Reading is like a snowball going down a hill. When you read a few really good books, those books generally point you to others, and those others to others. Pretty soon you’re well on your way to a life of consistent personal growth.
But let me stress at the outset before I mention any books that I don’t think reading many books is important, not for the average person anyway — maybe for the scholar, but not for the average person.
Reading good books — solid books, non-sudsy books, substantial books — is really important. And reading them well. If you wonder what I mean by reading really well, one place to start is Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book.
This is not a new book. I read it for the first time after my college days. Oh, I wish I had read that book earlier. But I’m so glad I read it in my early twenties. If you want to go deep with how you read, you’ll be inspired and helped by that book.
Let’s begin by grouping some books, and I’ll just name what came to my mind in some categories and you can go from there.
Let’s start with biography. I love biography. I think biography is one of the most efficient ways to learn about history and theology and psychology, all while in the form of a good story. At least, the best biographies are amazing in this regard. Here are a few:
- Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. This is a biography of that epoch-making Martin Luther in the 1500s.
- David Daniell’s biography of Tyndale: William Tyndale: A Biography. William Tyndale translated the Bible from Greek into English for the first time in the 1500s. He was killed for it. It’s an amazing glimpse into the kind of Christianity that burns people alive for reading the English Bible. You get a taste that we have had periods of history in which Christians burned Christians for reading the Bible. It’s a great story.
- Iain Murray’s biography of Jonathan Edwards: Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, and Iain Murray’s The Forgotten Spurgeon. Murray is an unusually effective storyteller because there is always life and doctrine in his stories. Yet you never feel like he’s just using the story to teach the doctrine. But the doctrine really does create amazing stories.
- One more book in this category. It comes from St. Augustine, who died in 430. He is probably the most influential Christian in history, outside the Bible. His book Confessions is the longest prayer you will ever read. I thought, I want to write a book that’s three hundred pages long and the whole thing is addressed to God. Well, taste and see what Augustine does there for the celebration of sovereign grace in his lecherous early life, and what God made of him.
The second category I would give is missions.
- I know it’s a biography, but I’m putting in missions To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson. Adoniram Judson went out from America to do missions. I think he was the first American — at least, the first white American. I think there was a black woman who went to Hawaii before him as a missionary. But he was the first white missionary to go outside America to Burma, where he almost went insane with grief and loneliness. What a great story of Adoniram Judson by Courtney Anderson.
- John Paton autobiography, John G. Paton: The Autobiography of the Pioneer Missionary to the New Hebrides. This book is worth it just for the first few pages with his magnificent farewell scene from his father. It is an unforgettable, beautiful scene where a father who loves his son sends him off, knowing he may never see this boy again. But the father knew that his son was doing exactly what he wanted him to do.
- Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret. This was written by his son and daughter-in-law. Hudson Taylor was the founder of the China Inland Mission. And getting inside Hudson Taylor’s life and story is a great place to be.
- Elizabeth Elliot’s biography of Amy Carmichael called A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael is great. This is good not only because Amy Carmichael was a one-of-a-kind woman and missionary, but because you get a taste of Elizabeth Elliot. Elizabeth Elliot was, to my mind, almost in a class by herself in twentieth-century women because of the amazing combination of gifts that she brought.
- If the women who are listening would like a longer list of books about women that are worthy, I would suggest you go to Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth’s article at TGC. I think it’s called “On My Shelf.” There’s a whole bunch of books there. They ask what books are on your shelf, and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has listed a lot of biographies of worthy women there.
Here’s another category: Reformed theology or Reformed vision of reality.
- Go to J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. Get J.I. Packer’s Quest For Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, which is a collection of shorter writings. You don’t have to read it straight through. In fact, in that book Packer’s introduction to John Owen’s Death of Death is probably one of the most influential short essays in the contemporary Reformed resurgence. It catapulted many of us from a fledgling love of God’s sovereignty into a more full and robust appreciation for the truth of God’s sovereign grace.
- Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity, edited by Anthony Carter. This is valuable not only because the stories themselves are fascinating and helpful, but because these ten brothers become portals into African American authors that you may know nothing about and may be worthy of following up on.
- Jonathan Edwards’s book Religious Affections is in a class by itself (in my judgment) for elevating and clarifying the role of the affections, or the emotions, in the Christian life. It was a shocking and glorious read for me sitting in a rocking chair on many Sunday evenings in Munich, Germany, years ago.
- If you want the best short thing that Jonathan Edwards has ever written, or the most seminal, I would say “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” It was a sermon. You can read it in an hour or less. You can find it free online. If there’s one thing that Edwards wrote that I would recommend that’s short, that’s where I would go.
The next category would be salvation.
- I would point you to John Stott’s Basic Christianity. I would also read John Stott’s book on the cross, The Cross of Christ.
- John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Oh, I remember reading that in my early thirties. Just the title itself is great. It helps you understand what it means that there’s redemption in an accomplished stage and an applied stage. It walks through what that means in light of God’s sovereign way of working in our lives.
I’ve got a category called “Christian life.”
- I would point you to a Puritan named Jeremiah Burroughs and his book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment as a sampling of all those Puritan paperbacks. The Banner of Truth has reprinted all of them. They are worthy of our attention.
- Spurgeon has written so much, you can’t begin to read it all. But let me point to two essays in his lectures to his students; they’re probably available online separately. The first is “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear” — how to handle and survive criticism in the ministry (or anywhere). If you want to know how to navigate life when you are a controversial person, you need to have a blind eye and a deaf ear and read what Spurgeon means by that. The other one is “The Minister’s Fainting Fits.” That is an old fashioned title for how you deal with depression and discouragement. You will be really encouraged by that short piece.
Maybe I’ll end with a few fiction suggestions.
- John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. This book has probably sold more books than any other book outside the Bible. There may be one or two others — I don’t know how Harry Potter is doing in relation to John Bunyan. But historically, The Pilgrim’s Progressis just off-the-charts helpful and influential. If you’ve never read that classic, go there.
- C.S. Lewis’s Narnia children’s books. I read them first in my mid-thirties, believe it or not. I didn’t grow up in a home that even knew about C.S. Lewis. I didn’t read them as a kid, but oh, how we read them and our children loved them — and I loved them in my mid-thirties. The children’s books are called The Chronicles of Narnia. Then there’s the Space Trilogy for an adult taste where you can see what Lewis does with science fiction in contemporary cultural criticism.
- Just one more: Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Probably this is in my mind because I read it as a junior in high school. I don’t remember what impact it had, but I remember being riveted by it. Just recently, I listened to it again and found it — oh my — so compelling. This Dostoyevsky, the Russian novelist, is so compelling because of his penetrating insights into the human soul for its evil and its good and how those are all tangled up together.
Read for Your Soul
Let me close with another warning: Beware of reading for quantity to impress anyone. Read for your soul.
If we could live a thousand years and experience a thousand relationships in the thousand times and places and cultures that offer themselves, perhaps we wouldn’t need books in order to become wise. But our lives are short, and God has been merciful to give many places, many times, many cultures, and many insights distilled into books.
Find the ones that strengthen your faith and make you want to live all out for God.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.
A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “How Do I Choose Good Books and Grow My Library?”
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