Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Review: Lit! by Tony Reinke

This is an excellent little book that is both a meditation on and guide to reading from a Christian perspective. It is deep without being heavy, if that makes any sense. What I mean is, it is theologically acute without being grammatically obtuse: it is easy to read without being shallow. The book is broken into two sections: the first giving a theology of books and reading, the second giving practical guidelines to becoming a better reader (or even a reader at all, if you’re starting from not reading or a dislike of reading). Here, I’ll give my thoughts on each section.
The first six chapters introduce a theology of reading, which in one sense is a sad commentary on the state of modern Christianity (particularly modern Evangelicalism, given that that demographic is his target audience). The fact that Reinke has to begin by arguing that it’s okay to read books other than the Bible suggests that we are far too much under the influence of isolationist strains of mid-20th century Fundamentalism. Not that this is a new problem: Calvin had similar issues with the Anabaptists, and the early church struggled to articulate exactly how profitable pagan works were. But it is a sharper problem today given the general decline in reading overall. It’s not just that Christians now are only reading Christian books (though that can be a problem), it’s that we’re not reading at all. Some of the practical causes of this are talked about in the second section of the book (namely, sin and electronic media, in that order of influence). Our laziness keeps us from digging into any but the fluffiest of books, and our being shaped by television and the internet cements in place the bad habits begun by our sin. (Not that television or the internet are inherently sinful!)
Reinke attempts to provide a corrective to this problem, by arguing (in broad strokes):
1)      Christians should read because God communicates with us through the written word.
2)      Salvation enables us not just to read, but to read properly. That is, we can enjoy books as they were intended to be enjoyed.
3)      Reading, language, and books best communicates the reality of the world (as opposed to images).
4)      Reading both shapes our own worldview and informs us of the worldview of others.
5)      Reading exposes us to the right questions (and even occasionally the right answers) about God, man, and the world in general.
The second section gives practical advice on how to read. There is far too much here to really do justice to in a summary, but some of the highlights included:
1)      Prioritize when choosing and pursuing books.
2)      Read a mix of fiction and nonfiction.
3)      Make time to read, even if only in bits and pieces here and there.
4)      Avoid distraction. Particularly distraction such as the Internet and television which, if taken in sufficient doses, can actually damage the mind’s ability to process large amounts of information.
5)      Don’t be afraid to interact with a book, including by writing in it (if you own it- don’t write in borrowed books).
6)      Read in community. While reading is an individual pursuit, comprehension is a community affair. Reading with others corrects us when we stray and makes the process more enjoyable.
7)      Regularly reevaluate yourself as a reader (he gives five points that apply to mature readers).
Reinke also gives a lengthy set of guidelines for parents and pastors, but as I’m neither I’ll skip over those.
Here ends the review, I highly recommend this book if you’re a reader, and even more highly recommend it if you’re not.

From here on are personal reflections of how the book applies to me.

So, with all of these guidelines, how do I stack up as a Christian reader?
Two areas in terms of reading where I think I’m doing well (please let me know if you know me and I’m wrong about these):
First, I think I’m decent at dodging garbage. Reinke reminds us that we have permission not to read all of a book, either because it is full of information we don’t need or because it’s just a bad book. I think (again, kindly correct me if I’m wrong) that my library is largely full of books that either 1) I need for my profession (politics, history, and philosophy); 2) are useful for spiritual growth (theology and devotions); or 3) are genuinely good either in how they’re written or in their content (fiction). I think I’m fairly decent at filtering books in such a way that garbage generally doesn’t make it onto the shelf.
Second, I think I have a reasonably well-balanced approach to literature in terms of the fiction/non-fiction mix. And, within those, a further solid balance of pleasure/value reading. Again, I may be wrong, but I think my Goodreads shelf bears this out to some extent…

On the other hand, two areas where I was especially convicted on reading this book:
First, I am definitely dancing on the edge of idolizing books. This passage resonated with me:
“I order books online and track the status of the shipment. I wait eagerly for a box of books to arrive on my doorstep. As soon as the box arrives, I tear into it, pull out the books, investigate their condition, and begin twirling the pages in my fingers. This is a wonderful experience. But those new books lose their luster at around page 30… Books arrive at my house far faster than I can read them. Everyday my heart desires new books. So what drives this desire? Is it a longing to humbly learn and grow? Or is it an idolatrous yearning to have more new things? Books are great tools, but they are disappointing gods. And once books become idols, those idols will leave us deeply unsatisfied.” (183)
While I seem not to acquire books as fast as Reinke, I definitely recognize that desire. Granted, I love reading the books and getting the information out of them as well, but there remains a lusting in the heart after more and more books that undoubtedly ceaseth only in death.

Second, and I’ve noticed this while engaged in the dissertation, well, darn it, I am distracted by electronic media. I have noticed my abilities as a writer and as a reader fluctuating. More time reading quality books (or, to be fair, thoughtful articles and blogs online) has tended to mean better product in my dissertation chapters and deeper reflection on books that I’m reading. More time on the various internet sites that provide meaningless (albeit entertaining) streams of information and humor have been reflected in greater struggle to string coherent sentences together or remember what I had read even twenty minutes ago. What’s worse is that I am as guilty of creating material like this as I am of consuming it.
To that end, I think I’m going to try an experiment. For the next couple of months, until the end of May, I resolve not to publically post anything that is less than 1000 words in length. Whether on the blog, on Goodreads, or on Facebook (excluding links to things that are over a thousand words long) I won’t post anything that resembles a sound bite, tidbit, or blurb. If it’s not worth taking time to reflect and give deeper thought to, then I don’t get to opine on the issue.
(Obviously, this won’t include things like email or private messages—I’m not that mean.)

I don’t think this will necessarily solve the problem, but I am interested to see what the affect on my own writing and reading is, to say nothing of my public electronic presence.

Having said all of that, Reinke has penned a wonderful little book which every Christian who wishes to be more thoughtful and careful should “take up and read.”

Highly recommended.


  1. What can I say? I am deeply honored by this review of Lit! Thank you! Tony

    1. Well, I, in turn, am honored that your read the review (and perhaps a bit surprised that you even found it).
      Thanks for writing such a wonderful book, I fully intend to get a couple of friends together to read it with!
      (Fortunately, my wife says that I can count this as a "personal response", so I don't have to either stretch my gratitude into a thousand words, or pad it in a Homer Simpson-esque manner...)