Why I Read: An Explanation

As many before me have observed, God’s people are people of the Word. It is no trifling coincidence that God chose to give us His revelation in print. As a Christian, I have the Book of Books, and in that book, I am exhorted – nay, commanded – to love God with my heart and my mind (Matt. 23:34-40). I am to use my intellect. I am to sharpen it for the love and glory of my God. And what better way to do that than through reading?

Josh Sowen writes,

Reading is one of the best ways to develop our minds. It can help us to know God and ourselves, gain vicarious experience, increase our perception and imagination, train our minds to think critically and logically, and teach us self-discipline… 

Christians should be readers. We should read and meditate on the Bible, of course, but we should also read theology. Good theology systematizes and explains the Bible in ways we would be pressed to come up with on our own. Few of us are a Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, J. I. Packer or John Piper, and we would be wise to learn from them.

Most of us know we should read the Bible and theology. But what about other subjects, like literature, history, biography, science, and culture? And what about books by non-Christians? I think we should read widely, and yes, that includes reading non-Christians. 

God has set up the world so that even non-Christians can find truth. I’ve learned truth from Christians and non-Christians. We can’t expect non-Christians to have sound theology, but they are some of the best authors in other subjects. If we reject their Spirit-given insights because they are non-Christians we, as Calvin says, “insult the Giver.”

It is a sad state of affairs that so many of today’s Christians do not know what it is to read widely or well. They stagnate, unwilling to set aside time even for God’s Word, the very book that should hold the most prominent place in their lives. “How readest thou?” asks Jesus in Luke 10:26. For most modern evangelicals, I’m afraid the answer would have to be, “Not well, and not much.”

I don’t want to be one of those people. That’s not what the life of a Christ-follower should look like. By God’s grace, I’ll number myself among the few, the happy few, the band of brothers and sisters who rebel against the status-quo.

About God. About human nature. About the world. About good and evil, and the conflict between them. About truth. About lies. About heroes and villains and maidens in distress. About so many things I would exhaust you in the telling. About life.

This is not the dry, Gradgrindian “learning” of textbooks. This is not just a bunch of facts to cram into the memory vaults. This is learning that shapes and molds and makes alive.

Learning is not a passive experience, and neither is reading. We must engage with our books, grapple with their ideas, consider what they have to say. We must, in a word, think – an increasingly unpopular (and uncommon) activity for most folks. The best books are the ones that give the mind a bloody good workout. They’re the ones I’ll walk away from, a better man than when I first approached them.

Says Samuel Taylor Coleridge,

Readers may be divided into four classes: 1) Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied. 2) Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time. 3) Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read. 4) Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with reading to be entertained. But reading only to be entertained is another matter altogether. John Waters puts it well:

You should never read just for “enjoyment.” Read to make yourself smarter! Pick “hard books.” Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And… don’t let me ever hear you say, “I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.” Fiction is the truth, fool! Ever hear of “literature”? That means fiction, too, stupid.

It’s always wise to think before you speak; even wiser to read before you think. You might learn something you never thought you would, in a way you never thought possible.

If I have any love for writing (and I do), it is because I first loved reading. And I still do. Obviously. The two are inextricably linked. I treasure good writing, not only for its own sake, but because it inspires me. I want to imitate it. I read the work of Carl Trueman and Cormac McCarthy, and I think to myself, By golly, this is how it’s done! And I get excited. I want to write the way these guys write. They know what they’re doing – why not tag along?

So I do. And I learn stuff. Lots of stuff. And then, when I sit down with my own paper and ink, the stuff I’ve learned begins to show. It’s rough and often ugly. But it’s there.

“If you don’t have time to read,” observes Stephen King, “you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” What madness to think otherwise!

And good writers aren’t the only ones I can learn from: writers who are crappy, who crank out wooden prose, who wallow in cliches like hogs in mire, who insult the reader with dumb characters and dumber plots – even these writers have something to teach me. I read their stuff, and I know that this is not how it’s done.

When William Faulkner spoke of reading and writing, he knew what he was talking about. I think we should listen:

Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.

And live well. What would life be without books, after all? Empty. For reading, in the words of Francis Bacon, “maketh a full man.” Reading, in the words of Mortimer Adler, “is a basic tool in the living of a good life.”

Books influence and shape us in powerful ways, for good or for ill. They affect our lives and how we live them. You are what you read, as the saying goes, and there is an element of truth to it. Readers of the true, the just, and the excellent (Phil. 4:8) will not be untouched by it. And readers who steep themselves in sewage will not walk away untainted. “Can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched?” (Prov. 6:8)

As N.D. Wilson points out,

Stories… really can influence you. If you read the Twilight novels once a month for a year, I think you’d be a different human afterward, and not a sparkly one. Stories are like catechisms, but they’re catechisms for your impulses, they’re catechisms with flesh on.

That formidable writer, C.S. Lewis, was also a formidable reader. Heed his words:

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented…

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

For Its Own Sake
For me, the experience of reading – the smell of ink, the touch of pages beneath my fingertips, the sight of words of paper – is pleasurable in and of itself. Looking at a filled bookshelf makes me want to grin. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. Just ask your resident bibliophile.

Big surprise here: I love a good old-fashioned bookstore. A favorite haunt if I ever had one. I enjoy being surrounded by a sea of words and ink and crinkly paper. I love taking the books down from the shelf, running my eyes over the pages, and (if I’m lucky) tucking them under my arm to purchase. I realize ordering online is often cheaper, but it pales in comparison to the joy of picking books out by hand.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, I am one of those strange animals who stay up late for the purpose of reading. If you ask me, sleep is good – and books are better. At the same time, I try not to be extreme. I wouldn’t want to end up like this poor chap, described by Cervantes: “Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”

29 thoughts on “Why I Read: An Explanation”

  1. Okay… the next logical question, fellow bibliophile (and I love second hand bookstores!), how do you feel about e-readers?

    Loved this post, by the way!

    1. How do I feel about eReaders? I think they’re useful and overrated. :) I own a Kindle, and it certainly comes in handy from time to time, particularly during travel (when packing a bunch of books isn’t really option). Still, I’ve never found myself drawn to reading on an electronic device. It’s not the same as a real, honest-to-goodness book, and it never will be.

      1. I always forget that I have stuff on my Kindle. I have “Heart of Darkness” on their (daughter’s favourite novel) and I keep meaning to read it, but when I can’t SEE it, I forget all about it. I am very visual when I read, and when I want to flip back to something I read, its position on the page is my marker. This is harder with a Kindle.

        1. A good point, that. I’m more inclined to read a “real” book than one on my Kindle – and being unable to flip back and re-read something drives me crazy. :) BTW, that’s cool to hear that Heart of Darkness is your daughter’s favorite novel. I haven’t read it yet myself, but I hear it’s pretty dang good.

  2. Even better than bookstores are used bookstores. The scent, the look of well-loved books, the guardian cat that paces the aisles, and best of all the very low prices for those of who have limited resources. :) Unless of course you wanted that book published two months ago, then you’re a bit out of luck, especially if you step over the black cat on your way out. :)

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Andrew! No worries: I don’t think I’ll stop reading or writing anytime soon. Unless I get struck by lightening. Or abducted by Little Green Men. ;)

  3. Great post, Corey! I’m another stay-up-late-to-read person. I figure I can always make up the sleep another night. :)

    I love used book stores, library book sales, and thrift stores. You never know what treasures you will find…

  4. May the LORD use this to stir God’s people to be readers. It’s a heavy burden on my heart for our people at church to read the WORD and things in general.

  5. Love it, love it, love it! I love to read, too, but don’t read nearly as much as I used to. Darned Internet… I probably read more fiction for the sake of entertainment than I should, but I love to read theology and sports, as well (mostly baseball). Someday I hope to be able to understand Jonathan Edwards.

    I loved the John Waters quote.

  6. Very refreshing post… a friend of mine (whose house is absolutely FILLED with books) recently had some people over from her church who saw fit to mention (as they walked past shelves and shelves of her books) that the only book they would have in their house was the Bible, since books were vanity. *bangs head against wall*
    I was just discussing that with my mom, and I read her some of what you said here – she was amazed that you were only 17. :D

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