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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Piles to read

Young writers and would-be authors provide a lot to sort through

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

I heard once about a lamebrain professor who unhelpfully labeled the two big stacks of books on his desk. One sign proclaiming "READ" was to remind him, past tense, of what he'd already accomplished. The other placard stating "READ" helped organize his unfinished future tense tasks.

So, perhaps like you, I'm sitting here early in 2009 confused and wondering why my first stack of books is always so much smaller than the second.

Today I have a good excuse. It's true that just to the right of my office chair is an embarrassingly high (about 31 inches, to be exact) stack that should have an "UNREAD" label on it. These are books whose content I feel some desire to assimilate, or books whose authors I feel some obligation to honor by taking a look at what they've written.

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But besides all that, I have three other stacks of urgent reading assignments-typically involving items that haven't yet been published as books.

First come some books not yet available but already scheduled for actual publication within the next few months. I have them in pretty much final typeset form, and either the authors or the publishers are asking me now to write a little blurb saying how important this book is and how different it is from anything out there. (Some authors and publishers even send out pre-written versions of such blurbs, so all I have to do is to choose the one I like best. In case you're ever tempted to do that, I should tell you that it's a pretty big turn-off). This is time-consuming, because I refuse to write a blurb for a book I haven't read.

Second are the manuscripts from would-be authors. Sometimes these are in very preliminary form; a couple have even been in longhand. Sometimes these works-of-a-lifetime have already been shopped to half a dozen publishers and their authors have seen about as many rejection notices as they can stand in one lifetime. They write to ask: Please show me how to prove the publishers wrong. I typically write back to plead: I know little enough about magazines, and nothing at all about books. But I do sneak a look at some of these, and am impressed that a few of them didn't get accepted when some much worse stuff did. Making that sad discovery also takes time.

Today I'm working on the third category of manuscripts. It's probably the hardest, but the most rewarding. Today I'm reading term papers from six high-school seniors.

These are not run-of-the-mill term papers. To be a senior at Asheville Christian Academy in Asheville, N.C., is to be required to pick a serious issue confronted in our modern secular culture, analyze the problems involved, and suggest an answer that is shaped by God's revelation in the Bible. I call it Worldview Thinking 101; it's an assignment not enough Christian adults ever faced as part of their education.

Tonight, those seniors will also sweat it out as a panel of critics (including me) quizzes them about their research, their understanding and documentation of the topic, their writing skills, their argumentation, and their biblical perspective.

They all picked timely subjects: anorexia among young women, even in the Christian community; the impact of ethical behavior on profits in the business world; the influence of the mainstream media in shaping Christians' thinking and values; the role of "micro enterprise" in helping women in Third World economies; ingredients of "Christian" art; and the use of drama in evangelism.

But naturally, the six students showed an uneven ability to argue their main points. I hardly expected them to be equal in their rhetorical skills-and they weren't. Their grammar was good, but not always perfect. I could be wrong, but my sense right now is that only one of them will end up writing a book someday.

And that will be just fine with me. I'm almost certain the other five will be just as relieved as I will be if no one ever asks them to write a whole book. God is giving them other important tasks to accomplish in His kingdom, which they will do with more insight and additional leadership simply because they have been taught to think in a God-centered way.

And it's fine with me also because my stack of unread books in the future will be just that much smaller and more manageable.

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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