I Read Reference Books For Fun (Hey, stop judging me!)

[I place all blame responsibility for this post on Anne Bogel, since the topic came up in a comment over at  Modern Mrs. Darcy.]


I like to read. A show of hands, please, for those who are like-minded.

I like to read reference books. Another show of hands please … waiting for those hands to go up … still waiting … ok, how about with every head bowed and every eye closed … now let’s see those hands go up … hmm, still waiting …

Reverence for Reference Books

The reference books I’ve read have mostly been on language and writing. My first, I think, was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Even though I now look at it with a bit of a critical eye, in college it had a permanent place on my bedside table as I re-read it a few times in hope of improving my writing.

Others I’ve made my way through include The Oxford Companion to the English Language (cover-to-cover 1184 pages), The Quotable Lewis – an encyclopedic selection of quotes from the complete published works of C.S. Lewis, and A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (almost finished!).

This predilection (does it sound like I swallowed a dictionary or what?) for reading reference books applies to my Scripture reading as well. Some people might say the Bible itself is a type of reference book (a staunch fundamentalist preacher, hearing I wanted to study history, once bellowed to me “The Bible is the best history book there is!”, which is such an oversimplification as to be misguided, I’m afraid).

I’m not talking about the Bible as reference book, though. I’m talking about study Bibles. They combine Scripture text with a sort of Bible commentary/dictionary, and have been my regular mode of personal Bible study for years now.

Studying Study Bibles

The first one I read was the NIV Study Bible. I bought one of the earliest editions and read it through, Genesis to Revelation and all the study notes along the way. I thought it was the greatest thing since Guttenberg used moveable type. Imagine reading a passage and having the commentary right there on the same page. This was wild stuff for me almost 25 years ago.

Then I read the NLT Life Application Study Bible. That was an interesting tool. All the study notes, as you might have guessed, went to how the passage applied in one’s life. I can’t say I followed a lot of their specific application advice, but I can say that the notes opened up new understanding for me on a lot of passages.

I then went back and re-read the NIV Study Bible cover to cover, mostly because I hadn’t found another one to pick up yet.

I took a short break from study Bibles and read the one-year HCSB. I’d never before done one of those one-year plans where you read a bit from several books of the Bible each day. There’s something about reading passages in a different order than you’re used to for being able to see things you’ve missed before.

I’ve used the Reformation Study Bible, too. If you want solid Reformation doctrine from a solid theologian, then this will fit the bill. Did I already lean toward reformation doctrine before reading this? Yes. If you haven’t guessed already, folks, I’m a five point Calvinist. But even those who are not can learn much from the solid teaching in this study Bible.

I’m now in the middle of the Archaeological Study Bible, but a bit by accident. My daughter had been to Israel and wanted this for herself. We bought it but she hadn’t taken it to school with her yet, and then I got to where I needed to start a new study Bible and there it was. I’ve been enjoying the notes and articles and maps and charts. Again, new ways of understanding Scripture are opening up all the time with this one.

God’s word is amazing. Does the Holy Spirit need commentaries to guide us in understanding that word? Of course not. But he is able to use them to open up our understanding of God’s wonderful story, and that’s something worth studying.

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30 Responses to I Read Reference Books For Fun (Hey, stop judging me!)

  1. Love it. Personal favorites at my house are The Elements of Style, Benét’s Readers Encyclopedia, and The Food Lovers Companion. We like our reference books. 🙂

  2. Aimee Byrd says:

    Tim, this is a great article–hilarious intro. Way to make reference books fun and intriguing. And, I have also committed the faux pas of reading a book that I bought for a gift (once or twice!).

    • Aimee Byrd says:

      And think my fav title for a reference book I’ve read is “How to Read a Book.” You would think that one might have been an audio version instead, but they know how to attract nerds like me 🙂

      • Tim says:

        Years ago I bought a car with a CD player. I’d never owned a CD player before, whether in a car or otherwise. The car came with a CD on how to use the CD player. I eventually figured it out.

  3. SJBeals says:

    We love reference books here. My high schoolers are required to read “Companion for College English” (a college level reference guide), “How to Read A Book” and Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” in 10-11th grade. AND, my husband is known to pull out the Oxford dictionary around the holiday dinner table to play word definition games. He reads and finds the dictionary fascinating. Yes, we are exciting around here. 🙂

  4. Anja L says:

    I’m relatively new to the blog (started reading three months ago I think) and just wanted to say how reassuring it is to hear that I’m not the only one who does this! I remember reading the 1998 world almanac as a kid, bought a 800-page book on the ‘art and science of keeping house’ a few years ago and recently started reading a 2000-recipe book from cover to cover (can you tell I’m not that practical a person who tries to teach herself what everyone else seems to innately know via books?), a grammar book to improve my English (I’m Dutch) and a dictionary… Sometimes I wonder if something is wrong with me but from now on I’ll take solace in the fact that at least I’m not alone.

    I also like studying theology… Does this prove that certain personalities are just drawn to that field?

  5. Jeannie says:

    Tim, I’m shocked, frankly. (Just kidding.)

    I remember when my daughter was about 2 years old, she’d get out the phone book and open it. “A!” Then she’d turn the pages one by one by one by one… “B!” And so on. As a parent you can get an awful lot done during those, oh, six-hour periods! 🙂 I especially loved as she got older she ALWAYS wanted to read and study the rules of a new game, which was the part my husband and I always hated. So she’d read the manual and then tell us exactly what to do. So yeah, our family is pretty geeky that way.

  6. Karen says:

    Tim, no time to write much, so this will have to suffice: You are a kindred spirit in more ways than one! Hope you’re blessed in all your reading.

  7. I remember my very first study bible, it was Ryrie and I was equally amazed. Finally, getting the scriptures to feel more open and available.

    Another great resource for the “Old” Testament are the JPS Commentaries. Very well done. Currently I’m reading “Ruth.” 😉

    • Tim says:

      Ruth is such a wonderful story. You could almost read it as Naomi’s story, and in that it is a metaphor of God’s faithfulness to his people.


      (JPS? Acronym escaping me!)

  8. It is a BEAUTIFUL story indeed! And on so many levels.

    JPS is Jewish Publication Society.

  9. Kathleen says:

    Read this yesterday and enjoyed it, but have to share that today while praying for a guy I know, praying that he has a hunger for God’s Word, the Holy Spirit reminded me of your article! Being a real study/reference geek too I realized what an opportunity I had to give him a Gift! Just ordered him a Study Bible 🙂 Thanks for sharing!!!

  10. Lesley says:

    I love to read but reference books aren’t at the top of my list. That being said, thanks for the encouragement to read through different versions of the bible!

  11. Josh says:

    Any recommendations on what you think are some better study bibles?

    • Tim says:

      I think starting with the NIV study Bible is a good choice. It’s fairly straightforward in its study aids. But the way I sometimes do it is just go to the bookstore and compare them side by side.

  12. Ah, this explains why we don’t get many comments from you on our blogs anymore and why you don’t follow my twitter as you do Rachel’s (it’s okay, I’m not hurt, this is common). . .Rob & I are hardcore Anabaptists and you’re a hardcore Calvinist (don’t kill us like your historical peoples did, please, haha, I know you won’t though).

    side note: I actually lost one of my closest friends (a calvinist) last weekend because she said that anyone who believes in pacifism is of the Devil (on her FB) after we lovingly were trying to tell us a reason for why we’re becoming missionaries and more in person two days earlier (so I guess Rob and I proclaiming Christ’s Word everywhere makes us of the devil now. . way to hurt your best friend like that). Anyway, I went to a calvinist private school (reformed/christian reformed) and Rob was raised in a CRC church, so we understand the mindset really well and studied it a lot (well I was taught a lot more about it than he was, because he never knew about the history). I get along well with Rachel thankfully (so she wasn’t the friend I lost, in case you were curious).

    Anyway, so I like study Bibles too and studying them. I did so with a NIV first too and am on the ESV now. My mom has the archaeological study NIV Bible that I read as well which was pretty cool. I love knowing about some of the recent finds even!
    That’s so great that your daughter went to Israel!!! It would be great to see one day.

  13. Pingback: Sunday Funnies – Google Oddities 3 | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

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