Give Me a Book

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Friday, January 29, 2010

Give Me a Book

I am, unashamedly, a book man.

You may have expected me to say a "reading" man, which would also be true.  As St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote, "Be assiduous in prayer and reading.  In the one you speak to God.  In the other God speaks to you."  

But for me, it's not just about reading - it's about books.  I agree with the monk in Normandy who, in 1170, wrote that "A monastery without a library is like a castle without an armory.  Our library is our armory."  

This means we should engage in building it, fortifying it, at every opportunity.  When I was in graduate school, I recall one of my professors saying that we should have a line-item in our budget for books.  That building a good library is one of the most important things we can do in ministry and for impact.  

I tell my own graduate students the same thing - to invest in books.  They are our tools.  A mechanic has his set of wrenches; a doctor has his stethoscope; a chef has his cookware.  Those of us in ministry, or scholarship (and ideally they are joined at the hip), have our books.

When I "require" books for my students, my intent is simple: these are worth not only reading, but owning.  

Buy them.  Build your library.  It is your armory.

But let's return to the book as a physical manifestation.  Because it's not just its content - it's the importance of the book itself.

I love the feel of a book, holding it in my hands, smelling the paper and, if old, the dust and age.  I love marking it up, highlighting key passages and annotating it along the sides.  

Which is why I never lend a book - if lost, it would be far more of a loss than the mere price of its replacement.  

I would lose my engagement with the work, the conversation I had with the author that had been recorded in my written interaction on its pages.  Unless engaged again in the same manner, I would never be able to pull it off of the shelf and, in the span of a half-hour or so, reacquaint myself with the entire dialogue and gain from it all that it had bestowed upon its initial reading.

Not wanting to read myself into another, but it reminds me of the request the apostle Paul made of Timothy.  Paul was in jail for proclaiming Christ, and requested only two things:

"I left my coat...So when you come, bring it to me, along with my books, particularly the ones written on parchment" (II Timothy 4:13, NCV).

He didn't just want books; he wanted his books.

One last confession of a card-carrying bibliophile...I also love the look of a book and all the "display" elements that go with it (so yes, I drool over every Levenger catalog).  

This is why I so enjoy old libraries, and particularly the Bodleian of Oxford (and within the Bodleian, particularly Duke Humphrey's Library, the oldest of the reading rooms).  My Oxford reading card, and the access it gives me to the most ancient of manuscripts and most enticing of reading environments, is among my most prized possessions.

(And why one of my favorite movies is The Name of the Rose - a medieval murder mystery inside an ancient monastery which hides one of the great hidden libraries in all of Europe - and all this with Sean Connery in the lead!  And just in case you haven't seen it, one more enticement:  historian Norman Cantor listed it as among the most authentic movie portrayals of the middle ages).

Why do I bring this up?  I was recently asked about audio books, and Kindle, and I confess my response was somewhat muted.

I think audio learning is wonderful.  I'm a big fan (and customer) of "The Teaching Company," arguably the leader of such things in the field.  Yet I do not feel that audio recordings of books - while often convenient - should become full-scale substitutes for books and the actual reading of books.

Various studies I have read over the years have shown that there is a different mental "workout" involved with reading as opposed to mere listening.  There is certainly a greater degree of retention.  

Further, the physical interaction with a book is indispensable.  So while listening to the Bible, or a book, can be a helpful addition to things, listening alone is no substitute for reading.

And even my use of something such as "The Teaching Company" is greatly enhanced by reading the accompanying study guides, not to mention investing in the reading list encouraged for every class.  

So I would treat such things as I would an actual high school or college course. Yes, attend to the lecture.  But then do the reading and, when asked, the writing and research necessary to complete the experience.
As for Kindle, I will confess I have not attempted to read a book in that manner.  Quite frankly, it has held little appeal to me (though I can appreciate its convenience and economy).  It is still reading, however, and so I find little to critique beyond the fact that you cannot "mark up" the pages, highlight passages, or, as someone once reminded me, have it "appeal" to you to turn off the TV and read something the way an enticing stack of books undoubtedly does.  

I hope this jeremiad is unnecessary.  Unfortunately, it probably is.

The great concern of George Orwell, as conveyed in his novel 1984, was of a day when there might be those who would ban books.  

Aldous Huxley's portrait of the future in Brave New World was more prescient; Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban a book.


There would be no one who wanted to read one.


For what it is worth, I receive nothing in return for the following links - but since I know that in mentioning them there may be numerous emails requesting links, the following are provided:

For Levenger products, see

A nice jpg of Sir Humphrey's Library at the Bodleian, though it doesn't do it full justice:

For the Teaching Company, see,

Give Me a Book