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The exponential proliferation of books is a sign of our culture’s loss of an ultimate, shared purpose to life, and a consensus on how to achieve that purpose. Devoid of this consensus, each of us is left to search for the fragments of truth in our frantic, scattered regimen of reading each year…

booksIn the past weeks, I’ve seen online a number of lists bearing some title to the effect of “Best Books I Read in 2017.”

I somewhat enjoy looking at these lists, both for their recommendations, and for the windows they provide into their composers.

But I must admit that I mostly find them stressful and anxiety-inducing. They are yet another reminder of how many great books in various genres are being written, and of how little time I have to read them.

I don’t think I am alone in my anxiety. John Naisbitt’s line from his 1982 book Megatrends (which I have not read)—that “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge”—has become something of an anthem for many today. The internet and social media have given us access to a dizzying amount of information, and attempting to process through it frequently afflicts us with intellectual paralysis.

Contributing to our information overload is the explosion in book publishing. In the U.S. alone there are more than one million new books published each year (two-thirds of them are self-published). Those are added to the pile of the more than 134 million unique titles estimated to have been published since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press.[1] And apparently, even more books are on the way. According to one survey, 81% (!) of Americans feel that they should write a book.[2]

As a culture, we can be somewhat proud of having this problem of too many books. It’s indicative of a civilization that has enjoyed several hundred years of uninterrupted intellectual development. Plus, arguably the greater problem is not that we in America are inundated with books, but that one-third of American adults did not read a single book in the past year.[3]

At the same time, however, I cannot help but feel that the exponential proliferation of books is a sign of our culture’s loss of an ultimate, shared purpose to life, and a consensus on how to achieve that purpose. Devoid of this consensus, each of us is left to search for the fragments of truth (or more often than not, mindless entertainment) in our frantic, scattered regimen of reading each year.

In an essay for First Things, Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin (who is most known for his fabulous novel Laurus, which I have read!) pronounced that the postmodern age is giving way to “the age of concentration”—one that turns “toward inner strengthening and social reconsolidation.” [4]

As part of this “age of concentration,” I feel that we in America need to begin an effort to determine which books are truly essential for our citizens to read and assimilate. We need to identify the key texts that should act as the foundation of our shared cultural and interpersonal knowledge.

We need an intellectual harbor that can help prevent us from drowning in all the information.

Republished with gracious permission from Intellectual Takeout.

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[1] Roma Panganiban, “How Many Books Have Ever Been Published?“, Mental Floss.
[2] Joseph Epstein, “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again“, New York Times.
[3] Annie Holmquist, “Americans Don’t Read and that’s Affecting our Elections“, Intellectual Takeout.
[4] Eugene Vodolazkin, “The Age of Concentration“, First Things.
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3 replies to this post
  1. Sticking with accredited scholars that are informed by God’s love has served me well, imho. They can lead you to other worthwhile works, in footnotes, etc, that aren’t necessarily informed by God’s love too.

    Even the Bible must be read alongside God’s love for a correct interpretation, as pointed out by St. Augustine.

    Just sticking with this approach still leads to “too many books”.

  2. Ecclesiastes 12:12(KJV) And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

    John 21:25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.

    Nonetheless, “too many books” — Impossible.

    “If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.” ― Winston S. Churchill

  3. There can never really be too many books. Even if we don’t have the time to read them all, the fact that we want to read them increases our desire to do so, making those that we do read, that much better.
    Music is very similar in that regard, you can never really have enough of good music.
    Our time is limited and we have so many things to do, that when we do get that chance to read a book from cover to cover, it fills another niche in our souls. Never let that desire to read good books or listen to good music ever be completely fulfilled.

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