Tuesday, March 2, 2021

14. Recovering the Lost Art of Reading

Recovering the Lost Art of Reading: a Quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes. 2021. [March] 304 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence from the introduction: Perhaps you’re wondering about this book’s title. Does reading need to be recovered? What makes it an art? And is it really lost? After all, here you are—reading a book.

First sentence from chapter one, part one: “Read any good books lately?” This question once functioned as a common conversation-starter, but now we’re more likely to hear, “What are your plans for the weekend?” or “Did you catch the game last night?”

The premise of this one is simple: reading--well, reading artfully, thoughtfully, carefully, appreciatively--is a lost art form that needs to be recovered. The authors seem to be saying that there is a right way and a wrong way to read books, or, that not all reading is created equal. One could read hundreds--thousands--of books but if they aren't "quality" enough to suit the authors, well, it's discounted as lesser than--at best. 

The authors describe their book as a "a guidebook by two seasoned and enthusiastic reading travelers, who show all readers—from those who rarely pick up a book to English majors and everyone between—how to discover more delight in the reading journey."

They mention several reasons why it is vital for individuals to recover this lost art of reading. Most significantly they point out that if one can't read well, read artfully (etc.,) then one can't read the Bible well either. By letting go of reading deeply (artfully, thoughtfully, carefully, etc.) , one is sacrificing one's spiritual growth. 

(They also argue that losing reading means the loss of meaningful leisure; losing reading means we lose out on opportunities to foster our sense of beauty; losing reading means we lose contact with 'essential human experience.' They write, "The literary enterprise shapes and forms us. The very nature of reading is contemplation of the human experience and the world in which it exists.")

This book has three parts: "Reading is a Lost Art," "Reading Literature," and "Recovering the Art of Reading." In the first part, they make their case for considering reading an art form and a LOST art form at that. They are supposing that most people don't read, and those that do read rarely read well. Therefore both need some stirring up or encouragement to read better. 

In the second part, the focus shifts to LITERATURE. What is literature? How is it defined? How is it separate or different from other books? What are its distinguishing characteristics? What makes one book literature and another not? How should one read various types of literature? It's all about categories and groups. They talk about characters, narratives, settings, structure and forms. 

In the third part, the authors give practical-ish tips on how to recover the art of reading. 

All three parts are written with a Christian reader in mind, the focus being on how to benefit spiritually from reading literature.

The book is complex and substantive. 

I have a B.A. and M.A. in English literature and an M.L.S. (My focus was children's literature.) I have strong opinions. I don't always agree, and, in fact sometimes strongly disagree with the authors of this book. That being said, I do support some of their argument.

There are two extremes when it comes to defining and/or describing literature. One extreme is that EVERYTHING (all text, every text) is literature. The other extreme is that (actual) literature is a rare unicorn. 

This scene from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice comes to mind: 

"It is amazing to me," said Bingley, "how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished, as they all are."

"All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?"

"Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover skreens and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished."

"Your list of the common extent of accomplishments," said Darcy, "has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse, or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished."

"Nor I, I am sure," said Miss Bingley.

"Then," observed Elizabeth, "you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman."

"Yes; I do comprehend a great deal in it."

"Oh! certainly," cried his faithful assistant, "no one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved."

"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."

"Are you so severe upon your own sex, as to doubt the possibility of all this?"

"never saw such a woman. never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe, united."

That extreme sets the standard of "what is literature" so impossibly high that it's difficult not to get a snobbish vibe from it. 

So how do the authors define it? Literature is: experiential, concrete, universal, interpretive, and artistic. or  It can be briefly defined as a concrete, interpretive presentation of human experience in an artistic form.

My favorite description of literature comes from Ray Bradbury: "Do you know why books such as this are so important?  Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You'd find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more 'literary' you are. That's my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. the mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life."

If I've understood the authors correctly in what is quality--what is good, what is true, what is beautiful, what is literature--I am in between the two extremes. I don't view "literature" so narrowly and exclusively. (For example, the authors unashamedly diss children's literature (with a few rare exceptions) and Christian fiction.) 

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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