By Joe LaGuardia
A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.
Any pastor will tell you that a part of being a minister is receiving books or book recommendations from parishioners. Most people can attest that they have second-hand books on their shelves, but none more so than clergy. This is for two reasons: One, we are obliged to take books people give us; and, two, we are too broke to get new books, so we scour unwanted books, church rummage sales, and used book stores whenever we come across them.
So, I have two pieces of advice for freshman pastors: The first is to avoid telling your church what kind of things you like to read unless you want books pertaining to that subject or genre. The second is to befriend pastors nearing retirement because they are likely to give you books they no longer need.
The first piece of advice came in handy when I first arrived in Florida to pastor my current church. I wanted to read Florida history because when I was in Georgia, I read The Archaeology and History of the Native Georgia Tribes by Max White, and it enriched my ministry for years to come.
I mentioned this to fellow naturalists at my church, and the recommendations and books started to flow. The first recommendation (or affirmation, as it were) was Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ The Everglades: River of Grass. Since I am a graduate of Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, (yes, that Douglas high school), I always wanted to read Douglas’ work, so I purchased it within the first six months of arriving to Florida. Another recommendation was Marjorie Rawlings The Yearling, which I thoroughly enjoyed. After that, however, I was finished reading about Florida but books and recommendations kept coming.
“Here, Pastor Joe, I think you’ll like this,” is commonplace in ministry. Since I am a book snob to begin with, I have found polite ways of rejecting those books or perusing enough of a book to make light conversation. In other cases, people will send self-published books that are political or have some crazy agenda. Those things go right to the “donate” pile.
If you take my second piece of advice, then your library will be full of second-hand books that become gems. I recently received a long-awaited 1973 Revised Standard Version Annotated Oxford Study Bible from our Associate Pastor who is retiring at year’s end. It inspired this article, in fact! What a treasure!
Then there was the white whale for which I longed–that peculiar, sought-after item that one only obtains by prayer, patience, and persistence. Mine was the original 1969 Broadman Bible Commentary with the Genesis volume by G. Henton Davies. This volume, along with then-Midwestern Theological Seminary professor Ralph Elliot’s book, The Message of Genesis, launched a near forty-year battle and eventual split between conservatives and moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention (known either as the “Conservative Resurgence” or the “Conservative Takeover,” depending on your point of view) regarding historical-critical approaches to scripture and, more recently, the place of women in ministry.
The Davies “Genesis” commentary set is rare because the Southern Baptist Convention recalled the set shortly after publication and replaced it with a set that replaced the Davies commentary with one by Clyde Francisco. That made the original “Davies” set hard to come by.
Thankfully, a retired Home Mission Board administrator who was a co-minister at my last church had not one, but two original sets. Praise God for the Reverend Michael R., who blessed me with one of his First Edition (you read that right!) “Davies sets”–with his marginal notes–when I became pastor of the church in 2010.
Moving forward, I am on to my next prey. It is a Nelson, cowhide leather Revised Standard Version Bible, circa early 1960s. There are many RSV Nelson editions circulating out there with vinyl (gag!) or hard covers (many served as pew Bibles), but the leather-bound edition seems near impossible to find. I got one from a retiring pastor years ago, but (after many funerals and a month-long mission trip to West Africa) it is falling apart, and I would like a replacement.
I think we can all agree that whether a second-hand book is either beloved or loathed, it adds a rich tapestry to any home or office library. Each book has a story to tell or reflects the character of its original owner, and for that we should be grateful. Each book speaks to the generosity that defines readers worldwide. But, take it from me, pastors get the brunt of them, and that’s not always fun!
What are some second-hand books that you either treasure or loathe? Comment below!