Book Review: Lit!

Enter Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke. If you’ve heard of it, good. If not, you’re about to.

This is a book for people who love to read, and for people who don’t. For people who read every waking minute, and for people who can’t seem to find the time. For people who read widely, and for people who read not-so-widely. For people who know what to read, when to read, and why to read, and for people who haven’t a clue.

Having said that, I’ve rendered your excuses for not reading this book futile. The target audience is, well, everybody – including you and your dog. Okay, maybe not your dog. But you get the idea.

Lit! is quite easily one of the best things I’ve read all year. Why? Because it’s clear from page one that Reinke writes about reading because he loves it. Better yet, he knows why he loves it. His excitement is catching, so don’t even bother trying to vaccinate yourself against it. This is a bug you should want to catch.

The best thing about Lit! is the very thing that sets it apart from other books on reading: it begins at the beginning, with the Book of Books.

Somewhere around 1450 BC, on a remote Egyptian mountaintop called Mount Sinai, an author wrote something so earth-shaking that the publishing industry has never recovered. It never will…

The purpose of this book is to study reading from a Christian perspective. So how does Sinai change the way I scan rows of literature at the bookstore? What does a combustible mountaintop have to do with a classic novel by Dostoevsky, a contemporary novel by Cormac McCarthy, the latest social insights by Malcom Gladwell, the latest marketing book by Seth Godin, or the latest biography by David McCullough?


Scripture is the ultimate grid by which we read every book. Scripture is perfect, sufficient, and eternal. All other books, to some degree, are imperfect, deficient, and temporary. That means that when we pick books from the bookstore shelves, we read those imperfect books in light of the perfect Book, and the temporary books in light of the eternal book. (pp. 23, 26)

The driving vision behind Reinke’s book could be summed up in Spurgeon’s famous maxim: “Visit many good books, but live in the Bible.”

It’s hard to cover everything I loved about Lit!, because I loved everything. There were, however, several things which particularly stood out to me…

First, I loved Reinke’s exuberant yet carefully reasoned defense of fiction. In fact, the next time someone tells me that reading fiction is harmful, silly, or a waste of time, I’ll just hand them a copy of this book – and flash them a big, toothy smile while I’m at it.

Second, Reinke makes an excellent case for “grace-filled” literature. Take note: “grace-filled” does not automatically equal “clean.” The two are often confused, but honestly, they shouldn’t be.

Christian novelist Larry Woiwode said in an interview, “If sin isn’t mentioned or depicted, there’s no need for redemption. How can the majesty of God’s mighty arm be defined in a saccharin romance?”

Ryken, O’Conner, and Woiwode have a point, and it’s a very sticky point. God’s “amazing grace” is especially displayed when it “saves a wretch.” To some degree, the author must paint a picture of the wretchedness of sin in order for grace to emerge in its brilliance. Thus, grace-filled literature is often not “clean” literature. In fact, God’s redemptive grace is hard to capture in “clean” fiction. This is especially true of conversion stories, because conversion is about contrast. (p. 124)

So much for the white-washed, insubstantial drivel littering the shelves of so many Christian bookstores. We need to get our act together, as artists and as theologians; because frankly, most of what passes for “Christian fiction” these days flat-out sucks.

Third, I loved the way Reinke laid waste to one of the most common (and unconvincing) excuses for not reading: I just don’t have time. Please. Who are we kidding? Of course we have time – we just choose to spend it on other things, like chatting on Facebook or vegging out in front of our favorite sitcom. Time isn’t the issue; misusing it is.

Fourth and last, I think Lit! may have convinced me that marginalia – i.e. “the fine art of defacing books with pencils, pens, and highlighters” – isn’t such a horrific thing after all. Which is a big step. I used to think jotting down notes in a book was an offense worthy of death (and an excruciatingly painful one at that). After reading Lit!, my views have undergone something of a change.

[M]arkings in a book’s margins are the evidence of a thinking reader. We don’t read to read; we read to think. “My own conviction is that fruitful study is primarily thinking, not reading,” John Piper says. “My guess is that reading, which was meant to become a stimulus and guide to independent thinking, usually becomes a crutch for it. The evidence for this is how many books we read and how little we write down.” (p. 148)

Read this book. Read it for its own sake. Read it that you may read other books well. And make sure you scribble in the margins while you’re at it.

24 thoughts on “Book Review: Lit!”

  1. This seems like it would be a pretty interesting read! If I ever get through my other 59 books (or whatever) I’ll try to remember to check this one out. :]

        1. It’s a quick read – about 200 pp, give or take. Short and sweet. I read it in one sitting. :) And yes, it is available on Kindle (though since the hardcopy edition is only a dollar more, I’d recommend that instead).

          1. oh man, I do love physical books… but my bookshelf would probably stroke out if I added one more book to it. LOL. plus, i don’t have to pay shipping if I buy the kindle version! *cha-ching*

  2. And make sure you scribble in the margins while you’re at it.

    Unless of course, the copy you’re reading comes from someone else’s library – in which case, maybe one should keep a notepad handy. :D

    This book sounds really good! Thanks for posting a review! It’s going on my list! :)

    1. :D Reinke says, “If it’s worth reading seriously, I think it’s worth buying and marking up. But of course, if you want to write in books, please buy them first. Very few librarians appreciate marginalia.”

        1. Hmm. I suppose he does have a point. I usually do try to buy books I really like anyway. :)

          Marginalia. I had no idea that was a word. :)

  3. Mother laughs a somewhat evil laugh, “Hahahaha…maybe Ink will never bother me about writing in my books again.” And, maybe he’ll even join the club.

    Great review, my son!

    Love you!

  4. Sigh. Okay, okay. I’ll give this one another go. I’ve had it on my TBR list for months and months (and have even already purchased a copy), but I have such little patience for nonfiction nowadays.

    I NEED to read it.

  5. I keep seeing this book again and again and KNOW I will love it. Your review is one of the best I’ve read so far–or at least the one that most makes me want to start the book *tonight*! :) I love your reflections on grace-filled literature (and agree with your assessment of popular “christian” fiction) and I also appreciate the support for my marginalia habit. chuckle

    1. Thanks, Shonya – glad to hear it. I was hoping my enthusiasm for the book might infect some of my readers. :) Reinke’s observations on redemptive literature are some of the best I’ve encountered on the subject.

  6. OK, you’ve convinced me. :) I’ve seen this book around for months now, but need to pick it up.

    As a major fan of Christian fiction, I’d disagree with your assessment there.

    I might quibble about “clean” fiction as well. There seems to be a movement these days to include four-letter words and unnecessary sexual details even in Christian fiction, but sinfulness can be depicted without going that far (the Bible does that well, as do many other Christian authors. Terri Blackstock is one.)

    1. I think you’ll enjoy it – it’s one of the best books about reading I’ve read. :)

      There are exceptions in the Christian fiction genre – Randy Alcorn, for example – but as a rule, I find it extremely lacking, artistically and theologically. Finding stories with the depth of O’Conner, Bunyan, Lewis, etc. is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

      As for “clean” fiction vs. “grace-filled” fiction – I think Reinke’s point is well made. Unnecessary sexual material should be avoided, yes, but there are passages in Scripture that don’t exactly shy away from the nitty-gritty. I also don’t have a problem with language or graphic violence, when used in certain contexts: for example, a war story (like Black Hawk Down) stripped of the cursing and the bloodshed wouldn’t be a war story. It would be “clean”, yes – but only through white-washing. It has been stripped of its authenticity and realism, and thus, its power.

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