Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books
Crossway Books, 2011
202 pp., $17.99
Karen Swallow Prior
Lit! Why & How We Read
Editor's Note: Many years ago, I taught English at a large state university in California. A lot of the students had jobs; a lot were immigrants. Most of the classes I taught were "composition." I discovered that one of my primary tasks in the span of ten weeks (we were on the quarter system) was to offer a crash course in how to read. Even though they were in college, most of my students hadn't learned reading beyond the most basic level.
Tony Reinke's Lit! A Christian Guide to Books (Crossway) speaks to the need that quickly became apparent in those classes, and it does so from a distinctively Christian perspective. This need isn't limited to college students. Hence we are featuring a conversation between Reinke and Karen Swallow Prior (whose Twitter handle, by the way is @LoveLifeLitGod). Karen leads off today, Tony responds on Wednesday, Karen returns on Thursday, and Tony concludes the conversation on Friday. We hope you'll join in as well.
My initial response to a Christian how-to book on reading books is dismay: do we really need a book addressing such basic questions as why we should read books and how to do so well?
Since the answer to that question, unfortunately, is yes, my second response to Tony Reinke's Lit: A Christian Guide to Reading Books is thank you—followed by a mental list of all the people I know who need this book. Because I'm an English professor (and because I recently taught a literature survey to a class of 100 general education students), that list is depressingly long.
But I'm a realist, so I go with what we've got. And what we've got, by most accounts, is what Marshall McLuhan described fifty years ago in The Gutenberg Galaxy as a postliterate culture. Not only the population at large, but even we putative "People of the Book," need a book that addresses questions like the ones that Reinke raises in Lit:
- "What do I lose if I don't read books?"
- "Does the gospel really shape how I read books? How so?"
- "What books should I read?"
- "Where do I find all the time I need to read books?"
Reinke answers these and many other questions in readable, practical prose, interweaving theology, personal experience, and helpful tips to make the case for books.
The way we read (or don't) is rooted, like all human activity, in our theology. And this is where Reinke begins, reminding us that publishing didn't begin in 15th-century Germany. There was that day on Mt. Sinai, when God carved his words into stone. Hence for Christians, "scripture is the ultimate grid by which we read every book." The removal of spiritual blinders that occurs at regeneration gives us "spiritual eyes" not only for biblical truth but for the truth that can be found in other books, too. Less important than what we read, in most cases, is how we read it. In another book on the same topic, Why Read?, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson answers the question in the classic humanist mode—we read to live better—a reason with which I won't disagree. But Reinke's approach—notably, that of a non-professional reader—offers more. In the chapter "Reading is Believing," Reinke connects the language-centered nature of Christianity to the ways in which language by its very nature gets beyond visible, superficial realities to the invisible world of meaning. This is why reading is inherently hard work, not only when reading for knowledge, but even when reading for pleasure, since some of the greatest pleasures gained from reading comes through great effort.
In devaluing the mere pleasure of reading, many Christians create unhelpful categories of reading material, prioritizing some books (biblical commentary, say, or self-help) and disdaining others (such as fiction). Reinke, wisely and helpfully, divides books into just two categories: the Bible and all other books. Later, he addresses how one might subdivide the latter category in ways tailored to individual needs and interests, but these two categories cut to the chase: the Bible is a category unto itself; the rest can be approached in a way that paraphrases Augustine: "Love God, and read what you will."
And there's the rub: for many, the will is lacking.
Karen Swallow Prior is chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University.
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