While there is some truth to the maxim to “not judge a book by its cover,” this is generally best applied to people, and even then it can be shown to not be the best way to proceed in all situations.
In fact, what actually holds true with respect to being able to understand a person better from their outward appearances and actions also applies to books. You shouldn’t judge either by a casual glance at the superficial covering, but if you study the outside carefully, you can actually gain a pretty accurate understanding of the inside.
I’ll leave this alone in how and when it should be used in respect to people and instead focus on books and give you a heuristic I use in selecting books. There is an inordinate amount of books out there to be read, but a lot of them are simply a waste of time for you to read. Being able to somewhat discern that on the front end will help with decision-making and help you decide if this book you just found in the bookstore that looks interesting, is in fact, worth your time to read.
A heuristic is another way of referring to a “rule of thumb.” From here on out, you are getting my opinion on how to select books, not an authoritative, “Thou shalt do such and such if you wanna be a good Christian in your reading.” To the extent you value my opinion on how I decide what to spend my time reading,, you’ll find this post helpful.
For starters, I have several authors that, while I don’t necessarily read everything they write, I consider them to be solid theologically and wiser than I am and so generally will value their recommendations on a book. These authors include (but are not limited to):
- John Piper
- D.A. Carson
- Al Mohler
- Mark Dever
- John Frame
- Tim Keller
- Paul David Tripp
- Carl Trueman
- David Powlison
- J.I. Packer
- Sinclair Ferguson
I would virtually recommend anything that any of these authors has written, and further, if a book has a little blurb by one of them on the book, it’s probably a solid book. That being said, don’t buy and read a book just because one of these men wrote it. Several of the authors listed above I personally own no books by. However, I value their recommendation, and if they published a book that fit my interests, or current research assignments, then I would definitely pick it up.
Beyond the author of the book, you can also look at the publisher to gain more information. I would generally recommend anything published by:
- P & R Publishing
- Banner of Truth Trust
- Christian Focus (and also Christian Heritage)
- New Growth Press
For all of these, I have yet to find a book that is not solid, although I don’t just buy a book because they publish it.
Though they focus on wider theological streams, I have greatly benefited from reading books published by these groups:
What you can gain from whether or not the book was published by one of these, is whether or not it was published by an academic imprint of them. In other words, a book published by IVP Academic is going to be a tougher read than just the average IVP book. That can at least be helpful as some publishers don’t differentiate, such as P&R and Eerdmans.
I don’t have any publishers that I would flat out not recommend, but given the nature of publishing companies having a concern for the bottom line, it is helpful to realize that money, not theological soundness, is what drives whether or not a certain book will be published (although I will say this is not necessarily true of the publishers I recommended). Incidentally, I would also be cautious of a “Christian” book that is published by a non-Christian publisher. Doesn’t mean it is theological vacuous, but I have very few edifying theological books that aren’t published by a Christian publisher. The bottom line is definitely a factor in a publication like that, and it should strike as at least odd that Free Press (to give one example) recently published Richard Dawkins’ latest book AND Joel Osteen’s latest book.
Hopefully this can be helpful to get you started in just a basic evaluation of a book that catches your eye. Let’s use an example real quick though to apply some of this.
Now if you’re like me, you probably have not read much of Poythress’ work. This book though caught my attention, so here is how I evaluated it. I turned it over and saw it had blurbs by Wayne Grudem (solid evangelical theologian), John Frame (solid Reformed philosopher), John Collins (OT scholar) and Kevin Vanhoozer (excellent scholar on hermeneutics). Poythress himself is a prof at Westminster Theological Seminary (NT Interpretation) and is listed as having a Ph.D from Harvard. The book is published by Crossway. Based on all that then, I bought the book and it has proved to be a very good read so far. In probing a little further, I found out that Poythress’ degree listed from Harvard is actually in mathematics, and he also holds a Th.M in apologetics from Westminster, a M.Litt (Master of Letters) from Cambridge, and Th.D from University of Stellenbosch. In addition to holding graduate degrees (two of which are doctorates) in three fields (mathematics, apologetics, NT), he also studied at the Summer Institute of Linguistics. So in the end, there is probably no one better qualified to write a book of this nature.
Now, there is probably another post needed to outline a more advanced approach to evaluating a book by its cover, but here at least was the basics. Hopefully, it will prove helpful for those wandering how to quickly evaluate whether a given book is worth buying/reading.