I Read Dead People
Why reading contemporary Christians books may be a waste of your time.

People ask me all the time, "Who do you read?" In most cases they're looking for book recommendations. (Some people, particularly Calvinistas, are trying to determine if I'm safe–are my ideas and my theology grounded in what they see as credible sources.) But my answer usually surprises them: "I read dead people."

What do I mean? In my role with Leadership Journal I get dozens of books sent to me almost every week from publishers. They're looking for some good press, an endorsement, or a review in our pages. And while there are some very good books being written these days (we feature the best every year with our Golden Canon awards), there is also a lot of chaff. I simply don't have time to read everything.

So here's what I've learned. If someone has been dead for a while and his book is still in print and widely read, then it's probably worth reading. And, if we're honest, there are precious few books written by Christian authors today that will still be read in 24 months, let alone 24 years. I want to use my reading time to immerse myself in powerfully formative material, and not just flash-in-the-pan trends. Does this mean I never read living authors? No, of course not. But if they're not dead, I like them to be pretty close. I can usually trust that they're not going to waste what time they have left on this earth writing sappy Hallmark card sentimental Evangelical fluff.

A few years ago we published an interview Bill Hybels conducted with Steve Sample, president of USC and author of The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership. Hybels, who is a voracious reader, was surprised to learn that Sample recommends reading less and not more. Here's an excerpt from the piece:

Hybels: One part of this book made me laugh out loud, because these are some of the strangest views I've ever heard—about what leaders should be reading. Tell us your theory.

Sample: My theory is that, to a greater extent than most of us realize, we are what we read. I think it was Thoreau who made the observation that reading one book necessarily precludes your reading hundreds of others. You have to make hard choices with respect to reading.

If you're in a leadership position, the least important things for you to read are newspapers and trade magazines and the like. Thomas Jefferson once said "The man who reads nothing at all is better informed than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

I allow myself 10 minutes to scan the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal and that's enough. But the other 20 minutes has to go toward reading substantive material.

Hybels: I've been telling leaders this for a long time: read everything you can read about leadership. You took my counsel one step further. You said, "Don't read just anything about leadership; read the 'supertexts' about leadership." What are you talking about?

Sample:Of the hundreds of thousands of things that men and women have written 400 years ago or before, only about 25 to 50 are widely read today. So there's something very special about these 25 to 50 texts. They influence everything that is written and spoken in our society to an unprecedented degree.

You can usefully spend your time reading any of the supertexts, even over and over again, because they probably tell us more about human nature than anything else we have at our disposal. But for books that are not the supertexts, I think a person has to be very, very selective.

January 27, 2011

Displaying 1–10 of 48 comments


February 19, 2011  11:16am

To all the others here, I would add Lesslie Newbigin.

Report Abuse


February 05, 2011  12:22pm

Also another dead woman, Eugenia Price's, "The Burden Is Light".

Report Abuse

Christy Foldenauer

February 04, 2011  10:39am

Skye, I vote for Tozer, who is a go-to for inspiration for me. Also, I recently found Watchman Nee - saw you recommended him in a reply. He is awesome, the book Sit, Walk, Stand is a must read, in my opinion. I'd also add a dead woman, Corrie Ten Boom, who has a remarkable story and great spiritual depth.

Report Abuse

Lu Allison

February 02, 2011  3:01pm

I agree! And I disagree! I have read many of the suggested books and love the "old" stuff. But some of it is difficult to read especially for those who haven't attended seminary or grad school. I do agree that the plethora of books in the stores is outrageous but then I'll talk with someone whose life was changed by a book/author that I thought wasn't significant (ouch to my ego). But I will be really honest and admit that there is one book that I make it a point to read annually, Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. This is a novel based on the Hosea story. It was this book that helped me to receive God's love, not the systematic theology or hermenuetics or any other 50+ hours of Bible classes I took in Bible college. The author was a romance writer until her conversion. Did I expect her novel to change my life, absolutely not! But it did, more than most others. So now I try to let testimony books and novels be a part of my reading material.

Report Abuse

Wayne Shockley

February 02, 2011  2:58pm

It's interesting that no one has yet mentioned Francis Schaeffer I just started re-reading "He is there and He is not silent" Whether you like him or not, he makes you think. I wonder why he has fallen out of favor.

Report Abuse


January 31, 2011  8:30am

"The democracy of the dead," eh? I have no one new to add to all the above posts. I'll just echo some of my favorites. Dostoyevsky Paul Hiebert (super-biased on this one, since I majored in missions/anthropology @ Eastern U under the tutelage of Hiebert's daughter) Flannery O'Connor Lewis And the people whom I know I ought to read but have not (yet): Bonhoeffer (plenty read *about* him, but none of his actual publications) Teresa of Avila

Report Abuse


January 31, 2011  12:59am

Dead Guys: C.S. Lewis Doestoevsky Tozer Chesterton Nouwen Living authors that people will still be reading after they're dead: Willard Foster Packer Wright Peterson Yancey I would also recommend John Irving, Yann Martel, Anne Tyler and Walker Percy

Report Abuse


January 30, 2011  9:27am

Sometimes the Bible itself can help us make decisions about reading material. I like Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

Report Abuse


January 30, 2011  8:06am

Great post & responses. One dead female writer not mentioned so far, but who I've enjoyed reading is Flannery O'Connor.

Report Abuse

Mel Lawrenz

January 30, 2011  6:36am

Also, to amplify Skye's point, C. S. Lewis's essay "On the Reading of Old Books" is excellent. It is his introduction to a translation of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo; you can find the essay easily by googling it.

Report Abuse