Mark Twain once said that a “classic” is a book that people praise and don’t read. Similarly, Caleb Winchester, a famous lit professor in Twain’s time, said that classics are books that everybody wants to have read but nobody actually wants to read. And if you fast forward to the present, you’ll find similar sentiments abound.Reading fiction broadens our understanding of the human experience and enables us to speak well into situations that we haven’t personally experienced.
These feelings could exist for a variety of reasons, one being that students are often first exposed to classics in elementary, middle, and high school when reading for pleasure isn’t usually a priority. Teachers provide reliable guides to the classics, but often the interest level is low. Even later in life there is a feeling that one should appreciate classic literature and be able to discuss it, but knowing where to start isn’t easy. There’s a reason masses of fans devour books such as the Twilight and Harry Potter series while Moby Dick gathers dust on the bookstore shelf. The classics are hard to read, and they’re certainly difficult to enjoy for the average reader. But if the classics are such great art, and as Christians who serve a creative God we are to appreciate such great art, where do we begin?
We are excited to spotlight and offer Leland Ryken’s A Christian Guide to the Classics this month, made freely available to Christ and Pop Culture members thanks to Crossway. In this book, Ryken provides an approachable and reliable guide for readers who want to dig into the classics and engage them from a Christian point of view. After dispelling some common misconceptions about classic literature, Ryken then seeks to define what is meant by a “classic.” He draws from several touchstone definitions from other authors and threads them together, emphasizing that “classic” literature exhibits excellence in both form and content.
Ryken then gives several reasons why we should want to read the classics. These include their entertainment value, superior technique and artistry, and portrayal of human experience. The latter reason is echoed in another recent book, The Pastor as Public Theologian, in which Vanhoozer and Strachan make the case that reading fiction broadens our understanding of the human experience and enables us to speak well into situations that we haven’t personally experienced. In our desire to speak to the culture and care for others well, this alone provides a great reason to dig into classic literature, even if they are not as approachable as the books on the New York Times bestseller list.
After arguing the “why,” Ryken spends a chapter discussing the merits of the Bible as an example of classic literature. He then offers back-to-back chapters detailing both good and bad practices when reading the classics. The remaining four chapters briefly offer a survey of some Christian classics as well as secular ones, as well as advice on finding the classics and making a reading list.
Don’t approach A Christian Guide to the Classics expecting an engrossing and riveting read. Instead, read towards its purpose: a quick how-to guide for those who want a better grip on reading classic literature from a Christian perspective. As such, it is a great example of a book that points away from itself. It is hopefully a book that makes you want to put it down and get on to reading something much richer and deeper. I’m sure Ryken would be satisfied to know that his book would have that effect. He provides the guidance for reading the classics many of us might want but not know where to find easily, and the best way to thank him is to put that reading list together and get started.