Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thoughts on the Selling of Seminary Textbooks

The student center at Ashland has a table in one corner for free items. It is a place where students can come to collect food that is donated weekly by local businesses. I suppose such tables are a regular fixture at most seminaries and I remember needing to take advantage of the free groceries on occasion when I was in seminary.

In addition to food and clothing it is not unusual to find a couple of books that are either free for the taking or require a small donation. This morning I carried a pile of biblical studies journals that I no longer need nor want on my shelf. They are all online now and easier to search that way. So I thought I would donate them to those who might get more use from them.

As I was making my deposit I noticed two boxes of books for sale. The sign on the box read: “Large books $10, small books $5.” On the front of each box was an envelope where monies were to be placed. I began looking through the boxes and quickly realized that these were not merely someone’s cast offs, part of the process of making room. No, these were seminary text books; the volumes that professors require on the syllabus; the books we think you need to read in order to get a grasp of the topics we are teaching. Even more troubling was that it was clear that many of them had not been cracked, let alone read. I found books on Jesus and Paul, church history and the polity of a particular denomination and a Hebrew primer still in the plastic wrap.

I searched for a name in the books, but could find none and wondered what the story was behind the books. Why would a student be getting rid of so many books and at cut rate prices? Were they having financial problems? Did they suddenly have to leave seminary? Had they just given up?

It always disturbs me to see a list of books for sale by students. From time to time I will see an advert for books with the name of a graduating senior as the contact person. It makes me wonder why they would sell all of their books. Did they really hate the books that much? Did they disagree with the author or the approach? Did they consider their education over and therefore also the need to read and learn? Would they never need any of these books once they got into the ministry?

I realize that not every book assigned in a course will have long term value. Sometimes a professor will require a book and then realize it didn’t work for the course. And I have sold some of my books over the years as I updated or moved into different areas of study. But I still keep many of them around for reference, to look up the answers that I need and to find the information that I require. I wonder, then, to where will these students go if/when they need information in their ministry, when they are trying to remember what it is we taught him or her? Do they assume they can get everything they need on the internet? Or do they think they only need their Bible? On both scores I have my doubts.

I remember hearing a saying about pastors many years ago. It went something like this: “You can tell when someone graduated from seminary by looking at when the most recent book on their shelf was published.” In other words, too many pastors stop reading when they finish seminary. Perhaps some sold all of their books.  I wonder where they will go when they need to look up a question. Do they look up anything? Do they have any questions?

I remember another story I once heard. It was about a young student who wanted to study the Torah, but had little money for books. One day the young man’s Rabbi asked him why his breath smelled so bad. The young man responded by telling the Rabbi that he spent all of his money on books for studying so that he had been forced to eat road apples for food.

I am not asking students and pastors to eat road apples. But I would ask them to think before they sell all of their books. They just might need them again someday.

My friend and colleague, Allan Bevere, has chimed in on the topic. Here is part of what he has to say.

If I were a parishioner interviewing a pastor as a potential candidate to shepherd my congregation, one of the questions I would ask is "What books have you read in the last year?" I dare say the answer more often than not would be quite disappointing.

Yes, there are certainly pastors who continue the life of study throughout their years in the parish. But I fear that there are all too many whose pursuit of the truth stopped once they received that seminary diploma at graduation. Yes, they may read a few things here or there, but they are more interested in spending the evenings watching reality TV than continuing to grapple with the great theological truths of our faith. Some may think that indictment is too harsh, but my experience tells me that it is on target.


  1. Great Blog, Dr. Byron. I for one am the rare breed, that keeps all my books from seminary. I have found it useful, while I am working, to go to the bookself, pull out the dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels and find a quick reference point that will help with a starting point to build off of. I know most sell their books because of money but, for so many required books, I'm shocked that they were selling them for so cheap, when you can get more if you listed them online. I know the few books I have sold online, I end up regretting, because I will think of them when i am working on any lessons.

  2. As a slight bibliophile, I couldn't imagine selling my books. Especially ones for courses I've taken, after all the time spent in those pages it would be like abandoning a new friend. Great post.

  3. I think from my five years working on my bachelors of biblical literature, I still have every book except two psychology books. I love my books. :-) Plus as a writer, I'm always headed for one or the other.

  4. One of the most painful things I did in my recent move was give away piles of books. I just don't have space for them all. :-(

  5. I read all of mine. But ten years post graduation and married with kids I realized I've never once referred back to 90% of them. Making room for new reads and learning to live with less has resulted in selling most of them.