Recovering the Lost Art of Reading, Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021.
Summary: An invitation to artful reading, considering its decline, different kinds of literature and how we read them, and the art of reading well to discover goodness, truth, and beauty.
Much has been made over the supposed decline in reading, and contradictory statistics that show a rise in reading (especially during the pandemic). What is evident is that how and what we read has gone through changes. We read more on screens and audio and browse and scroll. There are questions about the loss of the ability to attend to longform writing.
The two authors of this book, one a literature professor, the other a professional writer, and both lovers of literature contend that what may be in decline is artful readers and have written this book to describe what it means to recover this art. They write:
“Reading a book immerses oneself into an extensive work. When this is done receptively and thoughtfully, it becomes artful reading. Some people call it “deep reading” and believe it is in deep trouble” (p. 23).
The authors believe that in our loss of artful or deep reading, we have lost leisure, self transcendence, contact with the past and with essential human experience, edification and an enlarged vision. The writers advocate for participation that both receives and responds to what the author has written, both actively listening (“obeying” in its original sense) and responding. It discerns both one’s own perspective and that of the author. In Dorothy Sayers words, there is the Book as Thought, the Book as Written, and the Book as Read.
Moving on from this introduction to artful reading, the authors consider what literature is in its different kinds. They note with sadness the shift from “literature” to “texts” in contemporary literary studies, but maintain the language of literature, distinguishing it from expository writing as concerned with the concrete rather than the abstract. The axiom of literature is to “show, not tell.” They further describe literature as experiential, concrete, universal, interpretive, and artistic. They defend the importance of literature as a portrayal of human experience, for seeing ideas rightly, and for the enjoyment of beauty. It transports us into imagined worlds, giving us renewed perspective on our own as well as refreshment.
They consider how we read different types of literature: story, poetry, novels, fantasy, children’s books, creative non-fiction and the Bible as a literary work. I so valued their simple instruction for poetry–slow down! In the reading of fantasy, they distinguish between escape and escapism, noting with C.S. Lewis that reading is always an escape, but one that ought give fresh perspective on the human condition. They address how to choose good books for children and the vital importance of reading and talking about books together.
The last part of the book returns to the recovery of the art of reading. Fundamentally, we recover by discovering good books and the good, the true, and the beautiful within them. We discern and assess the truth-claims in a book. We consider the moral perspective of the book–does it make the good or the evil attractive and who is valorized? We notice the use of language to point toward beauty, and the beautiful God. They describe excellence in beginnings, middles and ends.
All of this only makes sense in the context of our reading choices. They encourage us to embrace our freedom to read and observe in very practical terms the time thieves that rob us of precious hours. They consider how we choose good books and the role good literature plays in creativity and in one’s spiritual life.
I think one of the most valuable aspects of this book is the encouragement of leisurely, slow, and reflective engagement with good works, whatever their genre. They help us attend to plot, character, setting, and behind all this, the perspective of the author and the insights we gain into our common human condition. Their invitation to be participants in the work with the author while continuing to discern strikes a good balance.
I would have liked to see some book recommendations for those wanting to recover the art. Certainly, the authors mention books throughout, and the ones mentioned are worthwhile, but some bibliographies might have helped. Also while the authors discuss goodness and evil in literature, they don’t discuss beauty and ugliness, only beauty. The ugliness of the post-nuclear world in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a crucial offset to the beauty of the love of father and son. Sometimes, Christian literature seems too beautiful, in ways trite and artificial. The beauty and the healing comfort of Lothlorien gains its power from the horrors of Moria and the loss of Gandalf.
Those who practice any art always have a sense they could be better at their art. Reading is also an art. This book reminded me of ways I may be ever-improving at that art. I can work to remove the distractions to attentive reading. I may slow down, especially to savor a poem. I may re-read great works. I may attend to the story and the questions it opens up about the universal human condition. I may allow the book to enlarge my perspective if I give myself to it both attentively and discerningly, both open and observant. Ryken and Mathes invite us, whether the neophyte or the seasoned reader, to an ever-growing practice of the art of reading. After all, it is not how much, but how well we read.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.