Five Attributes of a Good Book

I read and review a lot of books. My pace has slowed down in the past few months as I have been busy with some other projects. When I’m in my groove, I read 3-4 books every week, depending on their complexity, length, and relation to my areas of particular interest.

Most of the books that I read are generally pretty good. A very few are really excellent. There are also some that are really terrible—not as few as should be.

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/YX3230kFaXR

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/YX3230kFaXR

There is often little correlation between the excellence of a book and the amount it is discussed in the media—that is, in print, newspapers, on television, and in various internet formats. In fact, the “buzz” surrounding a book has as much to do with the relative heft of the publisher, especially their publicity budget. Or, perhaps as significant, it may have a great deal to do with the influence of the person who wrote a book. This is, incidentally, why national politicians who can hardly think linearly or reason effectively can get multi-million dollar book deals, while professional writers and researchers struggle to find a home for their tightly reasoned texts.

These comments about the relative public interest in particular books explains why some books are best sellers and then flood the bargain racks of bookstores and choke out the shelves (and online listings) of used book sellers. In many cases, after a few months, some books have more economic value as toilet paper than as contributions to the good of society. Many of these books often end up in library book sales within a year or two of publication because they simply don’t get used, or their value is so short lived as to not be worth the time once whatever crisis has been overcome or once all the ideas have been spilled out in podcasts, interviews, and reviews.

Time has a way of sifting through the wheat and the chaff so that the best books often end up on the shelves of libraries for decades instead of months and additional printings are demanded. The list of books that actually warrant this sort of attention is relatively small and doesn’t necessary coincide with a place on the best seller lists.

Here are some common threads among books that I’ve reviewed that I think make them high quality with potential to endure:

1.       Well-written with engaging prose: Some might think this goes without saying, but not all books that are published are written well. Even after the editorial process, there are often books that seem to have been written with little energy invested in engaging the reader. The copy may be clean—meaning that there are few grammatical inconsistencies—but the writing is dry.

 There are some writers who make even otherwise boring topics interesting by writing well. There are other writers who make topics that should be engaging boring, often, I think, because the author has become bored with the topic.

 2.       Focused toward a particular thesis: Even memoirs should have a point. One of my chief frustrations when reading books is having to ask why a particular portion of the book was included in the final manuscript. I’ve been disappointed to find myself wondering what I was supposed to learn about a particular topic after I’ve finished a several hundred-page book. Even novels should have a point. Sometimes books have multiple points, but those points should be clear. If I wanted to solve a mystery, I’d be a detective.

 3.       Honest about their position: Some books are lauded as good books by people who know little about the topic at hand. This is often true about popular-level biographies that “revolutionize” the study of a certain person. Often, those books are written by non-experts. When people who have spent their life researching a person or an era read the book, however, they often find the reason this book offers a radically new perspective is because it ignores obvious data that point a different direction or misinterprets information in a way that a non-expert is likely to do. There are occasions where new evidence is uncovered that undermines standing positions, but most of the time when a book claims a new perspective, it is really just a bad perspective.

 4.       Represents other positions fairly: I have yet to come across a position that I hold or that anyone else holds that does not have reasonable arguments and counter-arguments. However, as with one book that I reviewed recently, sometimes authors are (a) ignorant, (b) lazy, or (c) dishonest enough that they are not able to accurately represent the position they are opposing. These books are useful for my collection when they hold views I disagree with because they provide me examples of the position that are easy to illuminate and disassemble—though they often represent the fringe and not the center of opposing positions, so this must be done illustratively. They do little for real progress in human knowledge because the author hasn’t taken the time (let’s be generous) to understand the viewpoint he or she is supposedly dismantling. When books that hack opposing viewpoints agree with me, they are often quick reads, but they are actually useless to me because they often fail to make a helpful argument for the absence of a real opponent. In fact, I dislike poorly argued books that I agree with more than nearly any other category.

 5.       Argue their position tightly: Even when I disagree with an author’s conclusions, I benefit from his or her argument when it is well made. In fact, I spend a great deal more time reading theologians with whom I disagree because the friction of their arguments—when they argue well—shapes my arguments and helps me make my case better. If we are arguing toward truth, and not simply for the sake of victory, this is the sort of conversation we should want to have.

There are certainly other attributes of a book that make them valuable. However, these five items are really the characteristics that I look for primarily as I review books on any topic.

A Sense of Satisfaction: A Book Rediscovered

I’ve just completed a quest I started nearly two decades ago. I’m worried that once the elation of unlikely success fades I’m going to feel as sense of loss and possible purposeless. Probably not, since the quest itself hardly consumed my mind and is unlikely to result in my shifting to pursuit of life as the next Dread Pirate Roberts. (It’s the name that counts, not the person, you know.)

Let me start at the beginning of the story.

It was probably 1992 or 1993 when I first read the book. I don’t remember exactly, but I do remember reading it. It came from the library. I believe Dad had picked it up on the recommendation from the reviewer in the Buffalo News—the sort of city paper book reviews that are uncommon now.

Like most books I read, a lot of did not stick with me. Unlike most books that I have read, this book inspired a sense of longing, comfort, and a desire to read it again. It’s not that the book deserved a stack of literary rewards, but it had expanded my experience in unexpected ways and it made me want to go back to that place again.

The trouble is I couldn’t remember the author, the title, or many details about the book. I read the book long before the name of the publisher would have registered with me as a fact remotely worth knowing. I didn’t know what the cover looked like. I couldn’t remember where we got the book from.

In fact, about all I could remember about the book was that it was about an Irish family in the 20th century who lived in a poor neighborhood. I knew there was a story about a sweater, about a brother who was a boxer, an egg that was mailed to starving children because it was a despised food, and a family who overcame adversity. Oh, and something about the name Patrick, which doesn’t help very much when dealing with stories about the Irish.

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My quest for this vaguely remembered book began as an idle curiosity, but it has continued since I was in college. I’ve looked in every used bookstore I’ve ever been in. I used to scour the memoir section of my favorite used bookstore ever, The Book Barn, in Niantic, CT. I’ve come up empty every time I tried.

As the internet has grown and search functions have expanded, I’ve occasionally searched on different key terms. However, as readers will recognize by the paucity of my descriptions above, I really didn’t have much to go on. Add that to the fickleness of search engines that tend to reward readers looking for something on the road well-traveled, and you’ve got a recipe for a quixotic effort.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

I’m not sure why, but about a week ago, nearly twenty years after beginning my search, I typed the right combination of words in in the right order and Google Books rewarded my search with the text I’ve been looking for. It was the second option down.

Being an addict, I immediately found the book on an electronic marketplace and got it on its merry way. It’s now safely in my possession, an ex-library copy that shows too little wear to have been honestly used. Frankly, I may be the first to crack this copy of the book since the checkout pocket was pasted in.

However, I’m reading it now. I have to say that I’ve not been disappointed. Sometimes you come back to a childhood memory and are saddened to find that the initial experience was valued more than its due because of a lack of discernment or the varnish of a hazy memory. I’ve been pleased to find, on this reading, that the book in question, Patrick’s Corner by Sean Patrick, is perhaps better than I remember it.

Sometime in the future I’ll review the book, but today I just want to share my experience. It offers hope to many who continue search for that one book they vaguely remember. Ultimately, success is possible and the reading of the long-sought-for book is all the more pleasing for the long search for it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I still have a few chapters left to savor.

Patrick's Corner
By Sean Patrick

Books Aren't Dead Yet

Sometimes it seems we are being constantly bombarded by news of the death of the book.

In some cases, the concern is the rise of the internet, which has cultivated a reliance upon shorter and shorter articles. Some folks seem to expect 140 characters to sufficiently capture the complexities of an argument.

In other cases, people (like myself) lament the rise of the e-book, which tends to reinforce the addiction to screens, undermine the reliance upon actual physical books. There is good evidence that e-books are both not as likely to replace real books as some fear and that they actually have the negative effects that traditional reading advocates ascribe to them.

Despite the worries of real book fans, a recent Gallup study indicates that the future of reading in general and real books in particular continues to look positive. This is encouraging and matches the findings of a study published by Pew Research in the Fall of 2016.

On one hand, the number of people who claim to not have read a book in the past year has doubled since 1978, from 8% to 16%, but it hasn’t changed much since 1990, which is well before the internet was widely available.

The study actually shows a fairly steady percentage of readers, with some slippage in some of the higher consumption categories. Still, the overall number of people actively engaged in reading books is quite high and far from the dire warnings that some technophobes issue. At the same time, it is worth noting the question for “reading” of a book includes listening to audiobooks. This inclusion may mask a phenomenon that still reflects a lower consumption of printed words for the same ideas being read on a commute, a run, or family vacation.

Screen grab from  http://ow.ly/BHDz308l8Bg

Screen grab from http://ow.ly/BHDz308l8Bg

At the same time, the study also showed that 73% of people pick up a printed book more often than other formats. Only 6% of people rely on audio books as their primary means of engaging books. The news is not all that bad for those that value reading. Books appear to be holding their own against the flood of other entertainment options.

One caution, though, in this study—as in all of the studies I’ve seen on this topic—the nature of the books is never considered. In other words, people may be reading as much, but if they are reading prairie fiction instead of literature, that makes a difference. If book sales skew toward popular punditry and away from well considered arguments about policy, then reading is of much less value. It would be interesting to see a study that reflected on both the quality and the frequency of reading.

In the meanwhile, rest assured the reports of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. That should be cause for a cautious celebration.

Some Recent Research on Reading

I love reading. I love books.

Anyone who has been in my home will know that I love books, because I have several thousand on my shelves. The vast majority of them are cataloged online. (Sometimes new ones sneak in and don’t get cataloged right away.)

Reading is such a significant part of our household that we have to discipline our children for reading rather than coax them to do so. This is little surprise since my wife and I both grew up as readers and continue to read a lot.

A National Survey on the State of Reading

A recent Pew Research report on reading piqued my interest because, well, I’m a book nerd. They did a study to see what the state of reading in the US is.

On the side of being interesting and somewhat surprising, despite the proliferation of online media, approximately the same number of folks said they had read a book in the past 12 months. About 73% of respondents say they’ve read a book in any format and about 65% say they have read a real book (i.e., not a digital book). Only about 6% of people have transitioned away from real books to entirely reading on screens. This is comforting, since it promises that our local libraries likely won’t get phased out by publicly funded internet kiosks in the near future.

Much less surprising was that the correlation between income, education, and reading seems to support the value of reading. Correlation does not equal causation. Thus, it may be that higher incomes provide more time for reading. Or, it may be that advanced education inculcates improved ability to read books. The data isn’t clearly causal. However, the correlation between apparent material success (as customarily defined) and reading is striking. It may be that there is a correlation between the discipline of reading and other important, higher order skills.

Children and Reading Habits

Findings from another survey, biennial research done by Scholastic, talk about about reading for children. Given that there appears to be a correlation between material success and reading, and that reading is just a great way to improve your mind, the Scholastic study is important as it shows some factors that influence kids’ desire to read. Again, correlation isn’t causation, but it might give hits about what causes it.

Public Domain Photo of Leeds Central Library, taken by Michael Beckwith.  http://ow.ly/PpWm304Gs9Y

Public Domain Photo of Leeds Central Library, taken by Michael Beckwith. http://ow.ly/PpWm304Gs9Y

As a bibliophile of the degree that some might describe as being a hoarder, the number of volumes in a library is significant to me. As it turns out, my library is way over the expected average. Of the survey respondents, those with children who were frequent readers indicated they had 205 books in the house; those with infrequently reading children had 129 books in their house.

These findings surprised me. First, I was surprised that the number of books for infrequent readers was not lower. I’ve been in the homes of some infrequent readers and usually they live in a book desert, with an occasional pamphlet, but very little in the way of real literature. 129 books in the home of non-readers is surprising to me; I would have expected many fewer.

Second, I was surprised to see the number of books in the homes of frequent readers at only 205. I have more than 200 books on several distinct subjects. I’ll admit that I have a bias toward owning books instead of borrowing them from the library, but that is because by offering a buffet of books to my children (and myself) I feel that I am encouraging them to read. Apparently the several hundred children’s books are overkill by contemporary standards.

Some other interesting data points that correlate with children being frequent readers are consistent with the usual suspects. Parents that read to their children frequently before kindergarten are much more likely to have frequent readers. School age children whose parents read to them presently are more likely to be frequent readers. Frequent computer use has a clear correlation to forming infrequent readers.

Some Thoughts on Reading and Quality Books

For the most part, the Scholastic survey is informative and interesting. However, there are a few items that might be cause for concern. The percentage of students who say they either like or love readings books has declined by about 10% since 2010. The number of children (about 47% of respondents) who say that the amount of reading they have to do in school discourages them from reading for pleasure is unfortunately high. Additionally, more than 60% of students report that they read less now than when younger because there are other things they enjoy doing. Given the large percentage of students that report spending significant time on electronic devices, this may indicate the distractification of our youth, which may influence later educational outcomes.

Another point of concern, which is admittedly more based on generalization and personal observations of the public library shelves, is that about 73% of children report that they would read more if they could find more books that they like. This is natural, but I think it is having a negative influence on the quality of children’s literature overall.

I’ve read plenty of fluff in my day. I still enjoy a good Louis L’Amour book, or a mystery by Ellis Peters or Alexander McCall Smith.

However, the shelves of the local library shelves are sagging under the weight of junk kiddie lit. I’m not basing that merely on grumpy observations of book covers, but on earlier study of children’s literature and attempting to read some of the stuff my kids bring home. The bulk of recently published stories seems more likely to smuggle attempts to justify restructuring traditional societal norms than to provide substantial benefits to the mind through reading. Sometimes good societal changes come through children’s lit, but surreptitiously sneaking various forms of social engineering into children’s fiction is a bit annoying. Even among the good clean fun kids’ books that I’ve read recently, there seemed to be an emotional and intellectual vacuousness; in many of the current offerings the story line is interesting, but the plot predictable and depth of character are flat.

Parents report that they think it is important for their kids to have strong reading skills and strong critical thinking skills in life. Reading is, arguably, supposed to support those things. Kids report being much more likely to prefer books they pick out themselves (90%) and to want more books that they like. But by providing quick, fun, easy to read stories, publishers and book buyers may be subverting benefits of reading.

This is not a dire warning against the library shelves or a call to ban fun books. There is likely some benefit in reading, even if the reading is light and fluffy. The caution should be in considering what we purchase (for home or the local library) and asking questions about the purpose of reading for children as we select the books to populate the common shelves. The best books both delight and instruct. We shouldn’t let the hope of making cotton candy literature becomes a gateway drug to better literature undermine a main purpose of forming readers, which is to help teach people to think better.

Thing Explainer: A Review

One of the cool things about studying science and engineering is finding out how things work. One of the neatest things about being a parent is teaching my kids about the wonders of the world--both natural and technological--around us. However, having done the first does not necessarily equip me to do the second. Randall Munroe’s recent book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words provides a partial solution.

In some circles Munroe is much better known for his internet comic xkcd, which boasts a lot of geek jokes. He’s also a former NASA roboticist, so he brings that background to the table, combining technical acumen with strong illustration skills to present a unique offering to the curious of the world.

The basic premise of Thing Explainer that many technologies are a mystery because of the terminology used to explain them and not because the technology is overwhelmingly complex. Munroe carefully diagrams 44 different things and explains them using only the 1000 most common words in the English language.

Among the objects explained are a nuclear reactor, elevators, weather maps, a tree, the U.S. Constitution, the USS Constitution, a human cell, a submarine and more. The list is long and varied and extends to many different types of interest.

I do not have the technical acumen to evaluate all of the descriptions and explanations that Munroe provides. However, having been a submariner, I can say that his diagram and explanation of a nuclear submarine is sufficiently accurate and informative. Also, having been an instructor at a commercial nuclear power plant, I will attest to the quality of his description of that technology. There are a few places where I could quibble, but generalizations are necessary and sometimes the differences between the modes of operation explain the apparent inaccuracies. Overall, I think that this book is remarkably accurate and informative.

Thing Explainer is entertaining. The diagrams are engaging. The level of detail is high so that as we flip through the volume it continues to delight with new discoveries. This is not a book that will be once read and quickly discarded. There are detailed explanations of the various labeled parts of all the diagrams, which give opportunity for reading and rereading. The adults in my house have both enjoyed reading this book.

The entertainment value extends to our children. My son (6) thoroughly enjoys looking at the pictures and as an emerging reader is able to figure out most of the words. The girls haven’t been as interested, but it’s there when they want it. This is a really great volume to have on the shelf for kids to pull out when they are bored or curious. I’m hoping that it inspires a growing interest in engineering for all of our children.

Munroe’s explanations are good, in that they reasonably accurately depict the function and operation of the various objects he is describing. This is helpful in breaking through the technical jargon into real understanding. The weakness of this approach, however, is that even if the reader understands the technology she will not be able to communicate with experts in the field. Since Munroe doesn’t give the actual names of the components, but uses roundabout ways to describe them (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile = Machines for Burning Cities), this means that someone can understand how something works and still sound silly when trying to explain it to someone else. Given the option, I’ll still use this as an introduction and a means to increase curiosity in my kids, but the approach brings its own limitations.

NOTE: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Why I like Westerns

I enjoy reading Westerns. In fact, when I have the opportunity (or make the opportunity) to read for pleasure, it’s often to either a British mystery or a Western. In particular, I’m fond of Louis L’Amour. I blame this in part on the uncle that introduced me to L’Amour when I was a teenager. However, my appreciation of a good, clean Western is deeper than that.

It wouldn’t be worth being a theologian if I didn’t try to dissect ideas that others would simply enjoy. So, I will try to explain why I like Westerns. I think there are at least three reasons.

Three Reasons I Like Westerns

There is an escapist quality to Westerns. They are realistic, but they are set in a time and place remote from where I live. Since I reside in North Carolina, the canyons, deserts, and mountains of L’Amour’s novels allow me to get out of the four walls of my house in the wilderness or the untamed towns of a previous century.

Instead of thinking about the dissertation I should be writing, the work that is waiting, or the current political turmoil, Westerns allow me to witness a life and death struggle without the perils of actually being stampeded, shot, or hanged. Additionally, since the drama tends to be much more exciting than hunting for typos in a manuscript, the stories are more interesting than my daily life.

The second reason I like Westerns is that you can nearly always tell the good guys from the bad guys. Call me a simple, but I don’t like spending a hundred pages of a book trying to figure out if I should be rooting for the protagonist or wishing that the main character would get snuffed out by a vigilante.

No, give me a good, old fashioned white hat, black hat Western where you can honestly like the good guys and dislike the bad guys. L’Amour’s heroes aren’t perfect, which makes them a bit more relatable than some others. However, the bad guys are always selfish, arrogant, dirty, murdering, and dishonest. Some hold this simple dualistic perspective against Westerns, but I think it makes the genre more enjoyable. If I wanted to deal with complex emotions I’d watch a day-time talk show.

The third reason I like Westerns is that the guy nearly always gets the girl. This is where the closet romantic in comes out. Again, there isn’t a lot of drama and introspection about liking and not liking someone. Instead you get attraction, mutual admiration, and sometimes conflict. You know, the usual.

L’Amour’s stories are enjoyable because there is usually a strong female lead to complement the male lead. In a few books, the protagonist is a female. Without demolishing all types, the simplicity of romance in Westerns allows for a clean, healthy, enjoyable romance. In a world that seems to want every romance to be against type, the simplicity matters.

Conclusion

I don’t get a lot of time to read fiction, but I have a decent collection of L’Amour’s stories that I return to now and again. I’ve read some other authors, like Zane Grey, but I’ve never gotten into them. Much like my preference for reading Dorothy L. Sayers over Agatha Christie, I think this comes down to the slightly more complex characterization, while still keeping it light and fluffy.

For me, Westerns are an oasis in an otherwise rocky terrain. They allow me to be a hero without getting saddle sores. They entertain me and expand my world a little without sucking me dry emotionally. This is a good thing, I think.

A Catalog of My Recent Book Reviews

I read a lot of books. I review a lot of books. This post is simply a collection of recently published book reviews that have come from my keyboard.

1. Alice Dreger - Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science

Dreger’s thesis:
’Science and social justice require each other to be healthy, and both are critically important to human freedom. Without a just system, you cannot be free to do science, including science designed to better understand human identity; without science, and especially scientific understandings of human behaviors, you cannot know how to create a sustainably just system.’

2. Paul Heintzman - Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

This is the most thorough book on the concept of leisure available. Heintzman’s historical summaries bring together a number of streams of discussions in a comprehensive fashion. His biblical outline of leisure and rest covers the relevant passages in a manner that is fair to the text. This is a book that is both critical and constructive. In short, this is a reference volume that anyone interested in doing scholarship on work and leisure should own.

3. John Warwick Montgomery - History, Law and Christianity

History, Law and Christianity, by John Warwick Montgomery has recently been republished by the 1517 Legacy project, which aims at presenting a Christian apologetic to the world. Montgomery’s book was originally published in 1964, having begun its existence as a series of lectures in response to attacks on the Christian faith. The first five chapters discuss the plausibility of historical evidences of the truthfulness of Christianity. The final chapter provides a “legal defense” of Christianity, as it might occur in a court of law. This edition also includes the original lecture to which Montgomery was responding, as well as an affirmation of the quality of the argument by a non-Christian historian.

4. Paul L. Allen - Theological Method: A Guide for the Perplexed

Allen’s goal is “to survey and analyse the history of Christian reflection regarding how we speak of God and the life of the world in relation to God” (viii). He does this using a “wide-angle lens on the horizon of Christian theology, with peaks and valleys of theological method revealed in cursory snapshots over the bulk of its 2000-year history” (ix). Indeed, these two sentences sum up Allen’s accomplishment in this volume well.

5. Alistair Young - Environment, Economy, and Christian Ethics: Alternative Views on Christians and Markets

This recent volume by Alistair Young is an attempt to tie together the issues of environment, economics, and Christian ethics. Young is a retired economist, with experience teaching economics in several countries. His extensive experience in economics is evident throughout the text, as there is a decided emphasis on economics over the other two title subjects. Young has three purposes for writing this volume. First, he makes the case that environmental conditions require a response. Second, he examines theological perspectives on the environment. Third, he describes and evaluates policy decisions on the environment.

6. William Boekestein - Ulrich Zwingli (A Bitesize Biography):

Ulrich Zwingli follows the basic formula of the series, which includes a timeline, a brief introduction, and a walk through progression to importance, major conflicts, and reason of significance. The volumes all end with a summary of the legacy of the individual. This means that these books, including Boekestein’s recent edition, have all the pieces necessary to a good biography.
Both editions of this text have been, as the title claims, A Theology for the Church. The preposition in the title is hugely important, as it is not a theology of the church or to the church, but one designed to be accessible for the church. In other words, unlike many Systematics, which are written by theologians for other theologians, Akin’s text was written with the intelligent but theologically untrained in mind. Thus it does not get caught in jargon and leave insider references unexplained. It is crafted so a person in the pew can pick it up and benefit from it. Because of that, it makes an outstanding introductory Systematics for a Bible college or seminary.
Scott Sauls’ recent book, Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides, is intended to mitigate the trend in polarization and move toward gospel reconciliation. As such, this book represents the beginning of a deep conversation that needs to happen in the gospel community whose ideas are increasingly demonized.
Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage has been republished at a time when another major effort is being made to redefine Evangelicalism as merely a social movement with negotiable understandings of significant, historical doctrines. The essays were written at a popular level, with no interaction with contrary positions, which gives a false impression that this notion is and has been uncontested. The volume is worth reading, but it is one-sided.

10. Bill Watterson - Exploring Calvin and Hobbes:

This new book from Andrews McMeel Publishing is a breakthrough for the hungry Calvin and Hobbes fan. Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue begins with an extended interview with the man who curated a recent exhibit of Calvin and Hobbes strips at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. In this interview, Watterson discusses his childhood, how he became interested in cartooning, his various attempts to break into the industry, and how the production of Calvin and Hobbes took place for its decade-long run.
This is basically a popular level book with some sociological research to support it. The conclusion outpaces the argumentation at several points, but this is still a thought provoking text. It has some significant weaknesses, but the strengths are sufficient to make it worth reading. Nonviolent Action is unlikely to become a classic text on the subject, but it makes a contribution to an important conversation in turbulent times.
Overall, though, this volume is well written and may replace Avery Dulles’ book, Models of Revelation. Having done a fair amount of reading on this topic, it is the best explanation of a Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine of Revelation I have encountered. I would recommend it to those seeking to meaningfully engage in inter-denominational dialogue on this topic. Levering is an excellent scholar, whose work on Augustine I have benefited from in the past. This book is a helpful addition to the discussion, but it is far from the final word.
In about 130 pages of content, Ashford manages to provide a solid overview of a broad sweep of Christian thought. Besides the question of the relationship between the Law and the Gospel, there are few questions more significant to Christian theology than how Christians should relate to cultures which are, most often throughout history, not distinctly Christian. Ashford’s book is a beginner’s field guide on the topic.
The sub-discipline of environmental ethics has seen a torrent of publications in the past few years, with volumes that claim to present an authentically Christian version of environmentalism. Most of the books have juxtaposed a basic theological foundation for environmental stewardship with accepted scientific data to make ethical pronouncements consistent with those of explicitly non-Christian sources. The ethical methodology used by many of these authors tends to be utilitarian, rather than theological. This means that the majority of the books on Christian environmentalism tend to backfit theological concepts to previously accepted conclusions.
Pinker makes significant contributions to the style discussion. First, he presents some of the cognitive linguistics data that help make sense of prose structure. This is done in a clear manner that communicates well and is helpful for contemporary writers. Second, he affirms beginning with basic style manuals, but shows how good writing may and should move beyond. This is helpful as an academic and popular writer. Third, Pinker demonstrates good writing throughout. The prose is punchy and alive. It is interesting, even when the content is heady and a bit dry. This is a demonstration of how to make bland content flavorful without being gimmicky.
If you have questions about nuclear power, buy this book and read it. If you are a proponent of nuclear power, buy this book and cite it in your arguments. This is, hands down, the best one stop reference on the subject I have encountered.
If you love Puritan theology, you will thoroughly enjoy this volume, which is well stocked with Puritan quotes. If you want to deepen your walk with Christ, you will find this book very beneficial, because it points readers toward practices which are important for becoming more Christlike. If you need encouragement in your walk with Christ, this short text will provide ample exhortation. It is worth your time to read it.
I commend this to readers who are looking for answers to some very important ethical questions. I plan on recommending it as a resource to people in my church who have questions about this topic. It is up to date and informative. It is written with a pastoral heart and academic acumen. It should be a trusted resource for the church for the near future.
The question Baron picks up in the volume is whether “digital reading is reshaping our understanding of what it means to read.” (xii) She goes on to argue “that digital reading is fine for many short pieces or light content we don’t intend to analyze or reread.” (xii) Her conclusion is that digital reading is here to stay, but so is reading in print. Each has a niche in the publishing world and the academic world. Thus the future is a complementary coexistence rather than extinction of one or the other.
Neil Wilson and Nancy Ryken Taylor have put together a handsomely illustrated and solidly evangelical help for Christians seeking to enrich their ability to interpret some of the images of Scripture. They point to ways that significant symbols are used and make connections between them. They provide several Scripture references for each and show how the terms are applied.

21. Michael A. G. Haykin - George Whitefield (Bitesize Biographies):

Whitefield is a worthy subject of such a biography. This format of very brief, but well-researched biographies is a helpful tool for Christian discipleship. Reading a popular-level account of the life of a significant believer reminds the reader that great things are possible for those who are faithful to use their talents according to their calling. It is also a testimony of God’s faithfulness, as he raised up someone to preach and through him revived true religious fervor despite the moral decay in Britain and America in the 18th century.

22. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty - Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians:

At just about 200 pages, Hinson-Hasty provides an overview of Day’s life and work that covers the major epochs in her life, the main thrust of her work, and helps to place Day in her cultural context. Additionally, the author shows how Day’s ideas have been appropriated and applied to contemporary social justice movements. This makes the book a useful introduction into the topic.

The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

My house is filled with books. More than a decade ago, we did an inventory of our books and we had more than a thousand. Since that time I’ve earned a Master of Divinity and am well into a Doctor of Philosophy. The number of books has continued to mount. I have heaps more today than I did then.

Part of our family strategy in homechooling is to have a great number of good books on hand so that there are always new stories and explanations to explore. In part this is necessary because the closest local library is not particularly well stocked with good books for children. In part this is the result of a couple of bibliophiles wanting to pass along something good.

In any event, when I saw a review of Naomi Baron’s book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital Age pop up in First Things, I was intrigued. I've been rather dismissive of the e-reader movement and was particularly interested to hear her analysis a decade or so into the online reading explosion.

Baron is a Professor of Linguistics at American University. She is also in charge of a center at that university that focuses on pedagogy. She is uniquely qualified to write this volume. In her introduction, Baron admits she will be going beyond the usual linguistic practice of describing the is into the helpful tasks of considering the ought. This willingness to make some judgments, albeit with grace, makes this book very valuable.

The question Baron picks up in the volume is whether “digital reading is reshaping our understanding of what it means to read.” (xii) She goes on to argue “that digital reading is fine for many short pieces or light content we don’t intend to analyze or reread.” (xii) Her conclusion is that digital reading is here to stay, but so is reading in print. Each has a niche in the publishing world and the academic world. Thus the future is a complementary coexistence rather than extinction of one or the other.

Baron begins with a state of the book address, where she lays out the history of the rise of the e-book and the shift in print publishing. She then provides a history of reading that will make a lover of reading swoon. This chapter is really worth the price of the book. In the third chapter she discusses the impact that e-reading is having on writing styles, where media are moving to punchier, shorter chunks. (This is why my blog is almost never longer than 800 words.) This is a chapter that is historiographic and, again, very enjoyable for one who loves reading.

In Chapter Four Baron explains the attraction to reading onscreen, for those that appreciate it. She is fair in presenting the strongest arguments for that form of reading. Still she notes that e-books and e-readers may not be as green as claimed, particularly since most people don’t simply dispose of their hard copy books, but often resell them, lend them, and pass them down. She also notes that one does not really own an e-book, but merely accesses its information. The more significant concern she notes is that retention in onscreen reading tends to be lower. Still, she find strengths of the medium and promotes them.

What comes of the discussion is that onscreen reading is more suitable for one-off reading. Though annotation methods are improving in e-books, they still lag significantly behind the marginalia of trusty paper copies. In Chapter Six, Baron discusses the phenomena of social reading, which began with the book club and has progressed to sharing quotes through Goodreads and other platforms. This sometimes helps people get through books, but it often keeps students from approaching texts as cleanly.

Baron dwells on one of the most significant downsides of e-books in her seventh chapter. This is the fact that people feel there is something lacking from the aesthetic experience of reading a book on a screen. It just isn't the same as reading a real book. It is the loss of the sensory aspect of reading that has some young people hooked on paper books. And then, there is the fact that a print book has no games or apps. There is no chance that an e-mail will pop up or Facebook will demand one’s attention in the background of a paper book. Studies continue to show that some of these real issues continue to make real books a better option for deep reading.

Despite its shortcomings for some uses, Baron concludes that onscreen reading is here to stay as a complement to reading on paper. Her case is compelling and winsomely argued.  The ability to get a vast number of resources online is extremely helpful for quick research. At the same time, the opportunities to annotate, spatially associate, and focus on a tangible object are essential for deep reading. Both forms of readings have a purpose and both are here to stay.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Not just because I agree with her conclusions, but because it was well written, well researched and accessible. If you are a bookish sort of person, then put this volume on your to-be-read list. But buy it in paper copy because it is worth reading deeply and well.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Thoughts on Reading

There is something intoxicating about the smell of books. Whether it is the scent of new books lined up in neat rows on shelves at the local bookstore or the more experienced fragrance of books long-loved on the shelves at home.

 It’s a scent, but something more than mere fragrance.

There is a feeling of power in holding a book in one’s hands. The knowledge printed within the bound pages, written a year before or one thousand years before, is there to be understood and owned by the conquering reader.

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