According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a bibliophile is "A lover of books; a book-fancier." Although this is a helpful definition, I'm not entirely sure I want to refer to myself as a "fancier" of anything. I'm from Texas. We either like something or we don't. We don't "fancy" things. It's...unnatural.
However, I do love books, or perhaps, I should say more precisely, I love to read. Always have. When I was a child, I devoured books. Tom Sawyer, the Hardy Boys, anything I could find. When visiting relatives, I would read whatever they happened to have on the shelves, whether Reader's Digest or Dr. Seuss. I enjoyed them all, but I was especially in love with offbeat stories.
It was not only children's fiction that interested me. My family owned an old set of the World Book Encyclopedia. I used to sit and read the articles in those volumes for hours on end. When I was maybe ten or eleven, I found an old copy of the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe. I don't remember what the first story in the book was, but it was odd, and that appealed to me. Looking back now, as interesting as Poe may be to a person attracted to offbeat stories, I wouldn’t recommend reading his complete works straight through. Side effects may include nightmares.
Sometimes I have read books for the wrong reasons. During my first semester of college, I ran across a three-volume work titled The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a harrowing, often firsthand account of the Soviet Union’s concentration camp system. When I took it to the counter to check it out, the librarian said to me in a rather obnoxious way that no one who started that book ever finished all three volumes, and then he informed me that I would never finish it either. I took that as a challenge and proceeded to plow through two thousand pages of dense narrative on a very unpleasant subject. Although I finished it simply to prove someone wrong, it turned out to be a great book.
Our sovereign Father ultimately used my love of reading to bring me to faith and repentance. As a teenager, I was pathologically shy and withdrawn and depressed (perhaps another reason not to read the works of Poe at the age of ten). I was a complete nihilist without being aware that there was a term for my worldview. I don't remember exactly when, but at some point during my last years of high school, an elderly gentleman from Gideons International was on campus handing out pocket size New Testaments. He gave me a red one. I put it in my backpack and later tossed it in my desk. A year or so later, when I had just about reached the end of my rope, I saw that little New Testament in my desk and decided to read it. I stayed up all night reading and re-reading it. That night I placed my faith in Jesus Christ.
My love of reading did not change, but from this point forward, the content of my reading shifted. I read and re-read the Bible. I went to Christian bookstores and began reading Christian history and theology. For many years, I did not read fiction (unless it was assigned for a class) because I was so busy reading other things. Because I was not led to Christ by another Christian, I was on my own for a while and did end up reading a lot of Christian books that led me down some dead-end paths. God worked this for good too, however.
Our God is a God who has revealed Himself in a book, in words. We learn about God and His will, therefore, by reading. We learn by reading and reflecting on His Word. We also learn by reading and thinking with the church. This means we read and reflect on the insights of our brethren, those who are still with us and those who have gone on before us. We may also learn by reading with discernment the works of those who have spent time "reading" God's general revelation. This includes works of science, philosophy, history, poetry, and literature.
If I might offer a word of advice and encouragement to my fellow bibliophiles, it is this: As Ecclesiastes reminds us, "Of making many books there is no end" (12:12). Millions of books have been published, and thousands more are published every year. We cannot read them all, so it is best to read the good ones. If you don't know which books are the good ones, seek the advice of mature Christians. Find recommended reading lists by churches and ministries you trust.
Finally, while we read to learn about our God and His works of creation and redemption, we must not allow a love of reading to supplant our love for Christ. If we do, our books, even our Christian books, become nothing more than idols. All the reading in the world, if it does not ultimately promote our love of Christ and our brethren, is nothing but futility.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.
Authors: Keith A. Mathison