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The Sage's Lament

I have spent the past few days in Orlando at the Gospel Coalition Conference. As it always the case when I am at a major conference, I have spent a lot of my time in the bookstore. There is something therapeutic about wading through a massive bookstore, and especially so when the bookstore is so big and so good.

Sometimes I can find myself getting a little bit skeptical about the sheer quantity of books being produced today. If all those thousands of years ago the Sage was already lamenting “Of making many books there is no end” what would he say today? There is a book for everyone on very nearly every topic. And there are times when I find myself wondering if this is really a good thing.

Help has come from two unexpected directions. The first is in my use of the program Evernote. Evernote is software for note-taking and organizing. At first I used it sparsely and hesitatingly, only putting my most important ideas into it. But over time I came to see that Evernote works better when I put everything into it, whether it is something I deem of critical importance or low importance. Rather than trusting myself to be the ultimate filter, I do better to put everything into the software and then to allow Evernote’s filters to separate what is needed from what is not. The lesson learned is that with good filters, more information is better than less information. Therefore, a greater number of books can be more helpful than fewer books, as long as we learn to filter effectively.

The second help has come from Thomas Manton, a Puritan, who tells us that people in his day were asking the same question: Do we really need more books? Here is his response:

All complain there is enough written, and think that now there should be a stop. Indeed, it were well if in this scribbling age there were some restraint. Useless pamphlets are grown almost as great a mischief as the erroneous and profane.

Yet tis not good to shut the door upon industry and diligence. There is yet room left to discover more, above all that hath been said, of the wisdom of God and the riches of his grace in the gospel; yea, more of the stratagems of Satan and the deceitfulness of man’s heart. Means need to be increased every day to weaken sin and strengthen trust, and quicken us to holiness.

Fundamentals are the same in all ages, but the constant necessities of the church and private Christians, will continually enforce a further explication. As the arts and slights [expertise] of besieging and battering increase, so doth skill in fortification. If we have no other benefit by the multitude of books that are written, we shall have this benefit: an opportunity to observe the various workings of the same Spirit about the same truths, and indeed the speculation is neither idle nor unfruitful.

In more books, Manton saw more opportunities for us to learn from one another. The Holy Spirit works in each one of us very differently and what he teaches one he may not teach another, unless that person writes in a book and we read it. I can’t argue with him. There is something to this that takes direct aim at my skepticism.

This is not a call for mediocre books, of course, or for writing simply for the sake of writing. But it has helped shape my view that all of these books represent a tremendous blessing. My skepticism was misplaced.