Reading is an endangered species. How is that, you say? Sure, people read all the time. The average person consumes thousands of words everyday. We are daily bombarded by advertisements, news media, social media, texting, emails, and the list goes on and on. Yet, the art of leisurely reading that is what is endangered. As a society, we just don’t read as much as generations past. There are many reasons for that: video media entertainment (movies, shows, gaming, etc), busier faster paced lives (who has time to read?), social media, smart devices, and again the list goes on. In their new book (yes a collection of words printed on paper, bound together for the purpose of enjoyment) professor Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes discuss this more in depth and provide some guidance on how reading can be recovered from the brink of extinction. The book is titled Recovering the Lost Art of Reading: A Quest for the True, Good, and the Beautiful (Crossway, March 2021).
The book is basically a Lit 101 class in book form. The author’s recommend how to approach reading from a Christian perspective, which can be helpful for those of us who did not go to a Christian college. Part one deals with the main premise of the book, namely that as a society the art of reading has been lost and needs to be recovered. Part two provides a basic definition of literature and discusses how to approach various genres of literature so that a reader can glean from differing types of books. Part three discusses the author’s road map to recovering the art of reading by finding discovering what is true, good, and beautiful in literature.
I agree with the books premise, as detailed in part one, that the art of reading has been lost and society would benefit from its recovery. The advent of the radio and television started Western society down a path that culminated in smartphones and twenty four hour entertainment. Some might say that movies and television shows are the new form of telling a story. That may be true, and there can be benefits to enjoying a good movie or television series. However, as a medium, video entertainment is passive. There is not much left to the imagination. It’s like puréed food, the hard work is done for you. All one needs to do is consume and enjoy. The medium of books, on the other hand, forces the reader to think and use their imagination in order to visualize what is being conveyed by the words on the page. That is what Ryken and Mathes, are advocating for society to recover.
Part two was a helpful and intriguing portion of the book. The authors provide a basic definition of literature, which must not be assumed because it has been broadened in the academy. For the purpose of the book they define literature as “a concrete, interpretive presentation of human experience in an artistic form” (pg. 61). This definition is insightful and proves helpful throughout the rest of the book. The majority of part two is dedicated to the discussion of differently types of literature and how best to approach them. This was a very interesting portion of the book. The authors used this space to encourage the reader to open their mind to differing genres to which they may not be as comfortable. It is good to be stretched every now and then. The chapter that I found the most interesting was chapter thirteen, which dealt with reading the Bible as literature. There are many differing forms of writing in the Bible and must be read as such. This does not take away from the Bible’s inspiration and authority. It does, however, help the reader know the best way to interpret a given passage. While the main purpose of the book is not hermeneutics, I found this chapter necessary because as reader of God’s Word, we must know how best to approach the biblical text.
Part three serves as space for Ryken and Mathes to provide a path forward in how to recover the art of reading. They encourage the reader to find what is true, good, and beautiful in literature. The point they make in this portion of the book is well taken, that while literature can be one or all three aspects of the aforementioned triad, it is not inherently all of these things. Only God is true, good, and beautiful. It is only as a reflection of his image in humanity that literature can point to these as well. When we look to our entertainment, or in this case our reading to be the ultimate source of happiness we fall short. When we enjoy God through these, can we truly enjoy the gift. For sure, there is a fair share of bad literature on the market. Much of what sells today is meant for mere entertainment, not enrichment. However, the art of reading is to find what is true, good, and beautiful. The journey to discover these things in a good book is half the fun.
Recovering the Lost Art of Reading is an interesting read, but is not a book for everyone. While the point that the authors make is important and well taken, the book’s title and subject appeal to a very specific audience. This would be a great resource for use in a literature class at a Christian college or university. It could also be used by churches that offer classes geared toward educational enrichment. However, I believe the target audience is more academic in nature. If you are a book nerd and want to learn more about reading for the glory of God, this book is for you.
Editor’s Note: This book was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.