Earlier this month, I mentioned that I was doing the 2017 Reading Challenge. I should be clear that I think this time I’m approaching it as less a challenge and more a good categorical list that helps pick books to read. For me, reading 100 books isn’t that challenging, but reading wider is. Whether that’s you, or whether you’re just trying to read a bit more than usual this year, I have a suggestion.

If you look at the lists in the challenge (see here), you’ll notice this time around there are several “your choice” options. Nine of them to be exact. You’ll also notice several other categories get repeated:

  • Christian living (6)
  • Theology (5)
  • Church history (2)
  • History (2)

In addition, there are several other potentially overlapping categories, such as:

  • A book about holiness or sanctification
  • A book about spiritual disciplines
  • A book about prayer

Anything there would most likely also be considered a book on Christian living as well. So, there’s essentially 9 christian living options, 9 free picks, and 9 books potentially about theology (because of other categorical options, you’ll see them when you look at it). For the eager theological reader, you could always co-opt these and use my theological add-on from last year.

On the other hand, there are several missing categories. I would add these:

  • A book of philosophy
  • A book about philosophy
  • A book on sociology
  • A book on neuroscience
  • A book on psychology

In case you’re curious, the main distinction I have in mind between “of” and “about” would be that “of” refers to a primary source. So, a book by Kierkegaard rather than about Kierkegaard. Certainly there are other categories one could add, but these are what jumped out at me this time around.

In the coming months, I think we’ll find that books on sociology come in handy. I’ve been on a David Brooks kick (who is more popular) and have several sociological titles in my queue. I’m also hoping to do more reading in the science of decision making and other topics in neuroscience. And I shouldn’t forget psychology.

Also, I would suggest an “ad fontes” approach for the free picks in reading. That is, go back and read some primary sources. If you’re used to reading theology and biblical studies frequently, try to not read anything new for a change. Have you read any Aquinas? Start here. What about Augustine? Surely you’ve read his Confessions? I could go on, but you get the idea.

Basically, the way I think we get the most out of this challenge is to read outside of our normal drifts. If you tend to read more newer popular theology and biblical studies, still keep the categories, but go back to classics and sources that have stood the test of time. Pick some authors that have been around for centuries and proved their worth. I can’t promise that I’ll do this as much as I could this coming year, but I’d like to actually strive for it and encourage you to do the same!

When I posted about the TheoFit cut last week, I almost went on a tangent about workout routines. But, I realized it made sense as its own post. Hopefully, if you’re not doing the cut, some of what follows will still be of interest and/or help.

For a bit of history, I started working out regularly about 12 years ago. It was in response to going away to college for 2 years and coming back with a gut (it has made a comeback in recent years, btw). Once I moved to Dallas, I was able to start working out at a gym. This was thankfully because the powers at be at Dallas Seminary didn’t want to perpetuate the fat preacher stereotype so they gave us all a free membership to the Tom Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital. It was a glorious 4 years.

During that time, I was fairly consistent at 3 days a week, mostly upper body (and abs) workouts. I tended to do 3 sets of 10 and maybe 7 or exercises (so 7x3x10). I also did these exercises in a circuit with as little rest as possible in lieu of cardio.

I continued this when we moved to Florida, but with some minor adjustments. I began to alternate pushing and pulling exercises in order to move through the routine faster. I still did roughly the same number of exercises and sets and reps. Then, I did a bulking phase and switched to heavier weights and did 4 sets of 5. After a few weeks, that would become 4 sets of 6, then 7, then 8. Then I would add weight and reduce back to 5 reps.

Then, in an unfortunate act of hubris, I ending up tearing my left pec and biceps tendon. That put all significant lifting to a halt for about 3 months, and then meant starting over with most basic exercises. I’ve just now regained that strength from 2 years ago.

During the rehab phase, I started doing an exercise routine that was similar to the one Paul suggests for the cut. It started as a 4 day split and then after 4 weeks moved up to 6 (two leg days). It also had 30 minutes of cardio tagged to the end (barf) and typically had you doing 4 sets of 8 for 7 exercises (7x4x8). You were also, by the time you got to weeks 5-8, supposed to be doing 80% of your max on those sets. If you’re trying to figure out your max, you can use this calculator. As an example, if you can curl 40 lbs for 10 reps, your max is 53, and 80% would be 42.

All that to say, you have some options in the lifting department. I think if you do the cut, and you’ve previously been lifting regularly, you should stick to the 5x5x5 setup (5 exercises in 5 sets of 5). Ideally, you do 5 days, but for time constraints might do 3.

If you want to do a variant, think in terms of total load. So for instance, I can do 5 sets of 5 Arnold Presses with 60 lbs dumbbells. That’s a load of 1,500 (insert appropriate unit of measurement here). If instead I did 3 sets of 10 with 50 lbs dumbbells, that’s technically the same load, but it works your muscles differently. Because of that, I’ll alternate every few weeks. The last few weeks I was doing 8x5x5 (or 7x5x5), but this past week I’ve been doing 5x3x10. Before I did that crazy day split workout, I was doing 10x4x10. You get the idea.

The goal, that I think is clear is that you have a plan and are consistent. I can do a 5x5x5 workout in about 30 mins, which means a 3 day a week plan is 90 mins in the gym. That’s not too bad. I’m gonna try to shoot for the 5 day deal as part of rebuilding my morning routine. Today is chest day, and I’m about to head over to Planet Fitness. I’m gonna try to hit it hard until the end of March because at that point, a trip to California will crash both the diet and the workout.

After that, not sure what I’ll shift to, but I’ll be sure and have some before and after pictures to post no matter what.

With so many bands going on 10-year anniversary tours for albums that came out between 2005-2007, I’ve been thinking about nostalgia. The cynical part of me wondered if these tours were simply cash grabs to take advantage of the fact 10 years later the demographic is older and will buy more merch. The musician in me understood that bands play music live because they really enjoy it and playing familiar songs that haven’t been played in a while could be refreshing. There is also a sense in which the crowd would show more energy for old favorites than new material.

I liked the different take in the video, suggesting that nostalgia takes familiarity from the past in order to help navigate the present and future. I’d like to do some more exploring on the subject, but in the meantime, I’ve got some tickets to buy for a 10-year anniversary show next weekend.

Over the years, I’ve actually written quite a bit about New Year’s Resolutions. I am generally a fan, although not in a completely uncritical sort of way. I find it helpful to use the break over Christmas to re-evaluate my life and make changes were it seems appropriate. I’ve realized that this involves habit building rather than rule making. In some cases, it may just be one resolution to rule them all (hint: get up earlier). In others it may involve adding integrating a new habit into an existing one (like adding the 7 minute workout to the end of lift session).

No matter what, it’s important to keep in mind what I’ve said elsewhere:

Remember that New Year’s resolutions are entirely optional. You’re not a bad person if you don’t make them, and perhaps more importantly, if you don’t keep them. I imagine many people have good motivations for making resolutions, have thought through a plan for keeping them, but then fail miserably. Failure can be instructive, but it can also be tempting to despair of guilt when this happens.

Such guilt is well-placed if your New Year’s resolutions are attempts to be your own Lord and Savior. If that really were the case, you would bear the sole responsibility of becoming a better you. Do more. Try harder. Resolutions become a means to an end. It may be too easy to get stuck in this cycle, longing for a verdict of “righteous” that never comes.

Thankfully, the gospel proclaims that our justification before God is grounded not in what we can do but in what God in Christ did. As we are constantly reminded of this, we should reorient our own resolutions away from self and social pressure to resolve from a place where we enjoy the justification that matters most.

We can glorify God in whatever we do, and New Years can be a time to examine if our life habits are doing just that and make adjustments accordingly. For me, this has led to New Year’s resolutions aimed at being a better steward rather than a better savior. When it comes to habits of health, if I’m approaching them as steward instead of savior, I’ll likely be more realistic about what I can accomplish. In addition, I’ll revisit my habits on a regular basis instead of only once a year (or even less).

With that helpful theological caveat in mind, here’s several things I’d like to enhance this New Year:

  • Bible reading
  • Prayer
  • Fitness
  • Writing
  • Discipleship

For each, there are already baseline habits in place that either need expansion or revision. I’ll post about each in the coming weeks, but one in particular that I wanted to draw your attention to is TheoFit. Paul Maxwell put it together and is running what’s called a “cut” starting January 15th. If you’re curious about what a “cut” is, here’s his short explanation:

If this is something you’re interested in, sign up and check out the rest of his videos.

I’ve already been doing something close to the workout that he talks about. On Monday, I’ll explain some variants I think are worth pursuing. I think the lifting is flexible, but the diet part is not. If you really want it to be a cut, then lower calorie and higher protein intake are key. Working out helps build muscles but also raises your daily caloric threshold. Because I workout regularly and am fairly muscular (but also have a gut), I can safely eat 3000+ calories a day and not gain weight, I know that from experience, but also from using this calculator (see Paul’s note). However, if I don’t reduce that, I shouldn’t expect to lose weight, no matter much I work out or how much cardio I might do (or think about doing).

That being said, if you’re looking to establish some better health habits in the next few months, consider joining us. You’re not necessarily making a New Year’s resolution, you’re making a 8-12 week commitment that might help you reshape your eating and exercise habits for the long term.

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It’s a New Year and time to resurrect philosophy Friday. Maybe not every Friday mind you, but many of them. In the past I had previously just posted videos with sparse comments (see here for instance). Now I’d like to actually do some philosophizing (with and without a hammer), as well as post about some philosophy books I’ve read or am reading. We’ll kick it off with a recent bio of Kierkegaard which pairs nicely with another book on him I’d recommend (this one).

First off, thanks to Zondervan for not only sending me a copy of Stephen Backhouse’s Kiekegaard: A Single Life, but also the sweet tote as well! I wasn’t able to make it to ETS and so missed out on coming by the Zondervan booth and perhaps getting the tote that way. I should probably use the tote to cart books around, but I’m pretty committed to using my biceps to curl a stack.

As far as Backhouse’s book though, I enjoyed it over coffee for a couple mornings before finishing it with zest. While each chapter moves more or less chronologically through Kierkegaard’s life, they each highlight a different theme. Kierkegaard is a complex figure, if you weren’t aware. And even if you were, it doesn’t change that there’s much to uncover in the mystery of his life.

I am by no means a Kierkegaard scholar. I just find him intriguing and have general grasp of some of his major ideas. Backhouse’s book helps you learn about Kierkegaard the man, and in turn helps you better understand Kierkegaard the philosopher. Though I read Mark Tietjen’s book first, I would recommend reading both of these in reverse order. They overlap at places but are ultimately complimentary to one another. Backhouse’s book doesn’t avoid dealing with themes in Kierkegaard’s writing, but they are not the focal point. By contrast, that is Tietjen’s focal point as he is trying to introduce Kierkegaard’s thought to new readers.

After reading both books, I think Kierkegaard represents a philosopher that evangelicals ought to pay a bit more attention to in coming years. That of course is different than saying “adopt uncritically.” But, it seems that much of what Kierkegaard was against in the Danish church has found its way into many American evangelical churches. One need only look at this book list to see what I might mean. By learning more about Kierkegaard’s life and context, I think we are better able to adopt his posture in some regards, without making some of the mistakes he made (and maybe avoiding pseudonyms altogether). In that light, take and read this great intro to Kierkegaard.

Over Christmas break, I was mostly reading books, but I saw my fair share of Tweets. The one above caught my eye, and also got me thinking. I’m not sure I properly qualify as a young academic, but I have had book reviews published in a journal. I’ve also done my fair share of book reviews (that page is out of date, but you get the idea).

I’ll keep this short, because 1000 words about why a tweet is wrong seems either petty or excessive (or both). I’m going to assume that because this is a tweet, it is reflective of in the moment thinking. Looking through the mentions, it seems to be prompted by Leeman reading a poorly constructed review of one of his professor’s books. I would assume as well this isn’t the first time Leeman has come across a shoddy review by a young academic, otherwise he wouldn’t think to make a new rule.

It is not entirely clear how to divide the reasons that come after “Either.” It could be a binary, in which case it would be a false dichotomy. To avoid that, let’s say there’s 4 elements. Young academics doing book reviews:

  1. Try too hard to prove themselves
  2. Are extra critical (probably in excess, because more is probably better in most cases)
  3. Miss the forest for trees
  4. Say nothing of value (presumably scholarly)

Having easily done several hundred book reviews since my time at Dallas, I will be the first to confess I have done all of these. It is hard not to think about #1 if the review is being published somewhere that receives a wider reading than your personal blog. My review of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith, might be close to violating #2, but I still stand by it. It was also one of the few reviews I’ve done that was published in a journal. And, in a point I’ll come back to, there was professorial oversight.

#3 is certainly a danger if you’re not able to do synthesis and big picture thinking. The result is a review that provides a good chapter by chapter summary, but offers no overarching conclusions. And when that is done, #4 is also in play. Anyone can read a book, and with time and effort, summarize what each chapter says. But, without some kind of critical interaction, or evaluative comments, no scholarly value is imparted. Judging by the output of my reviews, you can rest assured many are guilty of #4, and some are surely #3, but I’d have to go back and figure out which ones. #4 is probably the biggest issue in book reviews in general, but if one were to take time to compile data, I don’t think it would be limited to younger reviewers.

All that being said, I don’t think this is a young academic problem. It is much more likely to happen with younger, less established scholars. But, one only has to subscribe to JETS or Themelios to find reviews that come from older academics that hit one of these 4 elements. Maybe the one the least likely to happen is #1, but then we have the sad tale of G. E. Ladd, who published books in pursuit of #1 and was devastated by a review from another establish scholar that violated #2.

If we look at this list as a criteria for editors to keep in mind, I think we’re much close to a new guideline. The age or rank of the academic involved shouldn’t have bearing on publication if the review does the following:

  1. Does not seem out to reinvent the wheel via book review
  2. Is appropriately critical (summarizes and evaluates)
  3. Describes both forest and trees where appropriate
  4. Adds value to the scholarly discussion of the book in question

We need more reviewers, young and old, who are capable of doing the above. And perhaps more significantly, are capable of realizing when you can’t do this with a particularly book. Perhaps this is the element that Leeman’s Tweet hits on. Younger academic reviewers may be less able to sense when they can’t fulfill the criteria. That is one reason why I appreciated the opportunity to do an independent study right before graduating Dallas that focused on writing good book reviews. It was overseen by Dr. Glenn Kreider, who helped me shape reviews that met the above criteria. The resulting reviews were divided between two journals. In each case, I was the primary reviewer, but because I completed it under Dr. Kreider’s supervision, his name appears as well.

If we’d like to avoid more reviews like the one Jonathan Leeman read, maybe we ought to have more seasoned professors like mine who are willing to shape the reviewing tendencies of young academics. If they produce shoddy reviews, it’s probably not because they’re young, but rather untrained. Or worse, they’ve had shoddy reviewers modeled for them by older academics who should know better.

As I look ahead to the reviews I’ll do this year, I want to be more clear about my limitations and strive to hit the criteria Leeman gave us. I want to be more selective, while still writing on many books. That probably means less full critical reviews, but hopefully it will mean better quality reviews when they’re completed. And also, thanks to Leeman’s tweet, I think I want to resurrect the series on doing quality book reviews.

Or maybe I’ll just review tweets about book reviews…

You may have seen my monthly posts throughout 2016 about Tim Challies Reading Challenge (see my year end post here). He made some changes to the overall plan to make it more flexible and is continuing it in 2017. You can download the plans here.

This time around, I’m planning to be a bit more strategic. I want to continue to read more broadly, but I also want to be more selective with the books I read in my usual genres. I am generally a completer when it comes to reading, so I’m trying to break that habit.

Along those lines, you may have wondered how I was able to read so many books last year (or in previous years). Part of the answer is found in Challies post on how to read 100 books in a year. I don’t typically set a goal for how much I want to read, but if you’re not in the habit, that’s a good idea. Also, his tips for constraining entertainment usage are helpful for time management.

Typically, I am able to read so much for a few reasons. First, I read 900 words per minute (on average). This comes in handy when reading so much within the biblical studies and theological studies genres. Often, you notice that many of these writers repeat themes and ideas. As an example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across an explanation of creation-fall-redemption-consummation in biblical theology. It is rare that an author says anything that adds to the discussion of those topics, so reading through that section of his book goes quickly.

Second, and this goes with the quicker pace, I don’t read every word (that’s part of how you do 900). I am reading primarily for comprehension, not necessarily absorbing each and every word. In non-fiction, the prose isn’t always that great anyway, and unless you’re reading a book by Kevin Vanhoozer, you’re not missing any clever turns of phrase or literary allusions. I’ll adjust my pace to compensate based on who I’m reading, but many things are easier to plow through if you’re primarily after the argument and comprehension. An extension of this is learning when to not finish a book, but that’s a topic for another day.

Third, I set aside specific times to read. For me, this is first thing in the morning after Bible reading, and then for a good chunk on Saturdays. I have two established reading spots (one morning and one afternoon) and will resurrect a third in the coming weeks (the beach). Having specific places and times to go read helps prime you for the task. Also, I bribe myself with beverages on both occasions.

Fourth, I read multiple books simultaneously. I guess “concurrently” is better. I only read one book at any one time, but I cycle back and forth between several. One reason for this is that I like to jump around on tasks. Another is that you can actually read more if you switch out books between chapters. I use bookmarks and chapters as naturally stopping points. In a typical morning session, I might read 2 chapters in one book, and then one in another. Mentally, this is actually easier than trying to focus on one book until you finish it. If you can learn to have several books going at once, and switch between them when you read, you’ll actually be able to read for longer stretches of time.

Lastly, reading is something I enjoy doing, so it comes easily. That being said, a downside to reading so much last year is that it means there are other things (like writing) that I didn’t do with the available time that I had. I was also reading a lot to escape, which is not a good thing in the long run. I am hoping to be more engaged in my relationships this year, and so that means less reading. I would rather have a balance ultimately, so this isn’t something I am reluctant to do. Ironically perhaps, my New Year’s resolution is to read less and relate more. As the months of 2017 pass, I’ll be sure and let you know how it goes!

2016 In a Single Picture

December 31, 2016 — Leave a comment

2016 was an interesting year. On the one hand, Ali will tell you it was one of the hardest years of her life, and I could probably say the same. On the other hand, for me personally, it felt like what this picture looks like. Storms all around, but mostly moments of clarity (and that is perhaps ironic if you know where my location is in this screenshot).

The year began with us sharing a large house with our best couple friends, a teenage girl for whom the wife was a legal guardian, and the son of one of the elders at our church.

It is ending with us in the same house, but only still living with half of the couple.

2016 started off innocently enough. But then, my friend’s dad died in late January, and when he got back from Tennessee, he and his wife began fighting off and on for several months for the rest of the spring. Early May, we had to ask the teenage girl to leave for violating the lease, and then the wife left suddenly the following week and hasn’t been back. That began the summer. It ended with us having to ask the elder’s son to leave for reasons that need not be explained.

We also left the church after several years of sitting under poor preaching and watching leadership failures abound. We had poured out hearts out there for a few years, but despite being verbally appreciated late in the game, had never felt particularly valued (because we weren’t).

We also found out that Ali’s Panera was closing in early 2017, and their idea of a new job for her was one involving more hours and even more stress than she had been dealing with for the past 5 years. She had already decided to put in her notice and so they never formally made the offer.

So, moving into 2017, Ali’s job is ending, we’re living with my friend who has a mostly ended marriage but we’re not sure because his wife, who was Ali’s former best friend, doesn’t communicate and hasn’t served papers, and we’re short a roommate and looking for a church.

At the same time, God has been very faithful. We were able to have the closest thing to a vacation in our now 7 year marriage. It came right before we went through the roughest summer we’ve ever had. And it was also the catalyst that led to us sensing the timing of God’s call to begin raising support for more permanently working in student and college ministry. And now it’s also why we’re not particularly freaked out that Ali’s having to downgrade to a part time job.

2016 was basically a storm, but we’ve honestly been shielded from the brunt of it. Things could have been much worse, even as Ali had a much rougher time than I did. Many of the storms primarily affected other people very close to us and only secondarily ourselves. Yet there was still a significant amount of trauma, and mostly in our own home. As we look forward to 2017, I’m ready to focus on getting healthier in mind, body, and spirit, and preparing for long term commitments to ministry in Orlando. Ali would say the same. Because of that, I don’t imagine this will be the last year of storms. At the same time, I’m glad it’s over and am looking forward to what God has in store for us next year. We have much to be grateful for, but one thing is that 2016 is over.

I did quite a bit of reading in 2016, just over 48,000 pages to be exact. I participated in Tim Challies 2016 Reading Challenge (see below for month by month lists) and will probably do so again in 2017. I didn’t complete it, but that’s because I didn’t feel totally constrained to read in the categories he offered. I liked the tweaks he offered for next year in that regard.

As I reflected on all that reading, I thought a “Best” list wasn’t the “best” way to recap things. “Best” can mean a lot of different things, and in some sense is an subjective judgment masquerading as an objective one. Tim Challies noticed that many of the same books appear on multiple lists, and he offers a roundup list of the lists. Often, “best” means “books I liked the most.” Occasionally, it means “books that are objectively speaking, the most well-written ones that I read,” but I don’t think that is often the case.

In that spirit, here are my end of the year lists that I think are better (not best) assessments of my 2016 reading.

Books I Most Enjoyed in 2016

Notice anything about this list? Mostly non-theological. But, in terms of pleasure reading, these were the books I couldn’t put down. These were not necessarily un-thought provoking, but mostly just really fun to read. You should perhaps notice the irony that these are my “most enjoyed book” but they are outside of the stream of books I normally read. The bulk of what I read is theology and biblical studies, yet they don’t feature in this list.

They do however feature prominently in this one:

Book That Most Influenced My Thinking in 2016

These are books that I felt I needed to discuss and process more than others. They either contribute to my own personal development or class discussions, or sometimes both. Some of them I still need to write on, so look forward to that.

An original iteration of this next list was “Most Important Books I Read in 2016,” but I quickly realized that is a difficult category to pin down. Instead, I opted for a list of books I’d recommend, but that didn’t appear in the previous two lists. These are books I think are important, and helpful, even if they didn’t make my most enjoyable or most beneficial list.

Books I Read in 2016 That You Should Too

All of these are books that I thought were interesting, and would be beneficial for many people that similar reading interests as I do. Some of them are already well known, others deserve wider recognition. Several of them I’ll hopefully post more about in the coming weeks. You may notice some themes embedded (e.g. books on the Trinity, apologetics), as well as recurring authors. In that vein, here’s a list of authors that I read multiple books by this year and am glad I did. I would say each is also an example of someone who not only communicates important thoughts in writing, but does so well. In other words, I’ll make a case that these are the best writers I read this year.

Authors I Most Benefited From in 2016

  • Andy Crouch
  • Eugene Peterson
  • Tim Keller
  • Peter Leithart
  • Kevin Vanhoozer
  • Oliver Crisp

I briefly contemplated ending this group of lists on a negative note (Most Disappointing Books I Read in 2016), but 2016 was enough of a downer for most people without me pointing out what books fell flat. There were several, some surprising, some not. A good chunk of 188 books I read were simply “blah.” Not horribly written, but not super interesting either. Maybe important and game changing for some readers, but either redundant or slightly boring for me. That list would be too long to include here. I’ll explore reasons why that happens in a post next week. I would say perhaps I should cut back on my reading, but we both know that probably won’t happen.

Oh, here’s the month by month list of reading:

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By Goodread’s measurements, I read more books this year than in any previous year. It honestly doesn’t seem like it, but maybe I’m misremembering how I spent my time. But, I read over 25 more books than my previous best for a total count of 188. While that almost doubled Challies Reading Challenge (I averaged 3.6 books a week compared to the 2 a week needed for completion), I didn’t actually complete it. The obvious reason why is that some categories listed below just didn’t catch my interest enough for me to read a book that filled that slot. I am satisfied with my level of participation though and ended with 90 of the 104 books read. If you’re curious how I read so much, watch a post about it next week.

As you can tell by my December totals, I’ve been on break. To be fair, some of the books listed below were plodded through over the course of several months and just happened to be completed this month. Vol. 3 of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is case in point. While it’s the longest book I read this year, I didn’t read all of it this year.

Several books below you can expect a review for in the coming weeks. You’ll notice some themes, and that I went on an Oliver Crisp binge (more on that tomorrow).

That being said, here’s what I completed in December:

If you’re keeping score at home, I’m finishing out with 90 books in the lists below, and a new PR of 188 books this year.

Here’s the whole list, in case you’re curious (and even if you’re not):

THE LIGHT READER (12 BOOKS)

THE AVID READER (13 BOOKS)

THE COMMITTED READER (21 BOOKS)

THE OBSESSED READER (44 BOOKS)

(image via challies)