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Picky reader

Packing up your life and moving has never been my favorite thing to do, and as I slowly whittle away at our book collection, I’m glad that we sold a lot of them to used bookstores like Half-Price. Over the years, I’ve become intensely picky about the books I buy out of necessity (lack of shelf space) and have developed a criteria which I’ve used to weed out my book collection.

1. Can you find it in the library?

The public library is one of the greatest inventions, ever. And King County has one of the better library systems in the United States. Thousands upon thousands of books available to me — for free! You can’t beat free!

Because of this, I’ve sold most of my fiction and a lot of my non-fiction that I enjoyed but didn’t make it into any of my top lists. Libraries are not going away any time soon (I hope), and maybe a reliance on the library will help motivate me to provide more support for the library systems around me. Plus, there’s no reason to try and overlap our collections — the public library ninety-nine times out of a hundred will do a better job than I will with my limited income. Better to focus our resources on building a library that really reflects who we are as a family, which leads me to my next criterion.

2. Can you buy it easily?

Because I can find most books I want in the library, I keep only keep the ones that I really like (Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, for example), and when I do go peruse the bookstore, I try to find things that are rare. Trawling through the clearance sections of used bookstores, for example, can often procure amazing treasures that you can’t find anywhere else. If you can buy a book at Barnes and Noble or Borders or Amazon easily, then you can probably find it at the library. The last few books I’ve purchased have mostly been from either academic presses or independent publishers. That way, any book I own I can genuinely justify by citing the fact that they may actually be rare someday, and by keeping them in good condition, I extend the shelf life of knowledge.

Through these two criteria, I’ve managed to whittle the book collection down by quite a bit, but apparently by not enough.


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Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card



Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books from the library. I love it; I’ve sold most of the books that I don’t read/haven’t read that I’ve purchased, and with the library card, I now have access to thousands of books which I can read at my own leisure. Surprisingly, I’ve been reading a lot more than when I’ve been buying books. I have a theory that the library puts a huge risk on not reading (you have to return it soon), but at the same time dampens the risk of not reading (you got it for free anyway). This makes reading a lot more fun and relaxed, as opposed to shamefully averting my gaze every time I make eye contact with the stack of books I purchased six months ago but haven’t cracked open yet. Oh, the shame!

The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity by Martin Palmer:

I was really apprehensive when I picked this up. It sounded interesting, but I’m not a fan of speculative archaeology/anthropology. Too often these kinds of books devolve into a 2012 apocalyptic New Age kind of thing and I hate those. But it sounded interesting enough and connected not only my love of learning more about Christianity, my faith, but also my love of learning more about my Asian heritage. Win-win!

This book certainly was a win. Martin Palmer has done his research. He details the discovery of a highly advanced Christian church established long before most people thought Christianity even reached China through Catholic missions. The texts revealed a mission keenly aware of the different traditions they found themselves in and their attempt to reconcile common Eastern beliefs within a Christian context. It’s a wonderful example of how flexible Christianity can be as a religion and some fascinating history as well. Along with the actual text of the Jesus Sutras, Palmer explains carefully the background of the Christian texts discovered within China. He describes the different schisms within Christianity in its early years, the turbulent history of Taoism, Confucianism, shamanism, and Buddhism within Chinese history, and the possible explanations for various fusions of the two vastly different traditions. The texts themselves are interesting to read, especially as it describes basic Christian doctrines with a very Eastern tone, detailing things such as the resurrection/reincarnation tension, as well as how Christ might work within the context and knowledge of the Tao. In the end, I found whole new branches I was previously unfamiliar with (the Thomarist church in India and the Nestorian churches of the East, for example) which I now have a newfound zeal in learning more about. Overall, the book was highly enjoyable, and despite selling most of my books and trying to pare down my actual physical library, this book I might go out and purchase, since it has high re-readability.

Ecofaith: Creating & Sustaining Green Congregations by Charlene A. Hosenfeld:

This book was kind of a hit and miss. The bulk of the book involves an extensive list of different ecological projects your church can engage in, from the really cool (have a community garden and compost bin on the church grounds) to the somewhat ridiculous (have the congregation sign an “eco-pledge”) to the downright insensitive (during a baby blessing or baptism, try to work in an environmental message). A large part of the usefulness lies in the appendix, where Hosenfeld, a psychologist, details some of the psychology behind mobilizing a group of people towards a common goal, and why people don’t do ecologically friendly activities even though they deeply care about the environment and the health of their families. The appendix also details strong theological reasons for Christian involvement within the environmental movement. All in all, an interesting book, but I found the bibliography a far more fascinating aspect of the book and a great stepping stone for finding interesting things to read about this subject.

Zen in 10 Simple Lessons by Anthony Man-Tu Lee:

I thought this book would be a very superficial skim over the basic principles of Zen. I’m already familiar with most of the basic precepts; one of my favorite teachers in high school was a practicing Zen Buddhist, and he taught my comparative religion class. We had many interesting conversations about the topic and I learned much from him (I almost ran away from home and joined a Buddhist monastery, so enraptured was I with their philosophy. Ultimately, I decided against it, but sometimes, I wonder).

This book actually goes in depth and covers many Zen concepts at length. I was definitely pleasantly surprised; a lot of the principles I studied in this book now govern some of the zazen techniques my wife and I have been practicing the past couple of days. It goes into the basics of zazen and meditation, the source of suffering, how to achieve satori, koans, and how Zen mixes with daily life. It also devotes a chapter to Zen aesthetics, debunking a lot of myths perpetuated by Western minimalists about what “Zen design” is supposed to be. If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating philosophy, I highly suggest this book as an excellent primer.

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The Decline and Fall of the Lee Library

A couple of weeks ago I had blogged heavily about the books that I planned on bringing with me to Seattle. Because of space limitations and the last minute nature of the move, I couldn’t bring that many books and so I suddenly had to make the choice of which select titles I could carry with me out of the hundreds of books my wife and I managed to collect over the years. This caused no small measure of pain and consternation for me, but, eventually, I felt I had compiled a list that would satisfy me.

But literally the day before the move, I stared at what I would soon pack up and what I had set aside, and I completely changed my list. Aside from my scriptures, Bodies, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore and Jewish Dharma (you can probably detect a pattern by now), nothing else made the cut to come with me. I quickly shuffled the books around and ended up with a drastically new list.

Two insights on the list – all of them require some form of proactive learning. My greatest strength and curse is my inability to stay focused on one subject for too long. Because of this, I’ve developed a great breadth of knowledge which my wife both loves and rolls her eyes at. I always enjoy learning, and this leads me to my second insight. None of them could be classified as fiction. None of them. Well, one of them, depending on your political persuasion. Fiction rarely captivates me (blasphemy to my friends and wife); because of my personality, I love the world I live in with all of its quirks and inconsistencies, and why explore made up worlds when the world we live in already exudes such fantastic qualities?

Without further ado:

The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class edited by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim

This book exemplifies my core personality. A devotional to strengthen your intellectualism rather than your collection of religious platitudes, the book divides each day into a category of study: History, Literature, Visual Arts, Science, Music, Philosophy, and Religion (it’s not completely godless). Each day reviews a basic subject from that area, ranging from “Personality of Self” to “The Spread of Islam” to “Sound Waves.”

When I first saw this book at the bookstore, I immediately turned to my wife and emphatically told her that this gift would make a perfect birthday gift. I’m pleased to say that she remembered. And while the consistency of both my scripture study and my study from this devotional book varies with the seasons, I have never regretted this book.


The real numbers are the numbers that you are likely to encounter in day-to-day life. The set of real numbers consists of all the numbers that can be represented on the number line. It encompasses natural numbers, whole numbers, integers, rational numbers, and irrational numbers.

Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living by Graham Hill and Meaghan O’Neill

This book is the only one I brought that could qualify as fiction, considering your political persuasion when it comes to environmentalism. Moving to Seattle, I figured I should reacquaint myself with the environmental movement, but I also believe passionately in environmental conservation and prudent, simple living. This book works as a great primer, introducing each week with a new area of life that could use a little greenifying. After explaining the basics behind the theory, they then introduce a number of ideas which they categorize according to how time consuming and expensive they are. They also interview authors who’ve written on interesting subjects, such as up-cycling. Plus, the book is printed with recycled paper. Can’t go wrong there.


There are more than eighty thousand chemical compounds approved for use by the EPA in the United States. Of these, only about a fraction have publicly available reports of evaluations for human safety. Only about 20 percent of the eighty thousand are in commercial use at any time, and federal regulations and liability issues mean that almost all new chemicals have some degree of testing or structural analysis for impacts on human health and the environment. However, these reports are interpreted by companies with financial interests in selling the chemicals and are not required for review by independent bodies. Still fewer tests have been done on how combinations of chemicals affect us, which is how we are typically exposed.

Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families by Anita Diamant with Howard Cooper

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated with the Jewish religion and culture. Many days I wish that I was born Jewish. There’s something about the combination of ritual, scripture, and custom that unites a people together. And with age comes wisdom; Judaism is one of the oldest religions still practiced today. My wife and I have always wanted to live an entire year following the Jewish customs. When someone recommended this book, we bought it and now wait eagerly for the next Yom Kippur to start our Jewish year. This book focuses more on a liberal Jewish interpretation, which at first disappointed me. But after thinking about it, I don’t know if I could last a year as a Hassidic Jew. This fact makes me sad and relieved.


For liberal Jews, not all mitzvot have the same weight because not all mitzvot provoke the sense of feeling commanded. As one rabbi has written, ‘There will be mitzvot through which my forebears found themselves capable of responding to the commanding God which are no longer adequate or possible for me, just as there will be new mitzvot through which I or my generation will be able to respond which my ancestors never thought of.’ Indeed, for liberal Jews, the increasingly complex modern world may suggest new and binding mitzvot regarding everything from the proper application of medical technology for the terminally ill to the ecological imperative to recycle.

Latin Made Simple by Doug Julius

While looking at requirements to apply for masters programs in theology, I noticed that many of them required the knowledge of either French or German, and Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. Because of this, I purchased this Latin book – I figured I could learn Latin and then knock French out in the process. I still want to learn German, Greek, and Hebrew, but all in good time.

I’m still working on the 1st declension, but I’m almost done and ready to start on the 2nd declension. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.


Practice reading this passage aloud, following the English sound guide, until you can read it clearly and without hesitation. Remember that in Latin every consonant and vowel is pronounced.

Pater noster qui es in caelis sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie. Et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et nos ne induas in tentationem sed libera nos a malo. Amen.


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Where Your Treasure Lies, Your Heart Lies Also

For the past hour I have been staring at my bookcases. Because of a last minute decision to move to Seattle, my wife and I suddenly face the near impossible task of deciding which of our library will stay behind, packed up in Utah, and which will continue on with us to Washington State.

And as I stand, scanning intently from title to title, each one bears a terrible choice, as if asked to decide between children on your favorite. I must be a terrible parent, since several of my “kids” hit the chopping block early – an extra copy of Crime and Punishment, a textbook on Introduction to International Relations, Albert Camus’ existentialist (and horribly depressing) The Plague. But then the decisions become even more gut wrenching than the usual – A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms isn’t exactly a page turner, nor do I consult it on a daily basis, but what if I need to know one day what aposiopesis means? I haven’t opened Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince in years, but there may come a time when I want to read once more about cynical realpolitik. And I’ve clearly read Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road several times so realistically I don’t need it when I move – but the prose! Have you ever read any prose more simultaneously poetically ironic and sublime?

The “to bring” pile shrinks as more books fall by the the wayside. each time I put one away makes me feel as if I’m burning them. I tell myself I will come back for these, my least favorite children. But should a bibliophile even be forced to abandon his library – even a portion – in the first place?

The Holy Bible – New International, King James, even the Recovery Version – will stay with us. Why Nations Go to War and The Craft of Research doesn’t make the cut. The Literature of American Jews (picked up for cheap at Sam Weller’s in Salt Lake City) will also come with me; Soviet Women Writing (bought along with The Literature of American Jews) unfortunately won’t. My 1955 RLDS edition of The Book of Mormon is one of my most prized possessions (purchased for $2.00 at a Blackwell, Oklahoma antique store), but I have to think twice about bringing both the current Hymnal and the red 1978 Hymnal that once belonged to my father (and before him, the Ricks College Twelfth Ward). In the end, sentimentality wins out, along with William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and a hardcover collection of writings by Plato, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. All three have been passed down from my previous generation to me – these artifacts are practically grandchildren at this point – you couldn’t leave them behind even if you tried.

Four versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In the end, the still shrink wrapped boxed set wins, both because it has art most closely reminiscing J.R.R. Tolkien’s own sketches, but also because my wife and I bought it together on our honeymoon in a Half Price Books. From Seattle thou didst come, and to Seattle thou shalt return. The other ones aren’t without story, however. My combined edition with a movie still of Gandalf on the cover is one I bought for myself, only to receive an identical version from my friend for Christmas one week later. The friend’s stayed behind in Seattle; mine will stay in Utah for a season. My wife’s old copy is falling apart and will also stay in the home she grew up in and read said trilogy over and over since she was able to begin reading. We vow to come back for them someday, but sadly, we don’t know exactly when.

Pretty soon, I am bargaining. I could sell neglected video games to make room for my equally neglected copy of Death of a Salesman or The Scarlet Letter. I didn’t even like The Scarlet Letter, but it’s certainly more of a classic than Front Mission 4. If I left behind some clothes I never wear, could I bring more tomes? I’m preparing to give away possessions to make room for more books, willing to sell the plasma running through my veins in hopes of purchasing shipping for those children stuck in moving limbo. I consider adoption. Maybe Ben Crowder will accept an old, battered copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, even if it’s missing a spine? He’s not the prettiest book, but you can’t judge him by his cover, right? He’s full of good things, I promise. Maybe David and Tiffany could give The Prentice Hall Reader a warm home? She doesn’t need much – just a nice shelf to sit on and declare to your visitors how literate you are.

In the end, I can’t finish this gruesome task – at least, not today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll reconsider again the “usefulness” of the books in my remaining library. But then again, I didn’t buy books for their usefulness, but for their character. If I wanted utility, I would have bought a Kindle.


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Check out that girl’s library

After our wedding, my wife and I moved into a small studio apartment located on the corner of 800 N and 100 W in Provo, Utah. Before unpacking anything else – dishes, cookware, bedding, clothes, bathroom supplies – my wife and I put together five sets of bookshelves and proceeded to shelve our combined library.

Later, I would be stopped by one of my neighbors who would proceed to tell me how envious he was of our library. This will rank somewhere in the top 25 best moments of my life.

The surprising thing about our library was that despite the capacity to fill five bookshelves, there were only two duplicates in our combined independent collections: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Color Code by Taylor Hartman. I believe the fact that these two books were the only two books that overlapped in our combined libraries is one of the reasons why we have such a strong marriage.

First – the fact that we had little overlap in our libraries meant we remain sufficiently different from one another, eliminating any chance of us running out of things to talk about. My wife rambles on about fantasy and fiction, while I ramble on about the various subjects my non-fiction books elucidate on, ranging from the ingredients of a Twinkie to the biography of the man who invented the thesaurus. She keeps me grounded by reminding me that sometimes entertainment is just that – entertainment, and my wife never has to subscribe to another podcast again, since I’ll talk about basically anything under the sun (vanity, vanity, all is vanity!).

Second – our first overlap is Lord of the Rings, written by the perennial father of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. Why does this show how we’re compatible? Because Lord of the Rings is the perfect marriage between shameless escapist fantasy complete with little hobbits, orcs, a giant spider and freaking Ringwraiths, combined with erudite Old English wordplay and complex social themes written into a vast, sprawling landscape of symbols! The book represents the combination of our personalities – a closet geek accountant who reads fiction to have swashbuckling adventures you can’t find within an Excel spreadsheet (though she assures me pivot tables can be just as exciting) and an almost obsolete English major aspiring for professorship obsessed with the strangest, most trivial scholarly topics. It is only expected that both of us would own our own copies, and strangely enough, we ended up buying a third boxed edition on our honeymoon – for real (for our children, we rationalized).

Third – The Color Code by Taylor Hartman. For those not in the know, this book is basically years of personality studies in psychology distilled into a simple, easy to understand system. Upon hearing that both of us knew about the book (and read it), we could tell each other what our colors were (she’s a blue/red, I’m a yellow/blue). We rarely use it as one would a fortune teller or take it as exact science, but the fact we both owned the book and knew it well showed we found interest in personalities and relationships. A lot of relationships fail because the two parties simply didn’t understand each other and rarely strive to understand – reading books about how to understand and work with other people meant our commitments to each other weren’t backed up with hopes and wishes; we were honestly trying to learn. This means all the difference.

A mentor of mine could read you by simply listening to what you said. He would let you sit there while all the while he wouldn’t say a word; nature abhors a vacuum and when people are confronted with silence, they fill it with their own words, of which he would use to decipher your soul. I, however, hold firmly to the fact that you can also learn a lot by looking through a person’s library. So what does your library tell about you?

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