Living in the age of TikTok, sound bytes, emojis, and GIFs one might think the practice of reading a book is antiquated and unnecessary. Yet, even in our digital age of sight and sound, the majority of information is primarily transmitted by the written word. Certainly, for Christians, as people of the book, Bible reading is critical to our knowledge and formation about the things of God. Yet, despite Reformation-era cries for sola Scriptura!, Christians have, for two millennia, been filling libraries with texts and tomes about God and what it means to be his human creatures living in this world. The student of theology knows the truth of this statement as they make their way through extensive booklists each semester, tackling the required and recommended reading deemed important for the upcoming semester. And, for the pastor-scholar, with their seminary degrees in the rearview mirror, reading is critical to lifelong learning and continued preparation for ministry regardless of the setting be it in the church, the academy, or elsewhere.
There is much one ought to read when one is committed to loving God with their mind as well as their heart, soul, and strength. Even though I was a voracious reader prior to seminary, nothing was more disheartening than to receive the syllabus on the first day of class only to find out I was already behind in the assigned readings. Theological reading, however, is a very different kind of reading than one might associate when one curls up in a cozy armchair with a page-turner of a novel or sinks into a beach chair with the latest bestseller in hand. Theological reading involves strategically appraising a book and examining its constituent parts before ever opening the book to chapter one. With a few skills and some practice, it can be possible to discover quite a bit about the book’s contents without even reading the words on the pages in between.
Judge the book by its cover! Ignore the maxim of your elementary school librarian — or at least put the critical thinking skills and knowledge you’ve gained since then to work for you now. Certainly, cover design, typeface, and graphics—all matters of taste—can be overlooked. What one publisher’s marketing department considers eye-catching might be viewed as busy and crowded by a potential reader, whereas a plain cover with simple typeset can be understood either as elegant or just plain boring. But a book’s cover—its entire cover—offers helpful clues to the prospective theological reader. Not just who wrote it and what its title is, but who also wrote in support of it? Is there a forward by a notable peer being advertised on the front cover? Is this an updated and revised version of the text? Or is it an anniversary edition of the book with a new introduction by the author reflecting on insights gleaned since the original publication? A book that is being rereleased speaks to the longevity of the work and means the book is of such lasting value that the publisher is willing to continue to invest in it for further sales.
The back cover provides hints not just about the book’s contents, but its place in the larger conversation. Who endorses the book on the back and what do they have to say about its importance? Typically, the publisher’s logo appears in the bottom left corner. Knowing the publisher and their audience can sometimes, but not always, offer clues about for whom the book is aimed. Is it from a publishing house that caters to an academic audience, to those actively pursuing degrees, and to the scholar-pastor, or is this work meant to be accessible to laity and a more general audience? Maybe this can’t be figured out by the publisher alone, but other contextual clues, e.g., the book’s title, author, and any accolades from peers can offer some helpful guidance about who the intended reader is. How is the book categorized? Publishers may include a broad category near the ISBN information as to whether the book belongs to Bible Study, Christian Living, Discipleship, Christian Spirituality, or Christian Ethics, etc.
Of course, it isn’t possible to fully know what a book has to say by its cover alone. But it can give the reader a good idea of why the book might have been chosen by a professor for a certain class. Learning to read the cover for its clues can definitely help the lifelong student know if a particular book is something they want to open and continue to evaluate before deciding if reading it is worth their time, money, or valuable real estate on their already over-crowded bookshelves. More on examining the book’s interior to learn about the book without actually reading it word for word next time.