NOT ONLY SOLITARY
One of the best chapters in Lit! is the one where Reinke discusses the benefits of reading together, with other Christians. Once we shelve (pun intended) the notion that reading is only a solitary exercise, we open ourselves up to a world of opportunities – to learn and to teach, to bless and to be blessed.
Reinke’s own love for reading was sparked by a pastor who took the time to walk him through his library of books. “All Christian readers,” Reinke adds, “have an opportunity to encourage other readers in the same way.
We fail to see God’s plan for books if we view reading as nothing more than a discipline done in isolation and for nothing more than personal edification. (p. 159)
Reading together is especially beneficial in the case of theology. Christians are, after all, people of the Book, and we should value opportunities to mine the treasures of theology with other Christians. “Theology,” says Reinke, “is especially suited for reading within the community of faith, because the community shares a personal stake in its promises.”
Marilynn Robinson puts it this way:
Good theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and the dying words, and who attend to its retelling with a special alertness, because the story has a claim on them and they on it.
Reading theology together with Christian friends, as Reinke explains, “provides us with a place for collective discernment, and a place for spiritual illumination. And those are sweet moments!”
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
All this talk of “reading together” reminds me of family worship in my own house – we read, we pray, and we discuss. These are glorious truths we are studying here… so why would we not talk about them? How could we not?
I’m also reminded of worship in the Pliego household – which (as I quickly discovered during my vacation there) proceeds in almost identical fashion. Reading was done, and discussion began almost immediately afterwards. And it wasn’t a thin, forced, dispassionate kind of discussion either – it was full, it was genuine, and it was alive.
Sweet moments, indeed.
FEEL FREE TO DISAGREE
Reading together often requires us to agree to disagree: not just with each other, but with the author as well. Reinke says,
Disagreements can become rich and rewarding discussions in themselves, because it suggests that the group is engaged, thinking, and discerning… The amount of unified disagreement with an author has often caught me off guard. But I have come to cherish these opportunities. Reading groups have helped shape my discernment in ways few other contexts can provide. And no other setting has more convinced me that Scripture is the only book that is perfect, sufficient, eternal, and transcendent. (p. 161)
I got to experience some of that first-hand at the Pliegos, where collective disagreement with a particular author surfaced more than once. The reader would close the book, and for about ten seconds, pregnant silence would reign. Glances were exchanged around the table, and occasionally, one of us would cough – the kind of cough you cough when deciding how to voice your disagreement in the most coherent way possible.
Then someone spoke.
And then everyone spoke.
Viola. Rich and rewarding is right.
I love how Reinke likens literacy and good books to nails. Disciplined reading helps us to set those nails. And reading together with our brothers and sisters in Christ helps us sink some of those nails into our hearts and minds.
If you’re like me, you know only a few select ideas will be sunk deeply into your long-term memory. That’s the reality of reading books. Most nails are set, but never sunk. A good reading group will determine which of the nails to drive tight and which nails to leave hanging. But choose carefully. It’s the ideas and passages from books that are discussed most carefully with friends that are sunk the furthest into the mind, and those sunk the furthest are the ones you will carry the longest. Those are the truths that remain on the tongue when you trade with other needy sinners in your life.
While reading is mostly a solitary task – and a very important one – comprehension is a community project. I am convinced that we forget so much of what we read not because we are poor readers, rather, I believe we forget so much of what we read because we are selfish readers. And we all suffer because of it. (p. 163)
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.
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen
I finished this only yesterday, and here’s my verdict: WOW. Loved it from start to finish, and couldn’t help but wonder why I hadn’t read it sooner. Definitely a top contender for best non-fiction book I’ve read this year. The title is slightly misleading, though: this isn’t a book just for parents. Anybody and everybody (with a brain) can benefit from Esolen’s shrewd writing and profound insight.
Bone, Vol. 1: Out from Boneville by Jeff Smith
My interest in graphic novels has grown significantly over the past year, so I’ve been compiling a list of titles to check out. Bone – a massive, critically-acclaimed nine-volume fantasy epic – was at the top of my list. From what I’ve read, it’s sort of like Lord of the Rings with a humorous twist. And I’m already loving the artwork. Unique and eye-catching.
Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough
The story of America’s greatest crime wave and the birth of the FBI. I watched Michael Mann’s film adaption last year and was impressed; so naturally, when I realized it was based on a book, I went snooping – in a good kind of way. My copy should arrive in the mail this morning. Awesome.
Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
“You can be young, passionate about Jesus Christ, surrounded by diversity, engaged in a postmodern world, reared in evangelicalism and not be an emergent Christian. In fact, I want to argue that it would be better if you weren’t.” Of all the books currently on my bookshelf, this is probably the one I’m most excited about.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
I’ve heard so much about this book that I figured it was time to give it a read. It’s been recommended by several people I greatly respect, including my Mom. Besides, she wants me to watch the movie with her. I’d best get cracking.
Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke
Another book I can’t wait to dig into. I love Andrew Peterson’s recommendation: “Tony Reinke has made a wise, theological, and edifying case for why words matter. I’ll mention Lit! every time someone asks me why in the world Christians should read fiction – a question that never fails to shock me. Now, instead of snapping, ‘Are you serious?’ and spouting opinions, I’ll just smile and slip them a copy of this book.”
What’s on your bookshelf right now?