“Of making many books there is no end,” the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us. If this was true three thousand years ago, how much more true is it today when, in America alone, more than 900 books are released every day.1
Call me crazy, but that seems a bit… insane.
Now clearly, not all of these books is meant to be read by everyone, which would be impossible even for über-reader Albert Mohler!
So how do Christians keep up—and how do we make sure the really great books of the past aren’t left behind?
Here are three suggestions to add and keep classic works in your reading diet:
1. Follow the footnotes. If you’re reading a lot of newer books, pay attention to the footnotes and/or endnotes. Start reading the sources read by your modern favorites. For example, if you’ve benefitted from books by someone like Tullian Tchividjian (say Jesus + Nothing = Everything), you can step back a few decades and read Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life by Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde. Or read Martin Lloyd-Jones and go back and read Puritans like Richard Sibbes. Or if you read John Piper, read Jonathan Edwards, and so on.
The point is simple: Start with the influences of your influences and work your way back. This will give you a healthy starting point for reading older books.
2. Rotate your books. “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between,” C.S. Lewis wrote. “If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”2 This is good advice, and we should take it seriously.
While I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for the specific numbers Lewis suggests (although I’m not against them by any means), the point is this: don’t just fill your head with new books. I try to read at least one older book for every three to four new, but this can vary depending on circumstances. Because I review books, there’s a greater sense of urgency with newer material that I have to fight against. It’s not possible to read all the new books I want to read, so my goal is to have a healthy intake of new and old.
3. Watch the times and pay attention. Many new books are very good and very helpful, but few have a lasting sense of importance. They’re so grounded in a particular time and context that they’ll be incomprehensible within five to ten years (although I love the book, The Explicit Gospel is one of these).
Where older books have a great deal of strength, though, is showing us how unoriginal theological error really is, as well as the timelessness of the truth.
When J.C. Ryle writes on the Saducees, for example, he writes from his 19th century context—but his point is equally applicable today in the 21st. He describes a kind of person, patterns of behavior, but his language isn’t so tied to this context that we can’t make heads or tails of it. Or consider a more recent example in J.I. Packer and his book, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God. There he writes a scathing rebuke to the liberal movement of his day that, if you were to change the locations mentioned, would perfectly describe the climate of North American Christianity today.
Older books remind us that as bad as things seem right now, we’ve been through them all before and the gospel always prevails in the end.
What would you add to this list? How do you balance a healthy reading diet?