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James Emery White: “I am a book man”

I was sent this piece written by James Emery White, liked it so much I posted it here. The link at the bottom will take you to the originating site.

Give Me a Book

I am, unashamedly, a book man.

You may have expected me to say a “reading” man, which would also be true.  As St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote, “Be assiduous in prayer and reading.  In the one you speak to God.  In the other God speaks to you.” 


But for me, it’s not just about reading – it’s about books.  I agree with the monk in Normandy who, in 1170, wrote that “A monastery without a library is like a castle without an armory.  Our library is our armory.” 

This means we should engage in building it, fortifying it, at every opportunity.  When I was in graduate school, I recall one of my professors saying that we should have a line-item in our budget for books.  That building a good library is one of the most important things we can do in ministry and for impact. 


I tell my own graduate students the same thing – to invest in books.  They are our tools.  A mechanic has his set of wrenches; a doctor has his stethoscope; a chef has his cookware.  Those of us in ministry, or scholarship (and ideally they are joined at the hip), have our books.

When I “require” books for my students, my intent is simple: these are worth not only reading, but owning. 

Buy them.  Build your library.  It is your armory.

But let’s return to the book as a physical manifestation.  Because it’s not just its content – it’s the importance of the book itself.


I love the feel of a book, holding it in my hands, smelling the paper and, if old, the dust and age.  I love marking it up, highlighting key passages and annotating it along the sides. 

Which is why I never lend a book – if lost, it would be far more of a loss than the mere price of its replacement. 

I would lose my engagement with the work, the conversation I had with the author that had been recorded in my written interaction on its pages.  Unless engaged again in the same manner, I would never be able to pull it off of the shelf and, in the span of a half-hour or so, reacquaint myself with the entire dialogue and gain from it all that it had bestowed upon its initial reading.

Not wanting to read myself into another, but it reminds me of the request the apostle Paul made of Timothy.  Paul was in jail for proclaiming Christ, and requested only two things:


“I left my coat…So when you come, bring it to me, along with my books, particularly the ones written on parchment” (II Timothy 4:13, NCV).

He didn’t just want books; he wanted his books.

One last confession of a card-carrying bibliophile…I also love the look of a book and all the “display” elements that go with it (so yes, I drool over every Levenger catalog). 

This is why I so enjoy old libraries, and particularly the Bodleian of Oxford (and within the Bodleian, particularly Duke Humphrey’s Library, the oldest of the reading rooms).  My Oxford reading card, and the access it gives me to the most ancient of manuscripts and most enticing of reading environments, is among my most prized possessions.


(And why one of my favorite movies is The Name of the Rose – a medieval murder mystery inside an ancient monastery which hides one of the great hidden libraries in all of Europe – and all this with Sean Connery in the lead!  And just in case you haven’t seen it, one more enticement:  historian Norman Cantor listed it as among the most authentic movie portrayals of the middle ages).

Why do I bring this up?  I was recently asked about audio books, and Kindle, and I confess my response was somewhat muted.

I think audio learning is wonderful.  I’m a big fan (and customer) of “The Teaching Company,” arguably the leader of such things in the field.  Yet I do not feel that audio recordings of books – while often convenient – should become full-scale substitutes for books and the actual reading of books.


Various studies I have read over the years have shown that there is a different mental “workout” involved with reading as opposed to mere listening.  There is certainly a greater degree of retention. 

Further, the physical interaction with a book is indispensable.  So while listening to the Bible, or a book, can be a helpful addition to things, listening alone is no substitute for reading.

And even my use of something such as “The Teaching Company” is greatly enhanced by reading the accompanying study guides, not to mention investing in the reading list encouraged for every class. 

So I would treat such things as I would an actual high school or college course. Yes, attend to the lecture.  But then do the reading and, when asked, the writing and research necessary to complete the experience.


As for Kindle, I will confess I have not attempted to read a book in that manner.  Quite frankly, it has held little appeal to me (though I can appreciate its convenience and economy).  It is still reading, however, and so I find little to critique beyond the fact that you cannot “mark up” the pages, highlight passages, or, as someone once reminded me, have it “appeal” to you to turn off the TV and read something the way an enticing stack of books undoubtedly does. 

I hope this jeremiad is unnecessary.  Unfortunately, it probably is.

The great concern of George Orwell, as conveyed in his novel 1984, was of a day when there might be those who would ban books. 

Aldous Huxley’s portrait of the future in Brave New World was more prescient; Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban a book.



There would be no one who wanted to read one.

James Emery White


For what it is worth, I receive nothing in return for the following links – but since I know that in mentioning them there may be numerous emails requesting links, the following are provided:

For Levenger products, see

A nice jpg of Sir Humphrey’s Library at the Bodleian, though it doesn’t do it full justice:


For the Teaching Company, see,

Editor’s Note

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Comments read comments(24)
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Jim Martin

posted January 30, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Scot, I am glad you published this wonderful essay! I resonate with many of his thoughts. In particular, his love for books. I have long looked at certain authors as mentors. Most of these authors (many dead) I have never met and probably will never meet. Yet, they have contributed to my life and thinking through our ongoing conversations through their books.
Thanks again for publishing this very nice piece.

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Adam Shields

posted January 30, 2010 at 4:38 pm

I think it is a fine essay that misses the point. The tools of a scholar should not be books, but his or her mind. The book is a means to an end, not the end itself. Maybe I am missing something, and maybe that is why I primarily read either on kindle or listen to audio. I don’t think that the physical provides much if anything to the distribution of knowledge. I read, a lot, about 100 books a year. I know I don’t get as much as I can possibly get out of books. But I get a lot. What I don’t get, is a physical library that must be moved, that I can display to others my knowledge. Each medium has its own advantages and disadvantages. You can’t mark up an audiobook (but you can mark up a kindle book (and have digital access to all of your notes and highlights). A kindle books is yours, stored in the air, for retrieval at any time. A physical book can be read and re-read and given away until it falls apart. But the point is still the knowledge in the book. In my mind it is like comparing the worship of the church, to the worship of the God that you happen to do in a church. The church isn’t what you should be worshiping, it just is the location of the worship. (I know that is a overly strong comparison, but I think it communicates the point.)

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posted January 30, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Adam, I think you’re reading a little too much into it.

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posted January 30, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Oh and I completely understand what the author is saying…well, ok, maybe not to the extent that he is saying it, but still. I love books..parting with a book is usually an unhappy experience. I can’t seem to get into reading anything of length on a Kindle or laptop. Printing it doesn’t even do it. I need bound quality paper and I’m in heaven.

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posted January 30, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Preaching to the converted.
This from the guy who was told youth pastors shouldn’t spend too much time reading.

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Rick Meigs

posted January 30, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Great essay, but I’ll keep my Kindle for most of my reading. I can carry my library with me, and yes, even mark the books up, highlighting key passages and annotating to my hearts content.

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Carl Holmes

posted January 30, 2010 at 6:38 pm

I am a book man. I am tactile, I like the feel, smell, the ability to mark it up and read through it again and see what caught me when and why.
Not to go to far on the fear of Orwellian censorship, but with a kindle if something was deemed offensive or not right would it not be pretty easy to fix that behind the scenes when you next put your kindle on the internet? Not major censorship, but just the tweaking and/or omission of a few words could change the entire meaning of the book. A first edition sitting on my mantle will forever share the ideas in their original intent.

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Mark Baker-Wright

posted January 30, 2010 at 9:43 pm

I’ve experimented a bit with e-books (as the above link demonstrates), but don’t feel I have enough experience with them to comment on their viability vs. physical books. I rather like physical books, but the appeal of a cheaper and more easily portable format is very appealling. Also, while one does learn differently from different formats, I prefer to talk about the strengths and weaknesses (to the extent I’m aware of them) of different formats than to declare one “better” than the other overall. Audio, for example, may not be as readily retained as reading text, but I can reinforce what I learn via audio by listening to the same passage multiple times in the same amount of time it would take me to read the text (I do this often with Scripture, and I haven’t even gotten to the ability to do so while driving, which I could NEVER do with text). That’s not to say that audio is superior to text. I’d never DREAM of having the audio version replace text entirely, but it has different strengths and weaknesses than text does.
One final note. There are lots of different kinds of e-books (the link above is for a PDF, for example), and different kinds of e-book readers. Rather than defaulting to the Kindle, why not talk about other good e-book readers out there, like the Sony Reader, for example? It doesn’t have some of the limitations that the Kindle has, yet people always talk about the Kindle as if it’s the only thing out there.

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Adam Shields

posted January 30, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Really there are not many differences between the different models of ebook readers. Sony sometimes handles, PDF better, Kindle has the “read to me” which is only marginally useful. Size can matter for different readers, but sony and kindle have the same screens, just different operating systems. Really not much difference right now.

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Tim Hallman

posted January 30, 2010 at 11:57 pm

Thanks for posting White’s essay, Scot. I resonate with him and his assertion for reading a book. I admit that when I look at my bookshelf, it is often with affection.
Each carefully selected book, intentionally purchased, has some kind of emotion attached to it, a memory of something learned, an insight gleaned, a new door of possibilities opened, a long-searched-for answer found, etc. Sometimes members of my church will ask me if I’ve read all of the books on my shelf. I tell them, “not yet…”. I have to resist the urge to feel overwhelmed – there are so many good books to read and digest and be influenced by. And not enough time.
But it is with a quiet glee that I pull a book off of my shelf and then when I arrive at my Starbucks to read with a steaming Americano under my nose… ahhhh…

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posted January 31, 2010 at 12:38 am

Big fan of this post. I graduated from seminary (and thanks to the equally robust library of my new wife) ended up at my first church with a 1200+ volume library. Over the past five years I have added another 1000 volumes.
Books are a blessing. (BTW, stealing the line about a monastry and armory.) I thoroughly enjoy my library as I am doing my PhD work now and have so many resources right at my finger tips without having to travel to the library on campus.
I have begun using services like Google Books and such. Also, I have a number of texts on my tablet pc (not mac…blech) which I carry with me to seminars. Makes it much easier to reference and grow. I am patiently waiting for scholarship to match up with technology and provide us a way to cite electronically with accuracy. But I’ll wait over in my little corner for this one.
Thanks for the post!

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Bob Smallman

posted January 31, 2010 at 7:54 am

As a confirmed book man who is also a Mac man (= fanatic), I confess that the iPad just won’t cut it for me! I love holding a book and marking it up (and being able to drop it and being able to accidentally leave it places where an iPad or Kindle would disappear!)
I also highly recommend The Teaching Company. I just downloaded their Life of Abraham Lincoln series last night and have Amy-Jill Levine’s series on NT characters in my car now. I’m almost always listening or re-listening to one of their series as I drive around. (One hint: if your car system allows, you can download an entire series as mp3 and record it on a single disk – very convenient.)
One difference between White and me: I love to loan out my books (even with all the attendant risks) and even have some funny stories about books being found and returned after years in exile. Even more, now that my own ministry is beginning to wind down (or wear out!), I am enjoying sharing some of my more peripheral volumes with younger colleagues. It’s fun to give some away, knowing they’re have yet another generation of use.

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posted January 31, 2010 at 9:22 am

I connected to much of what he said, but this surprised me a bit:
“Various studies I have read over the years have shown that there is a different mental “workout” involved with reading as opposed to mere listening. There is certainly a greater degree of retention.”
I had heard, years ago, that the retention stength of the two methods was based more on the personality of the reader/listener. Some just learn better by visual, others auditory. Is that not the case?

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Chad Hall

posted January 31, 2010 at 10:27 am

For those interested, Duke Alumni Magazine just hosted a forum on the future of reading. The resulting article is entitled “The End of Civilization as We Know It?
The panelists included:
– Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies, a great book about the lure and cultural significance of reading
– Andy Berndt, from the Creative Lab at Google
– Philip Bennett, from The Washington Post
– Lynn Neary, who covers books and publishing for NPR
– plus some others I can’t remember right now.
Here’s a link to excerpts from the forum:

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posted January 31, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Actually you can mark up a kindle book, underline and clip passages, and add notes of your own. I do it all the time :)

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Rick Meigs

posted February 1, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Mark, I’ve had a Sony Reader for over four years, but recently switched to a Kindle DX. The Sony is a great ebook tool and has some advantages, but I made the switch for three main reasons: 1) Book selection. The Sony store simply doesn’t have most of the books I’m interested in. For example, I just purchased Douglas Moo’s “Encountering the Book of Romans” for my Kindle. Sony doesn’t have it or any commentaries on Romans. Sony has almost no titles on the subject of missional, an area I read in a lot. 2) Book price. Most Kindle titles are $9.99 where Sony’s average (from my experience) around $16.00. 3) Kindle is wireless which means I can access new books any place I’m at. With the Sony, I had to purchase everything from my desktop computer and then transfer the purchase to the Reader. I do wish the DX was touchscreen like the new Sony’s.

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