Pros and cons of reading books about books

Pros & cons of reading books about books

Perhaps, like me, your childhood experience with books about books leaves you cold to the idea. In general, and even (perhaps especially) for children, I prefer to read the actual thing. However, there are exceptions that prove the rule.

Truly great books are part of a conversation about ideas, so in order to be worthwhile, a book about a book can’t be didactic–it has to draw you into the conversation in a deeper or more accessible way.

And that can be a great experience. Here’s one example (followed by some tips):

This summer I purposed to read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Taylor presents important insights and cultural analysis, but this work of philosophy clocks in at 896 pages and if you aren’t used to reading the genre you might get bogged down. I love reading philosophy, and greatly enjoyed the book, but even so it’s length made it difficult for me to keep track of all of the threads of the argument.

And so I was delighted to find that James K. A. Smith wrote a book based on a class he teaches on A Secular Age. So it’s a book about a book, but in the best possible way. Smith’s book, How (Not) to be Secular, engages with Taylor’s work in a succinct but comprehensive way. Smith brings his own (slightly different) perspective to the work and ties the arguments a little more closely to applications from our current cultural moment.

So, how do you know if it’s worth your time to read a book about a book? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Can you read the books together? I’d generally avoid a summary or a book that attempts to replace the original with a watered-down version. However, if you can read the two together (as I did with Taylor’s and Smith’s books) and it forms more of a conversation, that’s a great thing.
  • Does reading the second book enrich your experience or understanding? Well-done books about books help you read more deeply and interact with original ideas more completely.
  • Is the second book a must-read on its own merit? In my example above, Smith added enough of his own spin and insight to make his book able to stand on its own. So while I’d wholeheartedly recommend both of the books I mentioned if you are interested in philosophy, history, or culture, I also think that for those who don’t have time for Taylor’s monumental tomeSmith’s book would still be a worthwhile read that would expose you to Taylor’s ideas and pull you into the conversation.

What do you think about books about books? (And is there a better way of saying that phrase without resorting to so much repetition?!) I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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