Review of Tony Reinke, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books
Tony Reinke, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books. Wheaton, IL: 2011. 202 pgs.
In full disclosure, I was really excited when I first heard about Lit!. The idea is genius--writing a book about reading books. It made me stop and think about reading, a crucial part of life that I had done for years but hadn't considered with much intention or precision. (That specific point may say something more about me than the genius of the book idea.) So I ventured into the book with eyes wide open, optimistic about finding something of value in light of the amount of material I read in a vain attempt toward keeping up with the evangelical and Reformed worlds. I did find value, more than I even expected, and I found it through a very rare combination of encouragement, creativity, depth, theological penetration, and even accessibility.
The obvious surface answer to "What does reading books have to do with your Christian walk?" involves the fact that the Bible is a book (and we know as Christians that we should always read it), coupled with a suggestion to read books and material that encourage, challenge, and teach us about what we read in Scripture. That answer is true as far as it goes, but Reinke wants to back up and get a bit more basic, a bit more biblical-theological, and even a bit more philosophical at points (without needing to import all the philosophical jargon).
What does it mean that God himself physically wrote the words of the Ten Commandments - and did so in human language that was meant to be read? Part One (of two) begins by asking this question, among others, and seeks to get at some of what Scripture says about speech, language, words, and books. Reinke does well in fleshing out how our Word-centered religion is in direct contrast to Ancient Near Eastern religions and their focus on image-based, iconic idols. Contrary to these neighboring image-based religions, God's people are a people of books, text, and words, and that has implications for not only what we learn about God and his world but also how we learn it.
Reinke even manages to connect these basic questions to one of the most biblically basic categories--eschatology (classically defined as the study of the last things). He points out:
Words are a more precise way of communicating the meaning behind the images of our world...What is real extends far deeper than what we can see. Our holy God is real...Our Savior is real. Heaven is real. Angels are real. But for now these realities are invisible. (p. 45)
If this sounds familiar, it should; the author of Hebrews comments on this visible/invisible reality as well (Cf. vv.11:1-2):
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the people of old received their commendation. 3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
So if, by definition, we cannot rely on images to communicate the invisible realities, what can we rely on? Words. The Word.
Reinke is careful to make the above distinctions while also affirming appropriate value in non-Christian books. The task of the Christian is not to reject every piece of literature that is non-Christian in its worldview. But as discerning Christian readers we recognize non-Christian worldviews for what they are and try to glean the borrowed capital from those works. I love the quote from Camus that Reinke provides: "A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images" (p. 59). Novels have the unique advantage of portraying an author's worldview not only through facts and information, but also through his or her storytelling.
Part Two of Lit! takes this theological framework and puts principle into practice. If you wondered whether this book will help you structure your reading, prioritize your reading, and help you sort and think through various forms of reading, here's where you'll get more than your money's worth. Reinke literally gives you numbered steps to help you not only accomplish your reading goals but also enjoy the process of reading that makes that happen.
Many of us intuitively know that there are thousands of books out there related to whatever we are currently reading. Reinke observes, "For every one book that you choose to read, you must ignore ten thousand other books simply because you don't have the time (or money!)." (p. 94) So he provides some suggestions on how to filter through the sea of books, and much of the practical advice has to do with goals, with priority in topics and subjects, and with other factors that we may not be as intentional about as we thought.
But words aren't limited to books, and neither is the choice of media Reinke addresses. You are reading this current book review online, not in a book, from which you probably saw a link in an email, on a blog, a Facebook post, or from an embarrassingly-termed "tweet." The world of reading is changing because of social media and gadgets like Kindles and iPads, and that genie isn't going back in the bottle. If those different forms of media are here to stay, how will that affect what we read and how we read? Not surprisingly, Reinke provides some helpful ways to think about those questions.
In one of my favorite sections, the section on marginalia, he tackles the age-old question: Should I or shouldn't I highlight, write in the margins, and mark up a book that I own? (Spoiler alert: he believes marking a book is very helpful and defends his pro-graffiti view very well.)
Reinke also makes some astute observations related to the previously mentioned media changes in our evolving reading culture.
Traditionally, a reader selected one book and sat alone in a reading chair. When great ideas were encountered, the reader internalized those ideas and reflected on them...Now, when we come across an idea that we like, we are tempted to quickly react, to share the idea with friends in an e-mail, on Facebook, or on a blog." (p. 142)
We've all but eliminated the step of pondering what we've read and have gone straight to the step of immediately sharing it. It may be a subtle difference in individual cases, but it can accumulate into a structural and substantial difference over a long reading timeline.
Reinke points out that with the deluge of information that tools like Google provide, we have targeted our memory skills not to remember specific content as much as we seek to remember reminders that will then give us access to that specific content. In Reinke's characteristically perceptive way, he notices that "If we are honest, we admit that we don't write things down to remember them; usually we write things down to forget them." (p. 139) Once we've written them down, we only need to remember the reminder. This can also seem inconsequential at first, but in the end may prove to contribute to a stack of reminders in our heads rather than to a process of remembering helpful, specific content that can then be strategically recalled.
There are so many other great sections, sub-sections, and details from this book that I could mention: the art of imagination and how it's exemplified in Revelation, the importance of non-fiction, practical advice on time management, distraction management, the importance placed on both pastors and on parents to raise Christian readers, reading in community, and other helpful topics that he managed effectively to squeeze within 200 pages. I'd love to go on to remark how Reinke demonstrates his competency in the broader subject as well as in what he puts forth both in theory and in practice. You hear about his own methods, his own struggles, and his personal background that serves to illustrate his points when appropriate. If the idea of the book is genius, it is clear that it started not in the abstract, but with Reinke's capability and unique position as an intentional reader who integrates his theological competency, his love of the Word and of words, and his humility throughout Lit! to provide us a must read for an intentional library.