Off the Pulpit

Have You Read All These Books?

When people come into my office and see the room full of books, they will often ask, “Have you read all these books?”

Well, absent the encyclopedias and dictionaries, the answer is most of them. But I am continually giving books away and ordering new ones, so every room of books I have (and I have too many) is filled with aspirational books – books I plan to read someday.

And that is my answer when someone asks me what to read on Judaism. Read whatever book will lead you to more books. The great critic Randall Jarrell advised “read at whim!” Some of my greatest reading experiences are books I plucked almost randomly off the shelf, or in a bookstore, because something caught my eye. Then the trail continues: the author mentioned another book, and so on and so on, until there was a long chain of learning and storytelling whose beginning was that single instant of curiosity.

I already own more books than I will probably ever read and yet I still buy new ones. Maybe this new book or that classic one will give me the insight and wisdom I lack. I don’t wish to overstate the point, but there are moments when I cherish the wry words of critic Logan Piersall Smith: “People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”