Friday, March 08, 2013

The Joy of Reading Great Books, Part V

Years ago, I came across this meaty article. I tried to relocate it (the former link is now broken), finally found it, and reposted it here divided into five parts due to its length

Enjoy and tell me your favorite quotes!
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here. 
Part 4 is here.


The Joy of Reading Great Books
by Kathleen Nielson

How Should We Read These Books We List And Carry?

First, we should remember the "why" of literature, in its most fundamental, doctrinal sense. As T.S. Eliot explained, Christians must not keep "their religious and moral convictions in one compartment, and take our reading merely for entertainment, or on a higher plane, for aesthetic pleasure (7)." It makes a world of difference if we read believing in one Creator God who created all things good, and in the effect of the Fall on all things, and in the redemption of all things ultimately and only through Christ. We will delight in the various ways great literature reflects and lights up these truths, and we will notice and respond appropriately when a work offers a way of seeing that is contrary to biblical truth. We will make judgments. We can say that Virgil’s huge, culture-shaping epic espouses a kind of nobility which is not Christian but which magnificently and truly shows the painful striving of human beings for a higher good which they vividly sense but cannot control or perfectly attain. We can judge whether a popular contemporary novel is or is not pushing a fundamentally anti-Christian worldview. We must not read without the huge, biblical story of the universe alive and effective as we digest what we read.

Second, we must read with historical perspective. Consider Bill Moyers’ famous observation that we Americans seem to know everything about the last 24 hours but very little about the past centuries. No longer can we expect that people will know the stories of Romeo and Juliet, or Christian’s journey to the Celestial City, or Jonah and the whale. No longer can we speak of James Joyce’s Ulysses (or discuss the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?) assuming the shared context of The Odyssey. We need, and we need to teach our children, to follow C.S. Lewis’ counsel to "keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds," which, he says, "can be done only by reading old books." "It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones (8)." Flannery O’Connor argued that "fiction, if it is going to be taught in the high schools, should be taught as a subject and as a subject with a history." Her conclusion is typically wry and memorable: "And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed (9)."

Third, we should read with humility. Literature can open worlds and windows of human experience we could never otherwise know. Works from other cultures and times can enlarge our imaginations, our understanding, and our capacity for compassion. Reading a few short stories by the 20th-century South African writer Bessie Head recently expanded my understanding of what it means to be cut off from one’s place and traditions. Many of today’s feminist-leaning critics use a writer like Anne Bradstreet to prove the strength of mind and voice of a woman who survived the repressive Puritan culture of 17th-century New England. However, when we listen with appropriate humility to Bradstreet’s voice, we cannot help but be, in a way, schooled by the beauty of personal faith in a sovereign God which this devoted wife and mother was able to pour out into beautifully crafted lines of verse. Critics, as we know, can too easily shape a writer’s work according to a particular critical grid. On the contrary, a great writer has to be allowed to shape us as readers, and this process demands humility.

Finally, may we read with delight. How simply delightful that Romeo should not say, "Wow, she’s beautiful!"—but, rather, "O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!" How delightfully engrossing to lose oneself utterly in the somber, strangely passionate story of Jane Eyre. How delightfully, deeply simple the worship to be found in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ "Pied Beauty," as we taste his "dappled things" like "skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow" and "rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim." Hopkins offers a lesson in one way of delighting in a writer’s words—and that is not to be too ponderous or slow in the reading process. Hopkins’ poetry is hard to figure out word by word, but when you take in the rhythm of his words and lines in a flow, you get the sense of what he’s all about, even if you’ll have to go back later, perhaps, to study every word. Such delight takes us back to where we started, because any delight in words is delight in our Creator God who made us word-creatures in his image. There is no other starting point or ending point for a Christian reading literature than to thank our Creator and Redeemer God, and to seek to bring Him glory in our use and enjoyment of words.


(7) Eliot’s influential essay "Religion and Literature" can be found in a valuable collection edited by Leland Ryken: The Christian Imagination: Essays on Literature and the Arts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981), pp. 141-154.

(8) "On the Reading of Old Books," God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 201-202.

(9) "Total Effect and the Eighth Grade," Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), pp. 137, 140.


No comments: