I was on vacation last week. I didn’t stay at my house, but didn’t go far. I spent most of the week reading. That was how I planned it. In a post on another blog, I listed five books I planned to read this summer. In early July I finished Still, and wrote about how much I liked the book. Last week I read (among other books) two more from the next five list. I’m still pondering How to Write a Sentence. It is a reflective kind of book. Look for more on that one later. Today I want to talk about Lit! by Tony Reinke.
In November 2011 a series of posts on Lit! by Reinke and Karen Swallow Prior appeared on the Books and Culture website. (They are linked here: first, second, third, fourth.) I found the conversation interesting and stimulating. I was pleased that a man and a woman exchanged views on literature. At the time I didn’t notice the disparity in their qualifications to be included in this public conversation on the Books and Culture blog (Prior teaches English Literature at Liberty University; Reinke works in research and blog writing). I watched for Reinke’s book in the bookshop that employs me, and I looked forward to reading it. I enjoy reading books about books, and I’ve mentioned that fact in this space before — so it pains me to say this: Lit! was a huge disappointment.
Let me start with the good things about the book. It contains a load of ideas to help you read more if you want to do that and are not sure how to begin. Reinke includes stories of ways he and his wife talk about books with their children. Practical advice abounds.
The subtitle of Lit! is “A Christian Guide to Reading Books.” The subtitle should be “A Christian MAN’S Guide to Reading Books.” If you are a Christian Man who appreciates John Piper and John Calvin, you will probably enjoy this book, and relate to it, far more than I did. However, I suggest that even these Christian Men who might like Lit! could do better by reading the books that Reinke accessed to put his book together. Go and read James W. Sire’s Reading Slowly and Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. These two books are better than Reinke’s book. Once you’ve finished with Sire and Adler, move on to Eugene Peterson, Take and Read (not referenced by Reinke), and C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, and Studies in Words. So far these are all male authors, and they will serve you better than Reinke does in Lit!
My main problem with Reinke’s discussion is his assumption that the normal Christian is Male, and the female is an exception. Reinke has Christian men as his mental audience, and this was obvious very early in my reading of the book. It is not just that he quotes men almost exclusively (9/15 chapters have no women referenced in the footnotes), it is his laughable attempts at including Christian women in his audience. Once he calls on women to read more theology! Thanks Tony. I’ll keep that in mind. He admits that women read more than men a few times, and perhaps this is why his targeted audience is men — to encourage them to read more. But can’t he also encourage people who already read to read better — and not just by saying hey, don’t be scared of theology or looking smart, go for it, read theology. (I’m paraphrasing, but he does say that, quoting a woman, page 96-97.)
In a chapter called “Raising Readers” aimed at parents and pastors, Reinke again sidelines women. He does this in two ways. First, he stereotypes women in his choice of what to share with his children from his own reading: “For my boys this means reading an excerpt of the hero engaged in battle. For my daughter, this means finding the princess in peril.” Second, he sidelines women by the way he encourages pastors (assumed to be male) to talk with men in their church about their library and books they read. If you want women to read more theology, pastors should talk to them too. If Reinke encouraged pastors to talk with people in their congregation about books that would be great. But he said men, excluding more than half of a typical congregation from consideration.
In my next post about the inadequacies of this book I’ll talk about how Reinke turns reading into an enclosed and guarded thing instead of an expansive and hospitable thing. Look for it.