On Disciplined Reading (Pt. 2): What should I read? Choosing from a Vast Array of Options

Determining what to read is more than a little important. Of the many books in any given library or bookstore, most can be left unread without any fear of intellectual or moral deprivation. Even (and sometimes especially) the bestsellers are not necessarily worth reading. So what should a seminary student read? Without being able to answer this question in specific, because each person’s callings, abilities, and tastes are unique, I will attempt to give some general principles that should apply to all.

The first principle is to guard your time in the Scriptures. There are hundreds of millions of books, but only one book inspired by God. Be careful that, in your reading, you do not neglect the reading of God’s Word. Each person has his own method. For me, the most helpful method is to choose a book of the Bible and read through it several times, outlining it, meditating on it, and applying it to my life. Usually, I will select a commentary to read at the same time. For the past couple of months, for example, I have been reading and re-reading Acts and, at the same time, reading Tim Keller’s Studies in the Book of Acts. Usually, I choose a commentary or study help that is pastoral in nature. I want to read something that aims to convict me and rouse me to action, something that aims for the heart.

A second principle is to avoid limiting yourself by era, tribe, or category. (1) Push beyond the limits of your era, refusing the chronological snobbery of limiting yourself to books written in the late 20th and early 21st century. Read old books. Put down Grisham and Geisler and pick up Augustine, Dante, and Lewis. (2) Read outside of the parameters of your tribe. By this I mean that you will benefit from reading people who are not just like yourself. Over the long haul, you want to read books by authors who are not Christian, evangelical, Baptist, or American. (3) Expand your reading beyond the limits of a familiar category. If you read mostly theology, try something new and read some missiology or church history. If you always read non-fiction, buy a good novel or two. If you read mostly “practical” books, put them down and read a good work of theology (you’ll find that a good theology is the most practical thing a person could have).

A third principle: reading the great authors is more helpful than reading a great number of books. In Christian theology and related fields, this means that you might want to pick a handful of theologians who have influenced the church and make sure that you have read at least a little bit of what they wrote. If you are a seminarian, you want to read Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth, the towering figures in church history. (Philip Yancey is not a towering figure in church history.) In fact, you may want to choose one or two of these authors and read everything they’ve written, and read some of their books multiple times. If you are Baptist (or even if you are not), you are well-served to purchase and read Dagg’s Manual of Theology and Boyce’s Abstracts, and you cannot allow yourself to neglect Hubmaier’s “On the Christian Baptism of Believers.”

A fourth principle: make a list of categories and read a selected number of books each year, in each category. My list includes the following categories: theology, biblical studies, missiology, philosophy, history and current affairs, international affairs, and fiction. These categories are weighted according to what I am teaching during a particular semester and according to interest, but every month I try to read at least one book from each category, with fiction being the possible exception.

A fifth principle: read a few select journals and magazines. During my time in the Ph.D. program at SEBTS, I began receiving First Things, a journal dealing with any and all issues at the intersection of religion and public life. Since then, I have also begun receiving Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Review of Books. While First Things provides me with a lively discussion of religion and public life, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy allows me to keep track of international affairs, The Atlantic Monthly allows a peek into things that are of interest to the broader culture, and The New York Review of Books serves notice of a wide array of recently published books. Other periodicals worth the read are Books & Culture and Touchstone. Your list will not be the same as mine; browse Barnes & Noble and find some magazines and journals that help you stay abreast of the rest of the world.

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  1. Steven A. McKinion   •  

    Bruce, excellent advice. I would add that in journals there is a greatly helpful resource of book reviews. Good reviews help the reader know whether or not they should spend their limited time reading that particular book. Every month I go through my new journals (and nearly every new one in our library) to read the book reviews. I can then create a hierarchical list of what I want/need to read just from the reviews.

    Thanks for being so helpful.


  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Spencer, you’ll be happy to know that I cite Dr. Mohler in an upcoming post and reference two of his blogs on reading.

    Steve, great point. If I could write the post over again, I’d add that.

  3. Chris Kape   •  

    Great comments, and I completely agree. I tried to write a novel abiding more or less to the same rules, and since “A Diary of Wasted Years” is out by Eloquent Books, I welcome any potential reader who might enjoy it. You can check it out and tell me what you think. Thanks.

  4. Patrick   •  

    Thanks for the post!

    Also, some people might benefit from adding a scientific, technological, or related category.

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