January 27, 2011
I Read Dead People
Why reading contemporary Christians books may be a waste of your time.
People ask me all the time, “Who do you read?” In most cases they’re looking for book recommendations. (Some people, particularly Calvinistas, are trying to determine if I’m safe--are my ideas and my theology grounded in what they see as credible sources.) But my answer usually surprises them: “I read dead people.”
What do I mean? In my role with Leadership Journal I get dozens of books sent to me almost every week from publishers. They’re looking for some good press, an endorsement, or a review in our pages. And while there are some very good books being written these days (we feature the best every year with our Golden Canon awards), there is also a lot of chaff. I simply don’t have time to read everything.
So here’s what I’ve learned. If someone has been dead for a while and his book is still in print and widely read, then it’s probably worth reading. And, if we’re honest, there are precious few books written by Christian authors today that will still be read in 24 months, let alone 24 years. I want to use my reading time to immerse myself in powerfully formative material, and not just flash-in-the-pan trends. Does this mean I never read living authors? No, of course not. But if they’re not dead, I like them to be pretty close. I can usually trust that they’re not going to waste what time they have left on this earth writing sappy Hallmark card sentimental Evangelical fluff.
A few years ago we published an interview Bill Hybels conducted with Steve Sample, president of USC and author of The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. Hybels, who is a voracious reader, was surprised to learn that Sample recommends reading less and not more. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
Hybels: One part of this book made me laugh out loud, because these are some of the strangest views I've ever heard—about what leaders should be reading. Tell us your theory.
Sample: My theory is that, to a greater extent than most of us realize, we are what we read. I think it was Thoreau who made the observation that reading one book necessarily precludes your reading hundreds of others. You have to make hard choices with respect to reading.
If you're in a leadership position, the least important things for you to read are newspapers and trade magazines and the like. Thomas Jefferson once said "The man who reads nothing at all is better informed than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.
I allow myself 10 minutes to scan the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal and that's enough. But the other 20 minutes has to go toward reading substantive material.
Hybels: I've been telling leaders this for a long time: read everything you can read about leadership. You took my counsel one step further. You said, "Don't read just anything about leadership; read the 'supertexts' about leadership." What are you talking about?
Sample:Of the hundreds of thousands of things that men and women have written 400 years ago or before, only about 25 to 50 are widely read today. So there's something very special about these 25 to 50 texts. They influence everything that is written and spoken in our society to an unprecedented degree.
You can usefully spend your time reading any of the supertexts, even over and over again, because they probably tell us more about human nature than anything else we have at our disposal. But for books that are not the supertexts, I think a person has to be very, very selective.
So, who are some of my favorite dead people? I’m obligated to say C.S. Lewis (you know, for credibility), but in the area of contemplative reading and spiritual formation I also love reading Thomas Kelley, Henri Nouwen, Brother Lawrence, A.W. Tozer, and Thomas a Kempis. We could go on forever about dead theologians, but I’d rather turn the discussion over to you.
Who are your favorite dead people to read? And if your favorite writer isn’t dead, try picking someone close;)