DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can still talk about it.

Written by: on September 4, 2014

To read or not to read, that is the question. At least that seems to be the question posed by Pierre Bayard in his book How To Talk About Books You Havent Read. Bayard draws our attention to an obvious but often overlooked reality; we can’t read everything and we immediately begin to forget that which we have read.[1] My decision to read his book meant that I was choosing not to read many other books. Was it worth the investment of my time or should I have read something else? Is it ok to not read? We live in the age of information, but we also live in the age of over-information and mis-information. Not reading is not an option, it is a reality of life.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but maybe this is not entirely true. Growing up, I was taught to clean up my plate and read books cover-to-cover. I am now an adult that is overweight and feels guilty not finishing a book once I have started it. The reality is that eating everything on my plate keeps me from being as physically healthy as I could be and spending too much time meticulously reading a book prevents me from engaging in many other books.

I love the quote from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities that Bayard uses to describe a good librarian, “‘The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and the table of contents. Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian,’ he explained. ‘He’s bound to lose perspective.’”[2] The librarian does not read everything nor does nor does he neglect to read the most important things. To be a good librarian, it is not necessary, beneficial even possible to try to read all the volumes in the library. To be a good librarian, one must know about the books and where they fit in the larger body of printed text and read only what is essential to helping him or her achieve that objective. The real question therefore is not “to read or not to read”, it is rather choosing what to read and what not to read.

My nephew is a commercial pilot. If I ask him a question about an aircraft that he has never flown, it is ok for him to be very general and share what he has heard about it and even make personal commentaries based on his experience as a pilot. He may not know everything about the particular airplane, but his experience gives him a more informed response than I could give. If however, I ask him about the plane he flies everyday, I would be horror-stricken to have him say, “I don’t really know that much about it. I have read other manuals about planes from the same manufacturer but not about this one. I have no special training on this plane, but if there is a problem, I’ll just wing it.” He is expected to have a high level of expertise regarding the airplanes he flies. He cannot cut corners on his knowledge and skills regarding these specific planes, but he is not expected to invest the same amount of time learning about other models of aircraft. His expertise can however, allow him to speak very intelligible about other aircraft, especially to a per on who has limited aviation knowledge.

I believe that this is a key issue in talking about books you have not read. The more we become selective and focused in choosing the limited amount of books to read, the better prepared we will be to glean valuable insights from the books we have not read make meaningful comments and observations about them. In time, we can read fewer books while still benefiting from them. “Being culturally literate means being able to get your bearings quickly in a book, which does not require reading the book in its entirety—quite the opposite, in fact. One might even argue that the greater your abilities in this area, the less will it be necessary to read any book in particular.”[3]

I often work with adult students from cultural backgrounds in which reading is not emphasized. I have talked with students who say they have never read a book that was not part of an assignment. While I will continue to help them connect with books that they really should read, perhaps I need to begin teaching them how “not to read”. Instead of quilting students who aren’t reading perhaps it is time to teach the skills of skimming, browsing, reading tables of content, learning from what others have to say, applying previous knowledge of the author, and yes, even judging a book by its cover.



[1] Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (p. 7). (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.) Kindle Edition. p47

[2] Ibid., p7

[3] Ibid., p. 14.

About the Author


Brian Yost

Brian is a husband and father of three. He works with Free Methodist World Missions and is currently serving in Latin America.

8 responses to “You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can still talk about it.”

  1. mm Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks for the thoughts Brian…I particularly like the thoughts about being an expert.

    We need experts in society. We need people to have a deep knowledge about airplanes, manufacturing, economics, etc. However, the person that tries to be an expert in everything becomes an expert in nothing. Our ability to choose what we dive deep into compared to what we obtain a general knowledge about is an important part of learning and knowing our own gifting/passions.

  2. mm Dave Young says:

    Brain: it certainly won’t be valuable to guilt anyone, especially students who don’t enjoy reading – about their lack of reading. And I agree whole heartily that we need better training in how to study, how to quickly discover the essence of a book. Yet isn’t it also the case when we’ve submitted ourselves to a course of study, or learning that if the expectation is read book “ABC” and write a report… Aren’t we cheating ourselves if we skim book ABC, or if we read a synopsis, or simply leverage our understanding of the author, the genre, etc.? Or what if in our skimming we miss out on some joyous learning opportunity? With non-reading don’t we risk diminishing our experience? Just my struggle with the topic – I appreciate your post.

    • mm Brian Yost says:

      I hear what you are saying. I generally ask students if they have read the material and stress that their personal interacting with the written material is a part of their grade. I realize that some students may be less than honest, but most of them are preparing for pastoral ministry and if they are lying, there are bigger issues than just their grade.
      Because I expect them to read the books I assign them, and because I work in a culture in which many people spend very little time reading, I have had to limit the amount of reading I can assign. An approach that I could take would be to assign reading that I expect them to thoroughly read, but also present materials that they can learn to glean from without necessarily reading the whole thing. This could be a valuable tool to help them continue to grow through interacting with need ideas.

      • mm Dave Young says:

        Brian, I’d like to hear more about the culture in which you’re ministering, it sounds interesting. It sounds like your students make you a more thoughtful teacher/professor.

        • mm Brian Yost says:

          I work in Mexico and Central America. The students are a mix of recent high school graduates (18-22 year olds), pastors, older adults who are considering becoming a pastor/missionary or lay leaders who desire to be more effective in local ministries. Some students have advanced degrees and are very comfortable with reading and research. The majority, however, do not do much reading. Libraries are not very popular and are less accessible than they are in the U.S. In the public schools, many classes do not use printed books. Research assignments are usually cut and paste from the internet. Many of my students get frustrated because I ask them to purchase books. This is not to indicate that they are not intelligent, but their approach to reading is different from my own. One of my joys is when students begin to enjoy the assigned materials. Some of the pastors have begun to use the books and materials from class to teach in their local churches.

  3. mm Travis Biglow says:

    My exact feelings Brian – You gave a good illustration using the aircraft. I would be a little nervous if a person did not know about the plane they were flying. I understand you when you say you are overweight, me too. I think its important to get into a book and deal with what is important and relevant than to over read and not retain anything. Now if there is a book you are just enamored by then reading it from cover to cover is not a bad idea. Its just that every book we pick up we are not necessarily nuts about.

  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Brian, I liked your connection of a pilot talking about planes with varying degrees of familiarity based on the proximity to his/her use. There seems to be a reasonable expectation one can have for different books and peoples varying degree of familiarity and way in which they talk about them. Great point!

  5. Dawnel Volzke says:

    Brian, Great post! I appreciate your comments about the pilot not being familiar with the plane. I started my career over 20 years ago as a nurse. I have to say that there wasn’t a single reading assignment that helped me to truly know what to do for a patient. It was the hands-on clinical time and experience that helped me to be a good nurse. We used to joke that everything we learned, we learned after school when we started working. I can’t help think that flying a plane could be similar. I’d hate to be a passenger on a plane where the pilot had mainly book knowledge. And, I bet those pilots who have more experience could write the book themselves. I like your comment about teaching others about non-reading. I wonder if many have lost the art of learning through experience and conversation. In my mind, non-reading is about taking a holistic approach toward gaining knowledge and not relying solely on book knowledge or limited sources. I wholeheartedly agree with your statement, “spending too much time meticulously reading a book prevents me from engaging in many other books.”

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