The key to learning more and writing well is reading well. Up to second grade, we learn to read; after second grade we read to learn (or we don’t). Throughout life, if we keep reading, we keep learning. These days no one requires me to read, much less pays me to read. Yet I once was paid to read widely, review and summarize new books for a monthly magazine, Current Thoughts and Trends. Getting paid to read and review good books—now that’s a good gig. Now, when too busy to read a full book, I glean key take-aways from executive summaries that others write.
Not long ago, I also got paid to read and edit manuscripts to turn them into readable books. That was a good deal, too. As a result, I enjoyed an 11-year romp as a freelance writer and editor, with a hand in 45 book and Bible projects, networking with 16 different publishers, sometimes six at a time. I wrote only one book in my own name; instead, I was a ghostwriter for others, writing under their name. That job involved extensive reading to get inside the head of the author, capture his thoughts and channel his voice. In the process I lost my own voice. Even today, 20 years later, I still borrow and blend voices as I preach and blog.
Books are expensive—not only to write, edit and produce, but also to buy. As a former contributor to several publishing houses, I still get the insider’s discount of 50% off. That can still be too steep a price—not unless it’s a must-read for a sermon series I’m doing, some area of needed personal growth, some country I will be visiting, or for some book club I join. Even so, I borrow most books from public libraries, or purchase used ones from Amazon.
This was not always the case. As a campus minister (1974-85), I received hot-off-the-press books free every month from the publishing arm of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In 25 years—from my student days (1968-76) to my campus minister days, to my decade working with 15 other publishers (1987-98)—my personal library grew by 3,000 books, filling about 20 floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Facing semi-retirement and the practical wisdom of my wife—“It’s either them or me, toss one or the other,” she’d teasingly say—I began purging my library in March of 2017. After finding a no-cost-to-me option c/o Love Packages out of Butler, Illinois, I shipped 1,000 books overseas to Third World countries. I see myself in so many books, whose authors I consider my friends and mentors, so they were hard (but necessary) to part with, also marriage-saving.
Book clubs hold you accountable and introduce you to literary genres you might not otherwise encounter. In such book group discussions, I do my homework and always learn more onsite from another’s insights. So let me ask: Are you the type of reader who’s lost in the library stacks, browsing used bookstores and joining book clubs? Or would you rather keep up with your beloved authors on social media—briefly, at no cost?
This issue of literary genre was raised by one of my favorite columnists, Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald. He catalogues what he reads every year, as do I. Pitts recently lamented his discovery that few female authors made his inventory. Just one or two of the 40-50 books he reads annually. He confessed: “I closed myself off from their stories, their perspectives, their voices, without even realizing I had done so.” I must admit the same. Like Leonard Pitts, I am an inveterate reader but with a subliminal bias that had been excluding women. That is changing!
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Authors with viewpoints and experiences different than mine give me more empathy. They help hold my sexism, racism and ethnocentrism in check. As Pitts said, “Good intentions is a big part of the reason affirmative action remains a regrettable necessity…. Because good intentions don’t change things. Purposeful people do.”
If you had to guess, how many and how different are the books you’ve read in the past year? Is there a good balance—or do you binge on one author? I admit to the latter. Thanks to audio books, I’ve “read” 24 of the 26 books by perennial bestselling author James Patterson that feature the renowned detective Alex Cross. Nothing like a good murder mystery to keep me awake while commuting to/from Columbus or Randolph and Madison.
How would you describe your reading habits—are you a binge reader with a singular focus, or more of an occasional reader with an eclectic taste? Do you read without a reading list—whatever strikes your fancy, something to pass the time or lull you to sleep? And where do good books, even the Good Book, fit in?
Intentions matter, purposeful intention, that is. I invite you to change it up and keep at it, to expand your horizons.
Rev. Dietrich Gruen is Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus and Bethany Presbyterian of Randolph.