I own a lot of books. I like reading so I buy a lot of books and get given a lot of books. Sometimes I’m able to sit down and enjoy reading a book slowly and carefully over a period of time, sometimes I need to read and digest a few books quickly in order to engage with them for a talk or article. I also need to make assessments about which books I’m going to give more time to.
So, how do I do that? Well first of all, I’ve learnt to do what is sometimes referred to as gutting a book. I’ll read the introduction and the final chapter. Then I’ll glance through the chapters getting a feel for how the argument builds. This will give me a view of the shape and structure of the book and of the argument made. I might then go back to the chapter headings to see if there’s areas I want to read in more detail at this stage.
But I’m also doing something else, something that I’m sure others do as well. I’m getting a feeling for whether I consider the book reliable and trustworthy. This is important because I’m often reading book dealing with tricky and controversial issues and I try to read both those I agree with and I disagree with. As I step into a book I start to build up a feel for whether I can trust it.
How do I do that? Well one thing I look for is how the author engages with subject matter I’m familiar with or even have a level of expertise in. How they handle the stuff I’m familiar with or knowledgeable about either increases or reduces my confidence in what they have to say about those areas I’m not so sure about.
To give two examples of this. First, I recently read a book where the author made much of their expertise and scholarship in mediaeval history. Yet their engagement and methodology with specific examples of history was questionable and that raised doubts about their conclusions. Secondly, I’ve just picked up a book and one of the things I’ve done is flicked through the bibliography to see if they engage with an author who I know well. I’ve just found the reference to that author in the book. That author happens to be known as presenting the opposing argument to the book at its strongest. I’ve noticed two things. First that the author in question gets minimal attention, secondly that the attention they do get in one footnote involves a number of assertions I know to be false.
This leads to another thing I’m looking for. I don’t just want to know whether they represent their opponents accurately but also do they treat them fairly. In the second example, I look further into the book and see how they treat their other interlocutors. I’m treated to an extended bit of gossipy tittle tattle about one notable theologian as the author writes snidely about their lecture classes.
I’ve come across this style a few times. I think it’s meant to present the academic as down to earth and personable. Sadly it has the opposite effect not least because the intention is far too obvious. However when trying to appear chatty descends into gossip and potential slander then we need to call it for what it is. It’s obnoxious, ungodly, and unbefitting. The author has gone for the ad-hominem attack on the man instead of his argument. It’s possible of course that there is a lot of buried gold in the book and because of the subject matter I’m going to persist but I already feel like I’ve got a bit of a stinker in my hands.
We may not like it but people are forming judgements about us all the time and they form them based on what they are immediately able to see and recognise. Most of us are not writing books but our lives provide a book that others read. The message at the heart of our book is the Gospel. So, will people get to that message and be persuaded or will they have already been put off as they’ve given us an initial skim read?