A Reading Crisis

You can blame my friend John Duncan for this literary existential crisis. Recently he gifted me with a wonderful little book called The Reading Life. It is a compilation of some of C.S. Lewis’ written words about reading. The book is not very long. I started it Friday night and finished it this (Monday) morning all in the midst of a very hectic weekend. I recognized many of the passages from Surprised by Joy or any of the other numerous Lewis works in my library.

But there was a bit I’d never seen before, and it was titled “How To Know If You Are A True Reader”. Lewis lists four qualities of true readers.

  1. Loves to re-read books.
  2. Highly values reading as an activity (rather than as entertainment of last resort).
  3. Lists the reading of particular books as a life-changing experience.
  4. Continuously reflects and recalls what one has read.

I have always, since my earliest memories, loved to read. I love the feel of a book in my hand, the smell of pages — the older and moldier the better, and the discovery with each turn of the page. I would consider myself a true reader.

It breaks my heart into a million pieces that Lewis probably would not. Let me explain by working backward on his list. I recall very much what I have read, whether literature, novels, sci-fi, or dense theology. There are powerful life-changing books in my past, and hopefully in my future. Among these are novels, self-help books, professional development books, and short stories. I love to read and would rather do that than just about anything else.

But I don’t re-read books. Other than the Bible, which I have read continuously since I was seven years old, I have only read one other book more than once and that is Hamlet. I often read Hamlet during the Lenten season in preparation for Easter. But I’ve never re-read book just to re-read it. Mrs. Greenbean does — I believe she has read, for example, the Harry Potter series at least four times. Maybe more.

But not me. My philosophy has always been there are so many books I’ve never read before that I need to just move forward. In contrast, Lewis argues good books, great books, get better with subsequent readings as the mind picks up more. I see his point, because I have certainly re-watched movies and television shows over and over again, each time with fresh enjoyment. I’ve just never thought of books in the same way.

Maybe I need to evaluate this. As I think on it, were I to re-read — where would I start? I made a list of ten, but I cheat a little.

  1. The War of the Worlds — the first novel I ever read. Lewis talks about reading books you read as a child when you are an adult. This would be a great place to start. Speaking of that . . .
  2. Gentle Ben — I loved that book so much. As a boy it sent me into a legitimate frontier motif in my reading tastes.
  3. The Dark Tower series — Probably the best series ever compiled. I remember reading it and discovering how it changed the way I thought and spoke.
  4. The Lord of the Rings — Maybe the best written document in the English language other than the Authorized Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.
  5. Fathers and Sons — An somewhat obscure Russian novel by Ivan Turgenev. I read it in college and I remember it made me weep. I don’t really remember the plot, but I remember it made me weep. Russian literature does that.
  6. Quiet — This is one of my ‘life-changing’ books. I wish I’d read it when I was a kid. Now that I am full enmeshed in pastoral ministry again, maybe I need to revisit the wisdom about being an introvert in an extrovert world.
  7. The Bible Jesus Read — For my money this was the paradigm for writing a reflective book on the Jesus way of living.
  8. Assassination Vacation — I listened to this on audiobook once. I think I’d like to read it in print.
  9. A Canticle for Leibowitz — Texarkana. That is all that needs to be said.
  10. Celebration of Discipline — I remember how much this book altered me. Maybe reading it again would be a double-blessing.

I’m not saying I will re-read these books, but if I decided to engage in the practice, I would start with. these.


I’m cheating again.  I called this ‘personal growth’ because I don’t have a better category.  I suppose I could use the catchall ‘self help’ but I deplore that label because it has come to mean pop psychology dribble from the Oprah circuit.  I also considered ‘professional development’ as that is a common label for these kinds of books but not all of them are strictly professional.  I think these books would help anyone anywhere and not just in the realm of our work lives.

So I went with personal growth.  If you have a better idea for a category, let me know.  But now, here goes my top three personal growth books.

Quiet, Susan Cain

549105954Love is not quite the right word for the way I feel about this book.  Need is a better word.  Cain’s work on how introverts are different and how they can cope in a world that glamorizes the ‘extrovert ideal’ is revolutionary, not just to introverts but to those who love them.  As a non-shy introvert I found it very difficult to carry the mantle of extrovert that people demand from their pastor.  It is not evil that they expect it, it is simply the way things are.  Cain’s book is a major help for those introverts who have to live as though they were extroverts.

Getting Things Done, David Allen

I am not a naturally organized human being.  I tend to leave things lying around, make piles of important things and forget about them, and I’m forever scribbling notes and ideas down on something.  Allen’s book puts forward the idea that if you are organized, then you will be more productive.  The time it takes to put your stuff together in a cohesive, well managed, and systematized process will pay off dividends in the long run.

He is right.  He argues for some simple steps that make sense but that most people don’t do because they think that every situation is the exception.

I recommend this book highly for people who work in an office environment, have large amounts of data to deal with (both paper and digital) and students.  I read it first as an audio book and it is only a three hour listen.  Listen to it while working out or driving.  It will help you pull it together.

Who Moved My Cheese, Spencer Johnson

This book is a metaphor shoved inside of an allegory.  What I love about this book is the simple question, What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  Most everyone read this book in the 90’s as it was pushed pretty heavy in professional circles as a marketing book.  I don’t think of it as a marketing book but as a book about finding joy in life.  At its core Who Moved My Cheese is a guide to identifying the rut you’re in and then figuring out how to bravely crawl out of it.

So my top three personal growth books are a personality book, an administrative book, and a leadership guide.  Only Quiet is a long read, the other two are brief, the kind of things you can knock out in a day or two and feel very accomplished about.  It took me a long time to process through Quiet, but I think that is just the nature of that subject material.

What books would you put on your personal growth favorites list?


image from citypaper.com