“The acquaintance with a single good book can change a life.” – Marcel Prévos
To put it bluntly, as a child and teenager I hated reading. For one, I was a miserable reader. When I had to read aloud in front of the class, it was a real ordeal, it felt like running the gauntlet. I stumbled over every third word or so and was lucky to finish a sentence without a mistake. So why would I put myself through this? Second, I only read books that other people told me to read. They were certainly not my books to begin with. I only read two and a half books by the age of 18—the third one wasn’t even worth finishing. I certainly had the same feeling as the Italian proverb: “There is no worse thief than a bad book.”
Everything changed abruptly when I rattled into a crisis of meaning as a young adult. To cut a long story short: I was suddenly looking for answers to a certain situation in my life. A close relative gave me a little booklet that addressed exactly the questions that were challenging me at the time. And all of a sudden I found myself reading a book—and for the first time it made a whole lot of sense!
That was a primal experience which would later repeat itself over and over and become some sort of a golden principle in my life.
There are books…and there are books
Books can entertain, educate, inform and, of course, bore us. Books can intimidate us, too. Dietrich Schwanitz writes in his book “Bildung – Alles, was man wissen muß” (Education – Everything You Need to Know) that the presence of books can be daunting to a novice. There are simply so many of them, “the rare reader feels like a drunk in the middle of a galloping herd of zebras.” This may be an understandable feeling, but an unnecessary reaction towards books. His advice to the newbie: Just focus on the book at hand. I believe this is also what Martin Luther had in mind when he stated: “Many books do not make one knowledgeable, nor does reading a great deal, but good things and the frequent reading, however little, make us knowledgeable.”
Exactly these good books can make a difference. They do not leave us the same. They cause a paradigm shift in our world views, provoke a change of heart, or expand our way of approaching things.
Vehicles of change
When certain life questions hit us, the right books can become vehicles that take us to the right answers. German author Peter Schumacher put it this way: “Books are words parked on paper.” To stay with the analogy, when we hop on the right taxi, these words can take us exactly were we need to go. Like ferries crossing the raging river of uncertainty, they can place our feet on uncharted territory.
“There are books you can swim on and books you can drown in”, remarks Swiss aphorist Walter Fürst. The right books carry us. Before embarking on such a ferry, the mind is in a caterpillar-like state—subject to gravity, slow and not very attractive. Reading makes the mind pupate, processing and reflecting on a certain topic, working through it or literally studying it. And then: metamorphosis! The mind soars like a colorful butterfly to new heights over of the newly discovered land.
How come we don’t all read more of these life-changing books? Well, they are rare and not always easy to find. And of course there is also the element of timing. An excellent read at the wrong time in life is like selling a bicycle to a fish. Bicycles are great—but why would a fish need one? Off he swims. No catch there!
So how do we find these books that help us personally evolve and grow?
Finding the right book is like running into the right person exactly when needed. Swiss poet Brigitte Fuchs muses: “Books are in most cases chance acquaintances.”
A very well-read friend of mine once told me that he started reading only those books that would address a current question.
He decided that anything else would eventually be a waste of his precious time. So the indicator then becomes a matter of knowing ourselves first. We need to get in touch with our true needs and life questions. That can be challenging at times. In other words, we need to get our priorities straight.
One book that helped me understand this principle early on was Steven Covey’s “First Things First”, with its famous chapter: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”. Essentialist Greg McKeown introduces more helpful rules “in order to discern the essential few from the trivial many, mediocre or just good”: “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no”. This includes knowing what one does not need to know—a skill that eventually can save us a lot of stress and time in life.
Finding the book that reads you
The 19th-century Russian writer Alexander Iwanowitsch Herzen was convinced that “books find their way by themselves.” I found this to be true. Once I experienced receiving the right book at the right time, I wanted to repeat it. Since then, I have made it my mission to seek out the best books I can find on any given topic. It keeps me going.
In conclusion, let me share what I learned over the years about finding the right books at the right time in life—the book that reads you back.
Here are seven principles that might help you finding those books that are food for the soul and that might change your attitude towards reading once and for all:
1. Know thyself. Be attentive to your true needs and develop a sense for what is next.
2. Continue learning. Don’t pretend you already have all the answers. Stay open-minded towards personal growth.
3. Ask questions. Ask the right questions at the right time, because “if the question is wrong, the right answer to it will also lead you astray” (Walter Ludin).
4. Leaf through your books. Read the flap and the table of contents first. Does the book have a clear structure and is it intriguing to you?
5. Read free samples. Did what you read convince you or draw you in? If so, go ahead and buy it. If not, skip this one.
6. Check readers’ opinions. Has the book already convinced other readers? Read some reviews (without following them blindly, of course).
7. Read with a pen in hand. Mark what you are reading and map what speaks to your soul.
That last principle became very dear to me. When I pick up one of my books years later, I receive a ‘message in a bottle’ from my younger self, mirroring to me what was important to me back then, and, at the same time, giving me the chance to reflect on where I stand on that topic today.
This is what motivated me in my personal growth. How about you? What’s your next book going to be about?
Daniel Wildemann, 42, studied theology in Austria, Germany, and the United States. Before returning to pastoral work in Augsburg, Germany, he worked for five years as a publisher in a Christian publishing house.