I was talking with somebody about Christian books recently. I have reached a fairly clear position on most Christian books these days. There are basically one of three grounds on which I might get and/or read a Christian book:
- I am particularly interested in this topic and have determined to do lots of reading on it in particular to help me work out what I think. I might get a book written on this topic, and will almost certainly buy it if it meets 2 and 3 below as well. I may read authors I’ve never read before and haven’t had recommended if this is the driving reason.
- A book written by someone I have read before and have found them to be good. I might take a punt on a new book from someone I have found consistently helpful and interesting. Someone with a way of making old stuff fresh or just with something to say at all.
- A book recommended to me by someone who is consistently good at making solid suggestions. If such a person recommends a particular book to me and has a solid track record, I might get the book they recommend.
Apart from these three things now, I almost certainly will not buy the book. The fundamental reasons for this are simple. There are, really, only two.
First, is time. I am busy and have lots of calls on my time all the time. I just don’t have the time to read everything. In fact, I am involved with a publisher and frequently have to read stuff that I haven’t chosen to read in order to give it a thumbs up or down. The bottom line is, I have enough on my plate and I just don’t have the time or inclination to read books that are not worth my time and I cannot guarantee are worth reading.
Second, I’m sorry to say, most Christian books just aren’t that good. I really do mean most. They are either so niche as to not be useful or they’re badly written, managing to make stuff I am interested in exceptionally boring, often written in twee Christianese, not always easy to access, or they are some combination of all these things. I am afraid, the vast majority – and I really do mean the majority – are like this. They either address things I am not interested in, say nothing new about what I am interested in, or are dull, insipid, uninspiring, saying very little of interest or very interestingly or, much of the time, anything much at all. The truth is, I suspect we could do without the vast majority of Christian books we get. What is particularly scary is this is the stuff that gets through publishing processes. Think of the last book you read that wasn’t very good. Now, just imagine what dross never makes it to print but is put across the desk of publishers and some poor soul still has to read to determine whether to run with it.
Of my three reasons I might get a book, the first is pretty obvious. There are books on my shelf I have found very helpful. They weren’t necessarily page-turners. I’m not sure I would necessarily recommend them to others, unless they were specifically interested in the particular topic and I would qualify it with how easy a read it might be. They were helpful to me because I had determined I really wanted to do some reading on that particular thing. Some of them were pretty dry and I wouldn’t say they were an enjoyable read, but they were helpful for that particular thing. If I am interested enough in the thing at hand, usually because I’ve got an issue I really want to grapple with, I might give a book a bash.
The second reason, I suppose, is understandable. There is so much we could possibly read, I am more inclined to read stuff by people I have already read and found helpful. I totally understand that there are authors most people are happy to read because they have found them fresh and helpful and straightforward. I don’t know whether it is that there are particular authors you just connect with, or who write in a way you find more helpful, but the truth is there are people I find I will always get on with and those I have found that I just don’t. Unless I know the author is one I’m likely to get on with, these days, I’m just much less likely to read. I would read an author unknown to me – someone I hadn’t read before – given reason 3. But otherwise, unless I know I’ll get on with it, I generally won’t read it.
The third reason is important because I am frequently told that this book is an absolute must read. This book really is vital. Let’s just say, I’ve been burnt before. A lot. They’re rarely must-read and almost never as good as I’m being told. I now sift the recommendations I get according to who the person is that is recommending it. In particular, people who absolutely love reading are not to be trusted. I find reading hard, I find it a slog at times, I really need to want to read something to get into it. So when people who find reading easy, and just love reading, come and tell you such and such a book is amazing and absolutely must be read, I find they are usually wrong. They read more than me, find it less like work than me, so have no idea what is accessible, what is easy, what is even reasonable to recommend. I have far more time for a recommendation from somebody who isn’t a big reader than someone who is.
I very rarely like being given books either. It usually feels like somebody just adding more work to your pile of things to do. It’s usually people who love books, so don’t think of reading this way. I get it. They just don’t get that not everyone operates like that. I often don’t like being given films to watch by people either though, and I like films. It’s just these things always feel like you have to read/watch them because someone will want to know how you got on with it. It feels to me like people spending my time for me, and I am rarely grateful when people do that.
I do recognise that different people will get on with different kinds of book. I am not wild on missionary biographies, for example. But I know some people absolutely love them. I don’t think that makes all missionary biographies bad, and I have read some really well written ones which I would recommend to people who like them, I just find they aren’t my bag. I recognise not everyone gets worked up over some abstruse point of theology that they desperately want to work through in the way that I might. This is just a preference thing and I don’t think one can write off a whole genre because it’s not your thing. I am always mindful of this sort of thing.
So this is how I determine what, or even if, I’ll read something. I do think we just have to come to terms with the fact that an awful lot of Christian books just aren’t that good. Nor are these things determined by sales and wide-recognition. I’ve read some great well known books and some pretty rubbish ones. I’ve read some great things that were recommended over and over again and some pretty rubbish things that were continually recommended. I’ve read some great things that very few Christians will have ever read or heard of, I’ve read some rubbish like that too. I think lots isn’t very good yet gets published for a whole variety of reasons. I’m not here to disagree with those publishing decisions – which are made for many different reasons – I’m just saying, because this is true, I don’t necessarily want to read it and don’t want to have to wade through dross only to discover that after I’ve wasted my time.