The Two-Foot Bookshelf

“Read for depth, not breadth.”
-Elton Trueblood


This past summer I was doing some research on John Woolman in Mt. Holly, NJ. I stumbled on a letter by Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University. He wrote that John Woman’s journal was included in his “five-foot bookshelf.” I was hooked. A little research revealed that Mr. Eliot was an advocate for self-education. Of course, any person would benefit from a Harvard education. But any person, by choosing wisely what he or she read, could receive a rich education. He went on to say he believed any person could receive an unparalleled education by reading 15 minutes a day from the collection of classics that could fit on a five-foot bookshelf.  

It is excellent advice. It applies not only to the enrichment of the mind but to the formation of the soul. My mentor, Elton Trueblood, constantly advised me, “Read for depth, not breadth.” It is unnecessary to read everything that has been written; in fact, much that has been written is not worthy of the spent time. But there are a few spiritual treasures written over the past two thousand years of Christian spirituality about living life with God that must be read if one wants to advance far on the spiritual journey. These treasures are from men and women who have been genuine explorers of the way to God and the life lived with God.  They have left some journals, prayers, and observations behind to guide us on our way to God. These "guidebooks"
show the way to God. More these explorers reveal both their struggles and their breakthroughs and you will learn from both.

I decided to take the advice of Charles Eliot to heart. I created not a "five foot bookshelf" but a “two-foot bookshelf” that I keep within reach on my desk. These twenty-four inches of shelving include books such as The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly and The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer. Books about the 'with-God' life that are absolute treasures of Christian spirituality. Included are books by Henri Nouwen, Douglas Steere, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Francis Fenelon, Andrew Murray, Teresa of Avila, Eugene Peterson, John Baillie and St. Francis de Sales.  

The opportunity is doable: a 15-minute investment per day. One quarter of an hour. An opportunity to explore the interior regions and learn how to integrate into your life and situation the experience of God. A rare chance, indeed, offered by this quarter of an hour, to have your life and outlook and ethic formed and shaped by these rich reports of the possibility of living everyday life with God.