On Reading in 2019

by Mike Phay

Thus far in my life, I’ve had the good fortune to avoided chronic back pain. For this, I’m very thankful.

Over the holidays, however, I picked up some real tightness along the right side of my spine. Nothing major. For now, just a minor inconvenience. But for me, it’s been quite unusual because of my mostly pain-free back. As I discussed my malady with my wife, she quickly arrived at a curious diagnosis: she thinks I’ve had a reading injury. No joke.

Not an injury from playing sports or building houses or mountain biking. Her serious conclusion is that I’ve been reading too much, and my inexorable habit is causing strain on the “book-holding” side of my body.

Go figure.

I guess if I’m gonna have an addiction, I could do worse.


In reflecting on my problem, I’ve come to realize that perhaps 2019 is the time for some changes—even some discipline—to help shape my “reading life.” I’ve identified three particular areas where I think poor reading habits have negatively affected me, in which I would like to intentionally grow this year.

Habit 1: Engagement vs. Consumption

As I’ve been thinking about my “reading life,” I’ve noticed that over the past several years I’ve largely been reading for volume. In 2018, for example, I read a total of 61 books — a pace of at least a book a week. I enjoy reading, but as a “collector,” I do so with the un-articulated goal of reading in bulk: to devour, to consume, to chew up, and to spit out. My pattern is to read a book, check it off the list, and move on to the next one.

Francis Bacon is famous for writing, “Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” We could take Bacon to mean that books are for consumption, but I think he sought to help in the development of a discerning palate when it comes to reading. Quality over quantity, and when you find quality, engage it deeply. In 2019, I want to spend time chewing and digesting—engaging more deeply with what I read. Which will take more time, and even an occasional re-read.

GOAL: To write a thoughtful review of every book I read. I will post these regularly on Goodreads and this blog. I don’t expect these reviews to have a high readership but will focus on writing them for personal growth in at least the following three areas. First, they will help me to actively engage the books I’m reading rather than simply consume them. Next, they will help me to remember the arguments and important aspects of the books I’ve read. And finally, writing thee will be practice in improving my writing.

Habit 2: Focused vs. Scattered

I am usually reading between 6-8 books concurrently. Some days I read from 4 or 5 different books at different times throughout the day. I’ll read one book on Kindle, listen to another on audio, and take in chunks of three or four books in print. I’m usually able to keep everything straight, and I generally enjoy the variety this kind of reading provides. However, variety dilutes my ability to focus on any one book.

GOAL: Aside from devotional material (one book I am slowly reading through along with the Bible in the morning), I will have no more than two other books I am actively engaged in reading at any one time. I will use my listening time (driving, etc.) for podcasts and language learning.

Habit 3: Intentional vs. Haphazard

I have never regularly planned an intentional reading list unless I have a topic or subject I would like to delve into more deeply. Often I will hear of a book and read it on the spur of the moment, or pick something up at the library that looks interesting and read it right away. I do read a lot of library books, and most often I have to order them from out-of-town branches. So my reading seems intentional in that way, but not so much. Too often, I sniff something I like (an author, genre, or topic) and keep after the scent until I decide to move on to something different.

GOAL: In 2019, I want to read broadly (as I often do), but not allow myself to get bogged down in a certain genre, author, or subject matter. I will intentionally seek out subject areas that I wouldn’t normally engage with and make sure that I am reading regularly in areas that are important to me personally and professionally (like Biblical Studies and Theology).

So with that, here is my reading plan (so far) for 2019. It’s in subject order rather than reading order, so I’m not planning to go through it from top to bottom. I would love any suggestions you might have in any of these categories (or extra categories), plus your thoughts on the books listed. If anyone plans to read along, let me know!


Biblical Studies

Can We Trust the Gospelsby Peter J. Williams. This is one I saw on several review lists at the end of 2018. I don’t spend a lot of time reading apologetics, but in pastoral ministry, the questions often come up and a fresh look at these questions will be helpful.

Revelation 1-11 by Peter Leithart. A new commentary that has come highly recommended. Revelation is the most misunderstood book in the Bible, and I have plenty of conversations with parishioners who are all over the map on this one. I’ve enjoyed other works of Leithart’s, and look forward to engaging in a long-term study of Revelation.


Confessions by St. Augustine. I started this in college, almost 25 years ago. Time to pick it up again and engage it more deeply.

Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was and Who God Has Always Been by Jackie Hill Perry. I appreciate Jackie’s ministry and her voice in our cultural moment for the church.

To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson by Courtney Anderson. I’ve been challenged by Judson’s life as a missionary to Burma ever since hearing John Piper’s biographical sermon at a conference years ago. Judson led a radical life given over for the gospel, even through suffering and persecution. I will be looking to see how God might use this in my efforts to lead a church on mission.

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes. The title of this book reflects the question most young men have asked themselves at some point in their life. Marlantes is one who lived through it. I was impressed with his Vietnam War novel Matterhorn and look forward to engaging with his insights on the deep questions of humanity and warfare.


Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by O. Alan Noble. I’ve heard a lot of good things about this recent book.


A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life by J. I. Packer. I’m currently reading through these essays on the practical writings of the Puritans in my devotional times. A bit more scholastic than practical (so far), but am hoping to add to my reading list with some of the Puritan works that come up throughout.

The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. One of the most oft-quoted and oft-referenced Puritan works I’ve never read.


The Man in the High Tower by Philip K. Dick. I’ve been sucked in by the Amazon series based on this 1962 novel, and am curious to see PKD’s original vision.

Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry. In my opinion, there is no better living American novelist for depth, insight, and beauty of writing. This will be my third visit to Port William.


The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone. A continuation of my own quest to understand the lives and viewpoint of those who have experienced an America — and a Christianity — very different from the one I have.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. I’ve seen this book highly recommended on a few reading lists this year.

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis by Alan Jacobs. Another book that has come highly recommended on a few reading lists this year. I’m impressed by Jacobs’ forceful intellect, having read his How To Think this past year as well as several essays and blog posts. He is an example of the kind of thinker and writer I aspire to be and I’m hoping to glean ways to better engage the culture as a Christian intellectual.


Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, et al. This one has been on my shelf for years. One of the most difficult responsibilities I have in my role as a pastor is leading people, and one of the areas I find myself most deficient in is emotional intelligence. Hoping for some lasting insights as I seek to love people by leading them well.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle. As an introvert, I often loathe conversation of any kind. Any help I can get here will be well worth it. I don’t remember where I saw the recommendation for this book, but I picked it up in the last year and have been hoping to get to it.


Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson. One of my favorite authors, Eugene Peterson passed away in October 2018. I’ve read much of his writing, but not all of it. This is one of his pastoral works that I’ve been meaning to get to for years. I first read Working the Angles over 20 years ago, and it shaped my own life and work tremendously. This last year, I read Under the Unpredictable Plant during a 4-week mini-sabbatical, and it was like a breath of fresh air during a tough time.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in our Post-Christian World by Rosaria Butterfield. A primer on biblical hospitality.

Preaching and Preachers by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. A classic that I haven’t been able to get through yet.

The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church by Timothy Z. Witmer. I am intentionally seeking to lead a group of elders in effectively shepherding the 200+ people who are a part of our congregation and am looking for some biblically practical help for the task.

Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community by Brett McCracken. I appreciate McCracken’s cultural take on a lot of things. This will be an interesting read for me as I seek to lead a local church in living into its identity as God’s people.

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…or Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. I read this one several years ago with our church staff and am now reading it again with our Missions Team.


Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church by John Onwuchekwa. Part of the 9Marks Building Healthy Churches series. I started reading this in December. John begins with the premise that churches can fundamentally be divided into two types: those that pray, and those that don’t. This book has been insightful as I wrestle with the question, “How do I lead a church to be a prayerful church?”

Enjoy Your Prayer Life by Michael Reeves. I’ve read one other book by Reeves—Rejoicing in Christ—and am hungry for more. If there’s one thing that I think is often missing in the prayer lives of believers, it is joy.


Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship by Andrew Wilson. I read Wilson’s blog posts about his debate with Tom Schreiner in regards to the continuation of spiritual gifts. Looking forward to delving more into this as I seek to understand spiritual gifts more fully for myself and our church.

Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray. A theological classic that I’ve never dug into. Looking forward to immersing myself deeply in the theology of the cross.

Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter by Thomas Schreiner. I’ve been reading, thinking about, and studying spiritual gifts, asking God what they are and how they are manifested in the local church. Schreiner is a good scholar whom I know will deal with the Scripture thoroughly and fairly, although I’m not sure I’ll fully agree with him.


Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. I began reading this one in December, and it has struck a chord for me as I seek to figure out my own work habits and the responsibilities I have: preaching, writing, leading, and shepherding. Newport’s focus is exactly that: focus in the midst of distraction. I think he can help me think through and implement how to be more productive by “going deep” in exchange for the “shallow,” part of what I’m trying to do with this reading plan.

The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods by Antonin Sertillanges. Cited by Cal Newport, and written by a French Catholic philosopher.


On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. I started this one last year with a cohort of fellow writers and would like to work through it slowly and seriously as I seek to improve in my own writing.

True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spuford. I have no idea who Francis Spuford is, but this one came highly recommended on at least one reading list at the end of 2018.


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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Published by Mike Phay

Husband. Father. Pastor. Teacher.

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