I was recently asked to serve as a mentor for a student taking courses in a Bible college. I compiled a selection of practical suggestions for this student. Perhaps my suggestions to him may be of some use to others.
1. Begin keeping a journal to record your thoughts, life events, ideas, quotes found in reading, observations, plans, etc. This will serve you well for review, reflection, and more. I have kept a regular (though not daily) journal since 1977. I have tried bound (blank-book) and spiral notebooks, and prefer the latter (I have about 60 volumes of journals). And you should go back from time to time and re-read what you wrote (I recently re-read my journal for most of 2009). It will remind you of things that ever-so-quickly slip from memory.
2. Keep a list of all books you read, noting author, title, date, total pages, and an evaluation (“review”) of the book, noting good and bad points. I commonly make my own index—written inside the back cover—of every book I read of thoughts, quotes, information, etc. that were of interest to me, or that I may wish to access in the future. Often times, a mere glance at a list of books I read 5, 10, even 20 years ago will stir up memories of their contents, memories buried deep in my mind and not consciously remembered in years. This list can be kept either as a computer file or as a hard copy. Keeping this list of books read as a database allows sorting by author, title, date, etc., which facilitates answering some questions: How many books have I read by this author? When did I read such and such a book? How many times have I read this volume? Obviously, what we read affects what we know, and how we perceive things. Tell me what books a man has read and which ones he values most, and I will tell you what he is.
3. Compile a continuing list of books you need/ought/want to read, and then actually set about to read them. I almost always write up on January 1 a list of 15-20 books I want to read “this year” though I rarely get more than a handful of them read—other books snatch away my attention. A couple of years ago, I without design had read 7 of the top 10 books on the New York Times non-fiction best-sellers list (I’m sure that has never happened before, and will almost certainly never happen again). There are some authors of whom, over a period of years or even decades, you will want to read the whole of their literary output.
Set an annual reading goal that you are capable of reaching, and then set it a bit higher, to challenge yourself. I personally try to read 50 books/year, or 1,000 pages per month. I usually come close to one or the other, and occasionally exceed them both (though this past year was my poorest in quantity of reading in a decade or more). Of course, it is better to read fewer good books well, than to merely gorge your mind with reading. As Sir Richard Baxter is quoted as having said, “It is not the reading of many books which is necessary to make a man wise or good, but the well-reading of a few, could he be sure to have the best.”
In an average lifetime at 50 books/year, a man could read 3,000 books, more or less. Since you are mortal and your time limited and the number of “worthwhile” books (to say nothing of the mediocre ones) greatly exceeds your reading capacity, read the best whenever you can find it, and don’t waste time—or money—on inferior and second-rate works. Seek out and get and read the best, even if they are more expensive or more challenging.
Of course, determining what books are worth reading, are “essential reading,” or “not worth reading” is the problem. The best guide is to ask people who read a lot. You will soon discover whose opinion is worthwhile and whose isn’t. Seek to read the best two or three books on a subject; read them closely, and you will be well-informed on the subject they cover.
Constantly be on the lookout for areas of deficiency in your personal knowledge, and set about to fill these deficiencies. It may seem a bit odd to ask yourself—“What is it that I ought to know, but do not?” but do so anyway, and then seek to repair the defect. Of course, there is nothing which so exposes a man’s ignorance as extensive reading—you discover whole vast territories of information that you didn’t even know that you didn’t know. In reading, knowledge increases arithmetically, while discovered ignorance grows geometrically.
Deliberately seek out old “classics” and read them along with newer books. C. S. Lewis suggested alternating in reading—first a “modern” book, then an old. While a “classic” has been cynically defined as “a book everyone has heard about but nobody reads,” many such books have attained lasting fame for reasons of real merit.
Keep a list of books you “want”; birthdays and Christmas happen to everyone, and someone just might ask, “What do you want for your birthday?” A list ready to hand makes the answer easy.
4. Begin to build a good personal library of reference books. A library need not be large to be adequate, assuming it has been well-chosen and well-used. More than half the books I own are such that I could dispose of them without loss were I on campus at a Bible college or seminary with access to their library for occasional reference, but since I am isolated and am forced to fall back on my own resources, I have acquired and kept a large number of “just in case the subject comes up” books. And sure enough, from time to time, a subject comes up, and I have at hand the necessary resources to address the matter. This happened about 15 years ago. I was scheduled to teach in Romania a course on “cults,” including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had in my library three good books on that cult, all purchased in the 1970s, and all unused until the teaching of that course fell to me. And in the mid-1990s, all three were out of print and unavailable. Had I not purchased them 20 years earlier, I would not have had them when I needed them.
I have compiled a list of about 100 or so essential books for reference purposes and if a man had nothing more, he could exhaust himself for decades thoroughly mastering these. I will send the list by e-mail [and on request to any readers—editor]. Many of these as well as other books are often available on CD or in some other electronic format. I personally very much prefer “paper and ink” books over anything displayed on a computer screen (unless it is otherwise not accessible).
Doug Kutilek is the editor of www.kjvonly.org, a website dedicated to exposing and refuting the many errors of KJVOism and has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a B.A. in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, Mo.), an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati; and completed all requirements for a Ph.D. except the dissertation); and a Th.M. in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, Minn.). His writings have appeared in numerous publications including The Biblical Evangelist, The Baptist Bible Tribune, The Baptist Preacher’s Journal, Frontline, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and The Wichita Eagle. The father of four grown children and four granddaughters, he resides with his wife Naomi near Wichita, Kansas.