“A Jeffersonian believes that books are at the center of any full and mature life. Thomas Jefferson approached life essentially through books…Reading was one of his favorite activities. He prepared himself for adult life with the severest possible course of reading. For a significant period of his life, from about the age of fifteen to twenty-five, Jefferson essentially read every waking minute of every day. With the possible exceptions of Theodore Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams, Jefferson was intellectually the best-prepared president in American history.
“…Jefferson’s reading habits were eclectic, but he clearly preferred non-fiction, and his immense library was essentially a reference collection. What Jefferson wanted most were information, facts, data points, and statistics. He saw books primarily as information delivery systems. He would be pleased at the size, scope, and accessibility of the public library system in the United States, and thrilled at the world wide web and the internet.”
—Clay Jenkinson, Becoming Jefferson’s People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century (Bismarck, ND: Marmarth Press, 2004), 29-30.
“The main problem behind our insufficient deep reading is a frenzied pace and boundless digital distractions, but we have also passively let the potential for reading quantity undermine the habit of repeatedly reading quality – of returning again and again to a small number of important texts…”
– Senator Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult (New York: St. Martin’s, 2017) 227.
“Both the paucity of books and his own intellectual bent led Lincoln to repeated reading of a relatively small number of books. He did not skim across the top of a thousand books but immersed himself in a dozen or two.”
– William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 49.
“Be careful, however, that there is no element of discursiveness and desultoriness about this reading you refer to, this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”
– Seneca, Letter II, Letters from a Stoic (New York: Penguin, 2004), 33.
1. Jefferson’s Books by Douglas Wilson
I picked up this monograph at Monticello, and at least for this lover of books, it was delightful. Douglas Wilson shows us the founding father as reader and book collector, featuring images of his reading lists and diagrams classifying types of knowledge (Jefferson was a great list maker and was perhaps most himself when classifying things). This treatment of Jefferson and his books was generally educational, practically instructive, historically interesting, and above all, fascinating. “As Jefferson’s library revealed,” Wilson writes, “books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (See my blog post on this book here.)
2. The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama
The eminent political scientist of “End of History” fame does it again. Here he traces the development of political institutions through world history, beginning with our hunter gatherer ancestors and showing how the first modern state developed in China, rule of law in India, and an accountable state in Europe. Fukuyama is nothing if not ambitious, drawing on disciplines as varied as anthropology and evolutionary biology to offer a unified theory of state formation and political stability.
3. Gilead by Marylinne Robinson
Everyone and their aunt had recommended this novel to me, so I finally read it, and I was captivated by its penetrating beauty. Robinson masterfully gives voice to a Midwestern preacher in the last days of his life who is writing to his young son, offering an account of his times that showcases Robinson’s eye for the terrible beauty that imbues so much of the ordinariness of life. The Washington Post was right in saying of this book that “one feels touched with grace just to read it.” This is a generations-spanning family drama that does the soul good. (See my blog posts on Gilead here, here, and here.)
4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
If nothing else, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a fearsomely powerful writer. His June 2014 Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations” sparked a national conversation on the notion that Americans need a reckoning with the legacy of racism and injustice against blacks. Between the World and Me is a harrowing meditation on what it means to be black in America and what this says about America. Coates’s words are a cry of protest and an indictment on our nation, which he says was built on the backs of blacks, whose “bodies,” as he so frequently writes, remain completely unsafe from the depredations of a thoroughly racist system. (See my blog post on this book here.)
In this book Trueman, a British transplant and professor of theology and church history, skewers Left and Right as he calls on Christians to engage politics intelligently and responsibly. A pro-life, pro-traditional marriage supporter of stricter gun control and universal healthcare, Trueman brings the valuable perspective of a foreigner, one who is also a careful thinker and is concerned more with responsible Christian engagement with political issues than with who is up or down in the perpetual war between Democrats and Republicans. At least for this lover of all things political, this book is a helpful tonic that cuts both ways and encourages me to engage more thoughtfully, carefully, and even lovingly.
This Independence Day weekend I went to Monticello, and there I bought Douglas Wilson’s Jefferson’s Books, a delightful monograph that shows us Jefferson as the remarkable book collector and reader that he was. Much of it deals with his decades-long, setback-ridden (fires! thieves!) building of his library, whose 6,700 volumes became the founding contribution to the Library of Congress upon his retirement.
I have more, much more, to learn about Jefferson, but at least in the matter of books and reading, he may be my ultimate role model. Not that I want to build extensive, world-renowned libraries, but I want to dedicate myself to the systematic study of books to improve my knowledge and to share it with others and encourage them to read more – all things at which Jefferson excelled.
Below are some choice quotes from the book, a recommended reading schedule he gave to a friend, and a picture of his revolving bookstand, one of the coolest (okay, maybe cool isn’t the right word here) items in his Monticello house.
“As Jefferson’s library revealed, books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (8)
“…the book-hunting chores he tirelessly performed for his friends back home far outnumbered his own requests for help.” (25)
“The amount of money [he] spent for books while he was in Paris and throughout his life was prodigious…He was aware that his indulgence in books amounted to extravagance and sought to moderate it by buying cheaper and smaller format editions wherever possible, and driving a hard bargain when offered an expensive book.” (25)
“His library, from an early period, formed an essential part of his vision of the good life.” (26)
“Jefferson was dependent on books, tended to take his knowledge from them rather than from direct experience, and approached the world with studied eyes.” (29)
“The need to know seemed to to come as naturally to him as the need to breathe. He spoke often of his belief that nature had formed him for study, and he exercised his remarkable powers of discipline to find time for reading even in the busies and most hectic times of his life.” (29)
“I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” (46)
His favorite granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, said of him: “Of history he was very fond, and this he studied in all languages [he knew seven], though always, I think, preferring the ancients. In fact, he derived more pleasure from his acquaintance with Greek and Latin than from any other resource of literature…I saw him more frequently with a volume of the classics in his hand than with any other book.” (48-49)
“Jefferson was constantly being consulted on matters relating to books and education and conscientiously made out dozens of reading lists at the requests of his friends.” (50)
To a friend he recommended this reading schedule:
– Before 8 am: Physical Studies, Ethics, Religion, Natural Law
– Eight to 12 pm: Law
– 12-1 pm: Politics
– Afternoon: History
– From dark to bedtime: Belles-lettres [literary works admired for their style], Criticism, Rhetoric, Oratory
And finally, his revolving bookstand, on which he liked to have five reference books while he wrote letters to friends:
I’ll venture to say that most people (including me, as attested by the fact that Les Misérables has been sitting in my bookcase untouched for quite a while) hesitate to read big, serious, excellent books, even when we know that reading them will benefit us, because of their intimidating size and because we know that reading them will require lots of time. But in passing on these books – many of which are rightly considered classics and have shaped the thinking of people we admire as well as history itself – we’re depriving ourselves not only of practical, intellectual, and spiritual benefits but also great enjoyment. As a way to encourage you (slow readers in particular, take heart!) to tackle more of these kinds of books, here’s some practical advice from John Piper, which he gives in my favorite book of his, When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Crossway, 2004).
“Suppose you read slowly like I do – maybe about the same speed that you speak – 200 words a minute. If you read fifteen minutes a day for one year (say just before supper, or just before bed), you will read 5,474 minutes in the year. Multiply that by 200 words a minute, and you get 1,095,000 words that you would read in a year. Now an average serious book might have about 360 words per page. So you would have read 3,041 pages in one year. That’s ten very substantial books. All in fifteen minutes a day.
“Or, to be specific, my copy of [John] Calvin’s Institutes has 1,521 pages in two volumes, with an average of 400 words per page, which is 608,400 words. That means that even if you took a day off each week, you could read this great biblical vision of God and man in less than nine months (about thirty-three weeks) at fifteen minutes a day” (129).
Here are my top five books of this year. All are excellent in their own way, but I’ve ordered them with the ones I consider the most widely helpful and applicable at the top.
5. Born Again by Charles Colson
Before he was “born again” by putting his faith in Christ, Charles Colson was Special Counsel to President Nixon and known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” “incapable of humanitarian thoughts” and willing to do anything to get the job done. With the Watergate scandal, Colson fell from the summit of power to the depths of nationally-televised trials, a conviction, and seven months in prison. This experience showed him the emptiness of power, revealed his ugly pride, and opened his heart to a new and infinitely better boss: Jesus Christ. This candid, moving, and powerful autobiography takes the reader into the smoke-filled rooms where Nixon men schemed of ways to destroy their opponents, through the heady days of Watergate, and illustrates the power of the Gospel to transform one’s life in ways nobody thought possible.
4. Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics by Robert Benne
Don’t mind the ugly cover; this book is an excellently reasoned guide to thinking about politics from a Christian perspective. Benne rejects what he sees as two wrong ways to relate religion and politics: “separationism” and “fusionism.” The first would have Christians reject all political engagement, and the second fuses religion and politics in an unwarranted manner that ends up distorting both. He offers a better way: a helpful framework for discerning how the Christian faith informs political stances and involvement. This is a helpful read for those who are wary of the use of Christianity by politicians and political parties who are more interested in scoring political points than being faithful to the teachings of religion. It is also good that Benne does not say what positions Christians should hold on specific issues, though he does use a few, such as abortion, as examples for his framework.
3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
In this book Stevenson, an attorney who runs a non-profit legal defense group in Montgomery, Alabama, shares how he went from a directionless Harvard Law student who didn’t connect with his studies to becoming a passionate defender of the poor and disadvantaged whose lives are being stolen, and for some, threatened by an electric chair, by a broken criminal justice system. The people Stevenson represents are typically poor, uneducated, and often with disabilities, many of whom don’t receive the attention and care necessary to address the struggles they face. Full of harrowing real-life stories, Just Mercy is eye-opening, infuriating, tragic, yet ultimately hopeful. And if you pick it up, make sure you keep some tissues with you.
2. What’s Best Next? How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman
As those who know him say, there is probably no one who has thought more about the relationship between the Gospel and productivity than Matt, and I think this book proves it. He first lays out the theological basis for caring about productivity, arguing that real productivity is not just getting things done, but getting the right things done. Christians are called to be rich in “good works,” which means we should seek to be productive not only because this brings glory to God, but also because our good works and effectiveness in doing them blesses our family, friends, or co-workers. Beyond being theologically sharp, Matt is full of practical advice, showing through his example and that of others who’ve written on productivity and management how to create a “life vision,” set goals, plan out your week, process e-mail, and so much more. Want to start the new year with a bang? Do yourself a favor and get this book!
1. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
In his characteristically thoughtful way, Tim Keller, who is the pastor of a large church in Manhattan, tackles the subject of suffering and offers biblical counsel on how to “walk with God” through trials and suffering. He begins by showing how our modern culture fails to see the uses of suffering that many in ages past recognized, resulting in inadequate ways of dealing with suffering. Keller then looks at the various reasons for and types of suffering (if you’re in the middle of suffering and just really need a hug, skip the entire first half of this book), and then shows us how the Bible depicts suffering and offers examples, such as Job, of how we can respond to and redeem our suffering. The biblical answer, as he describes, is compelling, in that it tells us to not ignore or run away from our suffering, but to trust the God who knows our pain and walk through the suffering as we talk to God (prayer) and hold him by the hand.
In his excellent article, “Book Hunters in the New Dark Ages,” Paul Miller (you can read his writings on foreign policy here) makes an impassioned call for a new generation of “book hunters” – referring to men in the Middle Ages who tracked down and preserved ancient manuscripts of great works (for example, those of the Roman statesman Cicero, many of which were lost). He argues that in today’s postmodern culture where truth is increasingly whittled down in a sea of relativism, this undertaking is necessary to preserve the best of culture and even our civilization itself.
I loved the entire piece, but I was downright floored by this excerpt because it articulated, in a way I wish I could, exactly what I try to accomplish through this blog, where I hold up excerpts from books for others to read, appreciate, learn from, and grow:
“The times call for a new generation of book hunters. Like the book hunters of the Middle Ages, the new book hunters take it as their mission to uncover and salvage the best of what came before: to cherish it; hold it up for praise and emulation; study it; above all, to love it and pass it on. The new book hunters sift the cultural artifacts of the world – in our era, not limited to books – to separate the wheat from the chaff, to weed out the unworthy and cultivate the fruitful and edifying, to recover the scattered, forgotten gems amidst the avalanche of trash.”
Most writers say the first sentence is the most important line in a book. It sets the tone, invites the reader to keep reading or bores him away, and often makes the difference between publication and rejection. As my love of reading, and words in particular, grows, I’ve become more interested in learning what makes a great sentence. This reminds of me of an anecdote in a book about writing sentences where a young, aspiring author meets with a publisher whom he tells he cares about one thing and one thing only: he wants to write great sentences. Not just great books. Great sentences. I love the passion and particularity of that anecdote.
So in this spirit, I’m trying something new here. On Fridays, I’ll post a few first sentences that strike me as excellent – worth examining as much as enjoying. Hence, “First Sentence Friday.” (Now, if you can think of a more fun and catchy name that doesn’t connote the kind of sentences handed by cold, mean judges, do let me know.)
Today’s sentences come from three classic works by the authors above – from early 19th-century England, the American Roaring Twenties, and mid-century Latin America, from the hand of the recently deceased master, Gabriel García Márquez:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice,1813)
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (The Great Gatsby, 1925)
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967)
What does it look like for a father to wisely and lovingly instruct his children in the realities of life? It looks like James Garfield (1831-1881), twentieth president of the United States, turning to books – those reliable and patient teachers – to teach his children a lesson in the difficulties of life, from Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Anchor, 2012) by Candice Millard (given to me by my dear parents-in-law):
“Searching for a way to teach his children this hard truth [the inevitability of death], to prepare them for what lay ahead, Garfield had often turned to what he knew best – books. After dinner one evening, he pulled a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello off the shelf and began to read the tragedy aloud. ‘The children were not pleased with the way the story came out,’ he admitted in his diary, but he hoped that they would come to ‘appreciate stories that [do not] come out well, for they are very much like a good deal of life'” (19).
William Wilberforce’s journey to faith was not in isolation. He had the good fortune to be helped by Isaac Milner, a rare genius and physical giant of a man who, though not personally committed to Christianity, was a theologian in his own right, well equipped to explain and defend the great doctrines of Christianity which he respected. On a voyage across the English Channel and through France, they read a book titled The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, of which Milner declared to Wilberforce, “It is one of the best books ever written” (47). Together they read, examined, discussed and reflected on its contents (what one would give to listen in on their conversations!), and the wheels of their souls began turning. Before long, Wilberforce, age 26, put his faith in Christ.
Shaken out of his carefree, pleasure-seeking attitude to life by his newfound faith, Wilberforce was at first harsh with himself. He resolved to eradicate his vices and replace them with virtuous habits, even making a list of the number of times he failed or prevailed in each vice or virtue each day. What floored me, however, was the agreement he entered into with his friend Isaac Milner to, in their own words, “exercise the invaluable practice of telling each other what each party believes to be the other’s chief faults and infirmities” (67).
This episode offers two practices that can enrich friendship and lead to personal improvement:
1) As seen above, friends can be candid with one another about the other’s “faults and infirmities.” This requires not only a close friendship but strength of character, for it entails humility, candor, and above all, genuine love, which will guard against mean-spiritedness and over-sensitivity.
2) The other is reading books together. A person reading alone is a happy sight; but when you see two friends reading together, you know something special is taking place. There are few pleasures like going through a good book with a kindred spirit. Not only do you gain a deeper understanding through discussion as well as another perspective, but you also gain a more intimate knowledge of your friend.