So said one of my (former) classmates to me as we looked over a table covered in used books for sale. I think he hit the nail on the head-- “penny-wise and pound-foolish” describes too many seminarians when it comes to books.
I'll be the first to admit that, like many seminary students, I am a shameless bibliophile. You may, therefore, feel free to read what follows with the proverbial “grain of salt.” But I am convinced that the opportunity in seminary to gather the resources needed for ministry includes books-- and it is often a missed opportunity.
Why should you, seminary students, invest in books while in school? To begin with, you are immersed in books; nearly everything about seminary studies involves reading and research. Thus, you become familiar with the books you'll want and need for ministry, and might find using your own copy saves time and energy. At very least, it is easier to gather these as-needed than to try to buy them all at once after graduation (plus, you will have to keep a very long and careful list of what books to buy!).
Similarly, you'll never get as many great book recommendations as you do while in seminary. The margins of my notes are filled with titles and authors. You can't buy all of them, but you'll know which ones you should go ahead and pick up.
Another reason is that you need to get familiar with your library. Unless you happen to take a call in a seminary town, you won't have the vast resources ready-at-hand that you now have. Using your own books for sermon preparation and other research means that you'll know what you have and what you lack-- so that you can fill in the gaps! It will also save you a lot of time (since you can get the books you want at any time), frustration (don't you know that everyone else in your class will need that book too?), and occasional library fines.
But perhaps the best reason-- and the reason articulated above by my book-perusal companion-- is that you will never have so many affordable books available for purchase. Consider all of the following:
- Seminary bookstores give substantial discounts (often 15%) off of all books, and even more (20%, plus-- in Missouri, at least-- a lower tax rate) for text books required for classes. Many seminary bookstores also offer a good collection of used books at very reasonable prices.
- Seminary libraries often will have books for sale at very low prices. Academic libraries must (for accreditation) have a certain number of new books added to the shelves, and these sometimes push older books out. They are also the frequent recipients of estate library donations. At my seminary's library, for example, these two factors result in an almost perpetual book sale. Sometimes the books are even free!
- Beyond this, there is usually a venue for students to sell their own books. If the bookstore doesn't handle this, there will be a few shelves in the student center, a table in the mail room, or a bulletin board for posting lists. Used books are almost always a good deal.
I usually buy based on the classes I am currently taking, in light of the assignments I'll be required to complete. If I'm taking a New Testament class, for example, and I'll be doing a paper on a particular passage, I'll buy the commentaries I'll want to have in my library on that biblical book. If I'm going to write a theological paper, I'll determine my thesis and buy accordingly.
There are good books on what books to buy: D.A. Carson has a great bibliography called New Testament Commentary Survey. Tremper Longman has written the counterpart, Old Testament Commentary Survey. There are others, but many of them-- including Longman-- are somewhat dated. A great guide that I use regularly is John F. Evans's Biblical Commentaries and Reference Works for students and pastors; it has just been updated (2005!) and is available through Covenant Seminary's online bookstore.
Here are a few more tips for stretching the seminary book budget:
- Buy used books online whenever possible. I usually get a list of the books required for the semester, buy as many as I can find used, then get the rest new. There are a number of good sources for used books online: Bookfinder, Advanced Book Exchange, and Fetchbook are all aggregates of many used booksellers. The Internet will inevitably be the best source of the lowest prices; it can also be a way to get out-of-print works that are harder to find.
- Buy carefully. While I'm advocating regular and frequent book-buying for the seminarian, be judicious about which books to buy. Maybe you won't really need (or even want) the books required for that elective class. It could be that you already have enough good books covering a particular subject, regardless of the quality of the recommendations. Some guys I know will not buy for most of their classes until they've checked the book out of the library first to see how much they will want it. Just be careful that this doesn't lead to complacency when the time comes to actually buy (“I already read that book when I checked it out of the library; why buy it now?”)
- Find other used book sources. I know of two annual book fairs that take place here in St. Louis. Both of them are huge, with thousands of books each. Just today I bought 8 books for $7.50 from one of them. These types of opportunities exist in most places; you just have to find them.
- If you can't find it used, go Amazon! I love small, independent bookstores, but I hate the prices they charge. Even the big chains are more expensive in-store than online: I priced a large reference work online with Borders for $32, but would have paid over $50 to buy it at the brick-and-mortar Borders. Amazon sells books for low prices, and they often have used copies, as well.