I recently reread an article from 2016 by Tim Challies, "5 Questions to Ask of a Book Before You Read It.". I read it when it was "new" and I revisited it this past weekend when he reposted it on Facebook. Many things in the article still hold up. A few things don't.
I thought I would share my own list and provide my perspective as a reviewer.
I thought it would be fun to share two examples to make it a bit more practical and behind-the-scenes-ish.
By Lori Erickson
Published by Westminster John Knox Press
Classification: (Adult) Religion & Spirituality
Date: August 2021
Challies' list focuses primarily on the author, the publisher, and any endorsements. (He also includes two more.)
Author. I have not heard of the author previously. And I have found that more often than not to be the case. Yes, there will always be a dozen or so authors you know--whose books you look forward to reading--but whether you've heard of the author or not--it doesn't really guarantee the worth or value of a book.
Publisher. Here's what I found out about WJK "Westminster John Knox Press (WJK) is the academic and trade imprint of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC). Books and resources published under the WJK imprint cover the spectrum of religious thought and represent the work of scholarly and popular authors of many different religious and theological affiliations. WJK publishes approximately 60 new books and other resources each year and manages a backlist of more than 1,800 titles that are sold throughout the world."
Did anything jump out at you? Books and resources published under the WJK imprint cover the spectrum of religious thought and represent the work of scholarly and popular authors of many different religious and theological affiliations.
It's too early for endorsements--and reviews--this one isn't released until August.
But Challies' list fails to mention something of great importance: the book description.
The official description (as found on GoodReads, Amazon, and Netgalley) reads:
Growing up in a passionately Norwegian-American Iowa town, Lori Erickson rolled her eyes at traditions like Nordic Fest and steaming pots of rømmegrøt. But like many Americans, she eventually felt drawn to genealogy, the "quintessential hobby of middle age." Her quest to know more about the Vikings and immigrants who perch in her family tree led her to visit Norse settlements and reenactments, medieval villages and modern museums, her picturesque hometown and her ancestor's farm on the fjords.
Along the way, Erickson discovers how her soul has been shaped by her ancestors and finds unexpected spiritual guides among the seafaring Vikings and her hardscrabble immigrant forebears. Erickson's far-ranging journeys and spiritual musings show us how researching family history can be a powerful tool for inner growth. Travel with Erickson in The Soul of the Family Tree to learn how the spirits of your ancestral past can guide you today.
Did anything jump out at you when reading the description? Two things stood out to me: 1) Along the way, Erickson discovers how her soul has been shaped by her ancestors and finds unexpected spiritual guides among the seafaring Vikings and her hardscrabble immigrant forebears... and 2) Travel with Erickson in The Soul of the Family Tree to learn how the spirits of your ancestral past can guide you today.
Netgalley offers an additional description. But notably, it adds, "Author’s own spiritual dabbling across different faith traditions mean that the book will appeal beyond those who identify as Christian."
If this was a book that had reviews already, I'd focus on my next step. I find reading book reviews of books I'm on the fence about to be extremely helpful. One stars. Two stars. Three stars. Four stars. Five stars. All the stars. Not reading reviews and equating well, one star is bad and five stars is good. But considering PERSPECTIVE and BIAS and view point. A book can be excellent, biblically sound, saturated in Scripture, and beneficial. But you can find one star reviews calling the book intolerant, hateful, narrow-minded, a waste of time, bigoted, etc. A book can be terrible--far from biblical, a clear departure from the faith, a twisted and distorted mess--and there be plenty of five star reviews singing the books praises. I look for indicators in a review that tell me what the reviewers' viewpoint or bias is. When it comes to matters of faith are we likely to agree or disagree????
Again, if this was a book that was published already, one could take additional steps:
a) scanning the table of contents
b) reading the foreword or introduction
c) checking out those endorsements
d) reading the first few pages of chapter one
I find all of those steps to be helpful. I really think that these steps--particularly scanning the table of contents--goes unappreciated.
Getting back to the example, this one seems to be a blend of GENEALOGY, TRAVEL, and Spiritualism. Though it is published by so-called Christian publisher, the publisher seems to be open-minded and anything-goes. Knowing nothing about the author but learning that she has dabbled or is dabbling in multiple faith traditions, I'm hesitant to say wow, this is the book for me. Also the book seems to be quite proud that it isn't "just" for Christians but for everyone no matter their spiritual path.
I do love genealogy...and history. But do I personally think our souls are shaped by ancestors??? Is that a biblical concept? What about our spiritual ancestors guiding us today??? Is that a biblical concept??? On the surface, I'd have to say no to both questions. Though there is always the possibility that the book itself isn't as weird/odd/off/questionable as its description.
Now for a second example, Providence by John Piper.
by John Piper
Published by Crossway
Date: January 2021
Author. John Piper. Now I have personally read a couple of his books. Some I like. Some I love. Some I find gush-worthy. Some I really don't. He's been dismissed by some Christians online recently as "no longer good" or "no longer biblical" or "questionable." So the fact that he's an author might not be persuasive enough for some. In fact, some might say NOT GONNA TOUCH IT JUST IN CASE ITS TAINTED. But I take Piper on a book by book, article by article, sermon by sermon basis. I just do. Yes, I've heard snippets of sermons here and there that make him appear odd.
Title. I can't believe I almost forgot to include title AND subtitle. It isn't really applicable in discussing Providence, but in *most* Christian titles it would be.
Publisher. Crossway. I am very familiar with Crossway. I have read dozens--if not hundreds--of their books. I may not give every title an A++++. I trust them more often than not. Their description on Netgalley simply reads "gospel-centered publishing." It's concise but true enough.
From Genesis to Revelation, the providence of God directs the entire course of redemptive history. Providence is "God's purposeful sovereignty." Its extent reaches down to the flight of electrons, up to the movements of galaxies, and into the heart of man. Its nature is wise and just and good. And its goal is the Christ-exalting glorification of God through the gladness of a redeemed people in a new world.
Drawing on a lifetime of theological reflection, biblical study, and practical ministry, pastor and author John Piper leads us on a stunning tour of the sightings of God's providence--from Genesis to Revelation--to discover the all-encompassing reality of God's purposeful sovereignty over all of creation and all of history. Piper invites us to experience the profound effects of knowing the God of all-pervasive providence: the intensifying of true worship, the solidifying of wavering conviction, the strengthening of embattled faith, the toughening of joyful courage, and the advance of God's mission in this world.
You can learn a lot about a book by reading its description. I am currently reading this one and the description seems to be accurate as far as I can tell.
Endorsements. This one has a LONG list of folks that have endorsed it. I recognize a couple of names. Namely D. A. Carson, Thomas R. Schreiner, Michael Horton, Joni Eareckson Tada, etc. Not all names were super familiar to me. But a few were. And I trust Horton and Tada.
Reviews. So far on GoodReads there are 29 reviews and 68 ratings. I haven't read through all the reviews...because to be honest, I am not on the fence about this book. But it mainly seems to be five stars with an occasional three or four stars.
Table of Contents. Great outline. Looks meaty and substantive. Very thorough.
Sampling the writing: As I mentioned earlier, this is one I'm currently reading. So I don't technically need to read the first few pages to get an idea of what it's about, what it's like. But I think it would be helpful if I hadn't already started it. Piper has this one available free and you can sample the Amazon book for free as well.
There's nothing about this one that seems unsettling. It seems like it would be worthy of my time, my effort, my energy. It looks like it would be worth engaging with.
© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible