How I Choose What to Read
My reading list is rather flexible, but here are some general principles I tend to follow when choosing what to read next.
It doesn't matter how you define a "great" book: there will always be more great books to read than one could hope to get through in a lifetime.
Because I view reading the great books as a lifetime project, rather than identifying a canon of great books and checking them off until I'm done, I prefer to make sure that I'm continually reading, re-reading, and digesting some of the great books. There are many Reading Lists that can serve as a guide, but each person will have their own list of "great" books.
Don't be afraid to jump and in read something that is difficult. Even if I only absorb a small percentage of a book, at least my mind is being saturated3 in something that is true, lovely, and excellent (cf. Phil-04)4.
C. S. Lewis, in an introduction he wrote for St. Athanasius' 2020-02-17-On the Incarnation (PDF) suggests reading one old book for every new book you read, or "at least read one old one to every three new ones". Old books are valuable for the perspective they give:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.1
I don't live up to Lewis' suggestion of one for one, or even one for every three, but I try to ensure there is a regular drip of old books on my list.
Old doesn't necessarily need to mean ancient. For example, I found John Barry's The Great Influenza (published in 2004) and Michael Lewis' 2021-08-12-The Premonition (just published in 2021) to be more helpful in learning about COVID-19 than reading the news5.
A book you both have read can be a powerful connection with others. Books that are important to those you love can become important to you also and help you grow closer.
Recommendations from friends or family who know you well can provide a good balance of being something you would both enjoy and be challenged by or offer a different perspective.
At the end of the day, I always leave some room for whim in my reading list. Reading can and often should be a challenge that pushes you to grow, but it should also be enjoyable and provide some room for serendipity. Those new threads to pull on might come from a conversation or the bibliography of a book in progress and can be little ways to listen to the whispering voice of God6.
Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don't make them your steady intellectual diet, any more that you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed.2
Read deeply by topic in "stacks"
- data science
- read for travel (like I did for Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins)
- read what's already on your bookshelf
- read from a river, not a bucket
- >To return to information overload: this means treating your "to read" pile like a river (a stream that flows past you, and from which you pluck a few choice items, here and there) instead of a bucket (which demands that you empty it). After all, you presumably don't feel overwhelmed by all the unread books in the British Library – and not because there aren't an overwhelming number of them, but because it never occurred to you that it might be your job to get through them all.
- Treat your to-read pile like a river | Oliver Burkeman (from Jordan)
He also makes this point in C. S. Lewis, 2018-07-21-The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 140:
"And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another." ↩
This influences my decision making on listening to audiobooks. If my choice is between (a) not getting around to a great book that deserves the attention of a deep reading, or (b) listening to the audiobook version knowing that I'm not getting the full experience, I'll often choose (b), enjoy the brief exposure to truth, loveliness, and excellence, and resolve to return in the future. ↩