Reading: Limited or Boundless?

Yesterday I went on for a bit about how Tony Reinke’s book Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books needs the word “Man’s” between Christian and Guide in the subtitle. Today I’m going to talk about the larger failing of Lit! which makes me say that even Christian Men could find a better guide to reading books.

I suggested yesterday, that Reinke turns reading into “an enclosed and guarded thing instead of an expansive and hospitable thing.” What do I mean by this? Two things: first, Reinke’s advice appears to exclude from his reading list people he disagrees with; second, Reinke’s stance toward reading is systematic and critical.

First, Reinke’s advice tends to exclude people he disagrees with. Why should you read people you disagree with? For the same reason you should read old books — and Reinke cites Lewis on old books with approval — they expose you to the ways your ideas might be wrong and in need of correction. Reinke says at the beginning of his book that no book has got it right except the Bible. So that means every book has got some misguided idea in it. If we read only people from approved lists or that we know we agree with, how will we learn what our own blind spots are? How will I know when I’ve got some funny idea that is off? Yes, choose books wisely (and I suggest not choosing Reinke’s Lit!) but don’t exclude reading a book just because you’ve disagreed with the author before.

Second, Reinke’s stance toward reading is systematic and critical. Reinke’s books are first non-fiction, then fiction. His method for reading a non-fiction work involves taking it apart and questioning the work systematically. This is not necessarily a bad thing — students could use some help reading systematically and critically. I could do better with that discipline myself. However, always putting on the armour of systems and pens to take notes may mean we do not allow ourselves to be touched in some deep place by the words and ideas in a book. In An Experiment in Criticism Lewis suggested (this is my paraphrase) we should let ourselves be taken by surprise and blown away by a book before we start to analyze and systematize it. Yes, we need to be critical and thoughtful and disciplined as we read, particularly non-fiction. But, maybe we should let the work stand and come to us as the author wrote it before we dismantle it.

To sum up: don’t bother reading Lit! there are many better books on reading that open up the world of books in a more life-giving way than Tony Reinke. I’ve talked about some of them previously in this blog.

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