CBD, book prices have fallen dramatically (due to competition). This has also forced physical book retailers (like B&N) to adjust and match prices. Yet buying 1000 or more books is quite expensive! Be wise with your money by shopping around and comparing prices, buying used books online or at used bookstores, or setting a monthly book budget. There is nothing wrong with using money to buy books as long as you do so responsibly. But do know that if you want to build a serious library, you won’t be able to do it on the cheap.
Physical books (hardback or paperback) also take up a lot of space. Once you get up to 800-1000 books you will probably need to dedicate an entire room to housing them. Yet isn’t this what a library is – a separate room filled with books? Buy bookshelves that are good quality and will last. Also, buy bookshelves that reach from floor to ceiling so that you can maximize your vertical space. Having a room or study den dedicated as your library also helps to keep your books contained; any book-buying connoisseur knows that newly-acquired books can quickly become stacked up in the hallway and throughout the house. Keeping you books in one room will help prevent the house from becoming cluttered.
Having to move apartments or homes is dreaded most by book fanatics. It takes considerable time and energy to move hundreds if not thousands of books. One must gather paper boxes, box up all the books, (possibly even deconstruct bookshelves) and physically move them via the moving truck. Then, once they are moved, you have the daunting task of unpacking and resorting them. Although I would still encourage people to start their library sooner than later, this factor might cause some individuals to wait until they’ve found a place to settle down for 20 or 30 years before beginning to seriously build a library.
Books vs. eReaders: Pros and Cons
Since the advent of eReaders, and their prevalence through the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, many people have abandoned building physical libraries and have switched to electronic libraries. Those who do this sing the praises of their eReaders and often question the wisdom of anyone who (in this day in age) still wants to build a personal library. Why build a physical library when you can carry 1000 books in a 5-7 electronic thingy with you wherever you go? I mean, a book is a book, right?
I currently own a Kindle Fire and have so for a few years. I like it for doing just about everything except reading. This is for a few reasons. Let me explain.
Although I concede that the major advantage of an eReader – that you can carry hundreds or thousands of books with you easily – is a great feature, there are some better reasons to read the physical hard and paperback books. First, each book is unique. It’s not just the information or internal content that I’m after, but the experience of reading that book in that copy. What an eReader does is extract the content of a book and exclusively deliver that to you. You don’t know how big the book was, the font and size of the text, the borders, the formatting, and a lot of other things. Although you can see the front and back covers with an eReader, you can only see them; you can’t hold them, examine them, etc. Each physical book is different – like a thumbprint or retinal scan – and thus creates a unique experience in reading the book and in how you process, internalize, and remember that book and its content. Reading a book is an aesthetic experience, beyond just extracting the information. An eReader makes reading each book a homogenous experience, destroys the uniqueness and aesthetics of the book, and (I think) makes reading more sterile and boring.
Second, eReaders make it much more difficult to highlight, underline, circle new vocabulary, and write notes. I know that people who espouse eReaders will object to this, but since I have one and have attempted to read books with it, I have found that this point is true. My Kindle Fire allows me to highlight, but only in one color (yellow). I can’t underline at all and I can’t circle words. It allows me to take notes, but it hides them after I’ve written them. When I take notes in a real book, I often take them at the top, bottom, and side margins, and even between lines! When I open to a page I can immediately see the notes I’ve taken. Since I’m a spatial learner, I remember what I highlighted, underlined, and what notes I wrote and where I wrote them on the page. An eReader partly destroys my ability to do this, and thus makes it more difficult for me to learn and remember.
For these reasons I don’t like using eReaders and find much more enjoyment and benefit from reading books in their physical copies. I just pray that eReaders don’t spell the extinction for hard and paperback books!
1 For more on this, see Louis P. Pojman, What Can We Know? An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning, 2001), 2.
3 For example, the late Vernon Grounds, president and chancellor of Denver Seminary, compiled a massive library of 19,000 or more books before he died. He left these to the Denver Seminary library which now has a Vernon C. Ground Reading Room dedicated to his books that can be read and checked out by students and the community.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed a double MA in New Testament Biblical Studies and Christian Apologetics and Ethics. He will be pursuing a PhD in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College starting in fall 2019. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.