Among many evangelical literature-lovers (and likely many CT readers), Leland Ryken is a familiar name. Longtime (now emeritus) professor of English at Wheaton College, he is the author of numerous books, including The Christian Imagination and How to Read the Bible as Literature. In his latest offering, Recovering the Lost Art of Reading, he teams up with professional writer Glenda Faye Mathes to take on one of the ecclesial crises of our time (though not one that tends to make the headlines): By and large, Christians aren’t engaged in serious reading.
Ryken and Mathes set out to provide Christians with the reasons and tools they need to start reading again. Their overriding hope is that readers will find it easier to pick up a book and responsibly—indeed, artfully—lose themselves in it. (In this, their intentions overlap somewhat with those of Karen Swallow Prior in her 2018 work On Reading Well, although Recovering the Lost Art of Reading is a very different book.)
Ryken and Mathes describe their project as addressing “first the concept of reading as a lost art, then distinctive features of various types of literature and tips for reading them, and finally, ideas for ways to recover reading.” To put it more plainly, the book asks and responds to three questions: What is literature? Why should Christians read it? And what do they need to know (either about literature or about why they’re not reading it) before they can read it well?
While Recovering the Lost Art of Reading isn’t exactly literary criticism, it brings aspects of a literary-critical engagement to would-be readers and provides insight into things like the difference between literary and nonliterary uses of language, the relationship of form and content, and what exactly to pay attention to when reading, say, a novel. All the while, Ryken and Mathes share with readers how becoming an attentive, artful reader is one of God’s desires for us, not just because it helps us think and feel beyond ourselves, but because it brings delight.
It’s an ambitious project, but Ryken and Mathes are committed evangelists, and they bring the good news as all evangelists do, which is to say, they begin with sin and its consequences! We hear, for example, that “smartphones, computers, game consoles, and other devices for streaming information” have “fractur[ed] our focus” and that, as a result, “we’re losing depth of wisdom, perhaps even a part of ourselves that jeopardizes our very souls.” The authors then highlight the free gift offered by reading: “The best literary fiction reflects God’s … creativity,” and in it, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see, we can find “truth, goodness, and beauty.” Finally, they hold an altar call: “All it takes to accept the invitation is to read a book or poem.” Or, if you prefer, “the joy is before you. Open a book and enter.”
One thing to observe about Recovering the Lost Art of Reading is that even though it is divided into three parts, each conceptually distinct from the others, there is a fair amount of repetition in the book. This is not entirely surprising, for to talk about “reading as an art” (part 1) necessarily entails saying things about “what literature is,” even if that topic doesn’t come up formally until later in the book (part 2). While the authors note that certain chapters build upon others, it’s helpful to think of the book not as a single, overarching argument but as a series of chapters that lend themselves to being taken up on their own.
Indeed, the authors invite readers to treat Recovering the Lost Art of Reading as a “guidebook,” implying that reading it straight from start to finish isn’t necessarily the intention. (Approached in this way, repetition becomes a virtue.) We might imagine, for instance, a hesitant reader of poetry lacking the confidence to pick up that edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Ryken and Mathes’s chapter “Reading Poems: Songs of the Soul” might be just what she needs to get herself over the hump. The fact that several chapters offer a mixture of theoretical exploration and practical tips suggests the usefulness of reading the book in this way. Chapters themselves are divided into short one- or two-page sections, and each concludes with a summary of the points made.
One of the downsides of writing the book in this way is, unfortunately, that that some parts are more engaging than others. The authors are at their best in the chapter “Reading the Bible as Literature: Words of Delight.” This is, of course, Ryken’s wheelhouse, and readers will have no trouble discerning the authors’ animating concern: If Christians aren’t reading artfully, then there’s a sense in which they can’t actually read the Bible. They write:
People who are oblivious to … literary aspects of biblical texts may think they are getting by without literary analysis, but either they are performing literary analysis intuitively and unconsciously, or they are not really interacting with the Bible but with a substitute.
In another notable moment, the authors take issue with what passes for “Christian fiction” these days: “Too many of these novels are bland romances with flat characters and pat endings. … No wonder some believers view reading novels as a waste of time!”
The chapters discussing “Truth in Literature” and “The Moral Vision in Literature” are also very good. In the former, Ryken and Mathes helpfully distinguish between representational and ideational truth in literature. Representational truth is something that can be taken at face value: Either what’s depicted in a novel is true to life or it isn’t. Ideational truth, though, requires the work of interpretation before one can assess its “truth claims.”
But even here the authors are careful, writing, “An additional reason why we should be unapologetic about disagreeing with some truth claims in a work is that there are almost certainly other elements that we can affirm. We can appreciate skill of composition, artistic beauty, an accurate and clarifying portrayal of life, and maybe even some of the author’s ideas.”
A mixed bag
Despite there being much to appreciate in Recovering the Lost Art of Reading, the book has some problems. In addition to the unevenness of the text mentioned above (perhaps inevitable when a book has more than one author), there is the ubiquitous, at times overwhelming enlistment of quotations. Hardly a page goes by without some tidbit, some piece of quotable wisdom, from a social scientist, a literary critic, or a famous author or text.
Multiple references to the Bible are, of course, to be expected, but C. S. Lewis is cited something like 40 times in the book, which means he makes an appearance every five or six pages on average. Now I like the creator of Narnia as much as the next guy, but after a certain point, one has to wonder whether it’d be better to put Ryken and Mathes down and just read Lewis instead. I understand the reason for appealing to authorities, and charitably, one might read the authors’ use of quotations as evidence of their lifetime curation of “the best that has been thought and said,” to quote Matthew Arnold (which the authors do). Nevertheless, it seems to me the relentless use of other people’s ideas actually stands in the way of Ryken and Mathes fully developing their own.
Another problem I saw repeatedly while reading was a certain ambiguity about the book’s intended audience. Given the authors’ evangelistic ambitions, one might safely assume it’s written for Christians—for “children of the Book” who have forgotten books. But I’m skeptical that all Christians, younger ones especially, will be engaged. The problem isn’t so much the subject matter as the way it’s presented. Even though I’m largely sympathetic to the claims made by the authors, their repeated references to the dangers of technology, the internet, social media, and video games strike me as caricatured and even tired, just as their objection to “stories about vampires or aliens” seems likely to be met with “OK, Boomer” or some such response.
Ryken and Mathes apparently also expect their readers to have a working knowledge of the current state of literary studies in the university. References to “deconstructionist” approaches to literature or “reader response” criticism will likely fly right over many people’s heads. Indeed, it’s possible that appeals to such half-understood and barely explained concepts might serve merely to reinforce certain preexisting and uninformed reader biases about academia.
Ultimately, Recovering the Lost Art of Reading is a mixed bag, like most chapters of the book: It contains a little bit of everything. I’d still recommend it, however, if only to prompt readers to ask themselves the questions Ryken and Mathes suggest good literature invites: How is it true? How is it good? And how is it beautiful? Only artful reading can provide the answers.
Darren Dyck is an assistant professor of English at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, where he teaches courses on, among other things, medieval literature and the writings of the Inklings.
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