As I sit and write, this is generally my view. I could of course look out the window to my right, which I often do in anticipation of the mail coming. That’s usually because the mail brings books, which at this point overflow their shelves. Thankfully, those books are most often provided by gracious publishers.
In one sense, this helps build my library. But, in another sense it more often than not contributes to my anti-library. This is a phrase I came across in an article on Inc the other day. Several people shared it, and so maybe you’ve already read Jessica Stillman explain why you should surround yourself with more books than you’ll ever have time to read.
It’s always gratifying to read an article urging you to do something you’ve been doing for over a decade. For a variety of reasons, I’ve built quite the antilibrary. To be clear, these are books you have that you haven’t read. At the end of the day, it should be a
powerful reminder of your limitations – the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half know, or will one day realize you’re wrong about. By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself towards the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning.
Bookshelves should in a certain sense be monuments of your ignorance. I pointed to them and called them that once during a Bible study. When people come over for the first time they will often ask if I’ve read “all those books.” The short is of course no, and I probably never will. I’ve read a good bit of them, but just for realism sake, in the picture above, there are just over 100 books that I haven’t read. And that’s one of 6 bookshelves I have (not all that big). And that’t not counting the thousands of books in my Logos library that I’ll never touch.
This all reminds of an illustration I learned in seminary and why second and third year seminary students are often the worst. I should probably start by defending that statement. In general, a first year seminary student knows in some sense that they don’t know much. But ah, after that first year, they realize how much more they know than their peers back home or in small group at church.
That is when the danger starts because it often leads to “cage stage,” where they are out to correct any and every person who they think is “off track” or “heretical.” This tends to last through the third year, and in some cases into the fourth. Mine was corrected sometime during the third year and it was because I became more focused on what I didn’t know and less focused on using what I did know as a weapon.
A big part of that, I think, is having unread books around me. One of my professors explained this phenomenon by drawing a small circle on the board and then a very large circle. He said hypothetically speaking, the small circle represents how much you know, and the large circle represents how much I know. What does the edge represent?
The edge of course represents the boundary between your knowledge and ignorance. The more you know, the larger that boundary is. As you grow in knowledge you should also grow in recognition of the edge, which is where your ignorance starts. In other words, a thirst to read and learn more can actually lead to intellectual humility if you’re constantly reminded of how much you don’t know. And what better way to remind yourself than to constantly see books you don’t have time to read?
I have found this generally speaking to be true in my own life. I graduated seminary knowing that I knew a lot, but also being painfully aware of all that I didn’t know and had yet to learn. In Stephen Covey speak, what I didn’t know I didn’t know had shrunk considerably.
Along those lines, this is also a round about case for why pastors should go to seminary and not just be self-learners. It obviously won’t always avoid this issue, but I’ve found that seminary trained pastors both know more and are more aware of what they don’t know. Pastors with marginal training so they could plant a church faster, or with shortcut training usually end up landing in a place where they don’t know what they don’t know and it proves dangerous to their congregations and staff. That can and will probably be another post entirely.
At the end of the day, you obviously shouldn’t waste money stockpiling books you’ll never read. But, if you do find yourself with too many books and not enough time, it sounds like you’re probably in good company, if you think of it in the right sort of way. That is to say, the sooner you can admit ignorance, the quicker you can truly begin to learn.