Friday, 6 April 2012

I Love Monographs!

Something strange happened to me when I went away to graduate school. I fell in love with monographs. As an undergraduate, I loathed reading more than one book for a course. It infuriated me to have to peruse any title longer than 200 pages, and especially those boring books that contained lots of footnotes and no pictures (as I say this, I realize how much I sound like many of my current undergraduate students). During my college days I was a business administration major with plans to become a stockbroker. I had no desire to retain information that did not relate to my future plans as a financial consultant. My outlook changed, however, in 2001.

After 911 and the stock market depression that followed, I began looking at the books on the shelves of my parents' library in order to answer some of my vexing theological questions. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson and Knowing God by J. I. Packer. Once I had read all the books of interest that my parents owned, I decided to take some graduate courses in theology since, at this point, I still had more questions than answers with regard to Christian doctrine. Eventually, I resigned from my position as Account Vice President at UBS Financial and moved my wife and newborn son to Vancouver, Canada, where I attended Regent College and completed two degrees in theology. But even then, I didn't exactly love reading monographs.

Scotland was the place where I truly learned to appreciate books. My PhD director expected me to read 50-100 titles for each background essay that I wrote for him. On average, each of the several background essays took me one month to research. My goal was to get through at least one book each day. On a good day, I could scan through three monographs, but titles like Baron Duckham's A History of the Scottish Coal Industry, Vol. 1: 1700-1815 could easily take all day to complete. After two years of reading multiple monographs, day after day, something clicked. I now loved, and even hungered, to read academic titles. Sure, I cursed boring texts that I had to finish for my research, but on the whole I looked forward to waking up each day and crossing off books that were on my reading list.

Occasionally, I would read great scholarly works like The Enlightenment and the Book and Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment by Richard Sher or Daniel Walker Howe's What God Hath Wrought. Among American evangelical authors, I devoured Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of America and George Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture and Jonathan Edwards: A Life. I marveled at the creative writing talents of Bruce Hindmarsh and his John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition, the intellectual ability of Allen Guelzo and his Edwards on the Will, and the organization and succinctness of David Hempton's Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. Lately, I have been impressed with the books by John Wigger--his American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists in particular--as well as John Grigg's The Lives of David Brainerd, and Vincent Carretta's Phillis Wheatley. Now, I feel anxious if I go more than 24 hours without leafing through a few pages in a monograph. The good news is that there is no shortage of books to read. Yesterday, for instance, the mailman delivered the very promising The Long Farewell: Americans Mourn the Death of George Washington by Gerald Kahler. The problem is, of course, finding the time to work my way through my ever-expanding library.
While my apparent addiction may seem strange to some people--perhaps even nerdy--I am convinced that if people train themselves to read intelligent texts, and on a frequent basis, that a desire will follow. I am reminded of a sermon that my pastor gave a few weeks ago in which he encouraged the audience to spend time each day reading the Bible, arguing that by doing so sooner or later a person will hunger for God's Word. The same principle applies to reading in general: consistent training is necessary for anyone who wants to enrich his or her intellectual life. Forget Joel Osteen and pick up a monograph by a reputable author on a religious topic.


Sapience said...

Amen to this. In my spare time I've been reading Kevin Vanhoozer's Remythologizing Theology. It's a stretch--I am by no means trained as a philosopher--but it's been lovely.

Exploring the Study of Religious History said...

That's a great book. His "Drama of Doctrine" is also very dense, but makes an important argument regarding how we should read scripture.