Today, I’m happy to welcome my friend Tony Reinke to the blog to discuss his important new book, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Crossway, 2011). I had a chance to read a pre-release copy of this book, and I offered this endorsement:

“How to read, what to read, who to read, when to read, and why you should read—Tony Reinke answers all these questions and more in this very good and (surprisingly) brief book on reading. As he shows how reading can bring glory to God and growth to the church, Reinke encourages Christians to take up the discipline of reading widely and wisely.”

Good reading isn’t just about finding good books. It’s knowing how to read the good books you find. So let’s hear from Tony as we consider ways to improve and increase our reading.

Trevin Wax: What are the different ways one should read a book? Why should certain books be read one way and other books read another way? And how can you tell the difference?

Tony Reinke: Excellent questions, Trevin. I do think books should be read differently, with different degrees of completion and at differing speeds. We must read Scripture carefully and cover to cover. But all other books can be approached differently. I may read the book completely through. Or I’ll read one chapter. I may read the books very quickly. Or I’ll read them slowly.

Trevin Wax: Why the different approaches?

Tony Reinke: The most simple answer is that I read different books for different reasons. Partly this is determined by what I want my books to accomplish. For that I use a series of reading categories that set my personal reading priorities in place. Six categories frame my book choices:

  1. Reading Scripture
  2. Reading to know and delight in Christ
  3. Reading to kindle spiritual reflection
  4. Reading to initiate personal change
  5. Reading to pursue vocational excellence
  6. Reading to enjoy a good story

With these categories I can evaluate my books on the basis of how well they accomplish these tasks. Some books promise to help address one of these particular topics, and I may read it from cover to cover fairly slowly. Some books may have a chapter or two that will help answer some particular need in my life, so I’ll read just those chapters. Some books I read all the way through but at a fairly quick pace, often because the book is predictable or overlaps with other books I’ve already read. And some books, after having given them a fair shot, fail to prove their worth. And those are books I’ll stop reading. So how I read a book is largely decided by what I expect to get out of the book personally, even if I’m just reading for fun (category 6).

Trevin Wax: How much time and attention should we give to classic literature? 

Tony Reinke: I aim to give classic literature a fair bit of time in my reading diet, but that reflects the deficiency of my personal educational experience. I’m reading a number of classics simply to catch up, or so it seems that way. My awakening to the value of classic literature as a Christian can be traced back to my reading of Leland Ryken’s book Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian PerspectiveIn Realms of Gold, Ryken guided me through The Odyssey by Homer, Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, Macbeth by Shakespeare, Paradise Lost by Milton, The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne, Great Expectations by Dickens, The Death of Ivan Illych by Tolstoy, and The Stranger by Camus. Through his book, Ryken helped me to see the benefit of classic literature. To him I remain indebted.

Trevin Wax: How have you found classic literature to be spiritually beneficial? 

Tony Reinke: In two ways. First, there’s a spiritually reflective benefit to reading classic literature. After reading the many excellent excerpts you posted on your blog from the Julie Rose translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, I bought a copy, brought it to our annual June beach trip, and read the first 200 pages. Page after page, Bishop Myriel reminded me of Christ’s humility and sacrifice and compassion, to a degree that I was not expecting at first. The selflessness of Hugo’s character reminds us of how sacrificing our comforts and treasures can be used as a doorway for God to reach fellow sinners. The bishop’s character frequently led me to reflections about the kindness of the Savior. And that’s one of the most important uses of classic literature. I want to see Christlikeness on display. I want to see the fruit of the Spirit in action. And I want to be perceptive to godliness on the page because, as I explain in Lit!, the fruit of the Spirit is subtler and much easier to miss than the fruit of the flesh. So I read classic literature for spiritual reflection.

Second, there’s also a utilitarian benefit to reading classic literature. As someone whose nose is always in the social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), I find that my attention gets broken up and fragmented on a daily basis. Over time I lose my concentration and find it hard to read serious books. For me classic literature is the remedy, and Shakespeare in particular. Shakespeare is a daunting read for me. Most of what he wrote was intended for a stage-play in the first place, not the reading chair. So when I begin to sense that my attention is becoming fragmented, I pick up Shakespeare’s works (the Jonathan Bate edition). In order for me to track with his works, I must pause at every antiquated word and look up the definition at the bottom of the page until the meaning becomes clear. To do this requires that I slow myself down and read with sustained concentration for 20-60 minutes. Rushing is not an option. As a result, I find that when I turn to read my Bible, I read it with much greater care and attention, able to once again focus my attention more carefully on each word and phrase that I read. So Shakespeare recalibrates my reading pace, restores my fragmenting brain, forces me to slow down, and ultimately helps me to read my Bible more carefully. I need that.

Trevin Wax: You recommend marking up books. Why?

Tony Reinke: I certainly do. So many Christians treat books as taskmasters. Most Christians have a stack of unfinished books in their house, maybe on a desk or a bookshelf. Those unfinished books are often a source of low-grade guilt. We’ve been conditioned to think that if we buy a book, we must read it from cover to cover. That’s not true, and I’m trying to loosen Christians from this misunderstanding of what is really a subtle form of slavery to books.

Apart from Scripture, all other books are optional reading. In fact, all other books are tools for us to use in our lives as we see fit. We use books when we need them. This means that we can read books cover to cover if we wish. Or we can read one chapter, or one page. It’s our call. By writing in a book, I claim the book as a tool. I own it; it belongs to me; it was purchased to serve me, and its value to me as a tool far exceeds its resale value. This does not give me license to ignore the truth God teaches me in my reading, but it does liberate me to see books as gifts from God, not as taskmasters. And that’s a very important stage of development for Christian readers.

Of course, I mark all sorts of things in my books, but fundamentally it is a claim of ownership, a claim that reminds me that my books are my tools and that I am not enslaved to them.

Trevin Wax: Name a few novels that you’d recommend Christians consider reading.

Tony Reinke: I really try to avoid giving out too many book recommendations since everyone’s tastes will be unique and different authors will make different impacts on various types of readers. But of course, a few excellent titles come to mind.

The seven books in the Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis are very important, especially if you want an overview of just about everything Lewis really believed was important (according to Alan Jacobs). I believe it.

Also, The Lord of the Rings is wonderful. As Tim Keller has said, Tolkien’s epic wonderfully illustrates important but often very abstract themes like glory, brilliance, weightiness, beauty, excellence, and virtue. Those themes are not commonly illustrated.

And of course, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is a classic. Bunyan is able to sketch out just about every type of person you could imagine seeing in this world – or more painfully, character traits that you may see in yourself – and presents them in striking detail and always in relation to eternity.

I would add Gilead by Marilynne Robinson to the list too. It’s a subtle and beautifully written novel by one of the best contemporary Christian novelists.

Trevin Wax: How can we read discerningly from Christians in other theological streams?

Tony Reinke: I think the key is to read selectively. For me it again goes back to keeping my reading priorities straight. First, I must invest sufficient time reading Scripture directly (1). There’s no substitute here. Next I choose excellent and trustworthy books on the person and work of the Savior (2), books by the likes of Packer, Stott, Piper, Carson, Ferguson … we have lot of great ones to choose from (your books included, Trevin!).

These two reading categories anchor my soul and hold me steady when I read everything else. With those anchors in place, I have a fair amount of flexibility to read from writers that represent a broad spectrum of theological views. My focus on Scripture and the orthodox gospel provides me with spiritual protection when I venture out to read books from other theological streams. Without these reading categories in place, I would never attempt to read as broadly as I do.

Second, with my categories firmly in place, I can then look to different authors to fill specific categories in my reading diet. So for example, I’m not reading Peter Kreeft for my ecclesiology, but I do want to read his book on logic (5). I’m not reading G. K. Chesterton to learn reformed theology (2), but I do read him to think about the effects of modern life on the soul (3). And I’m not necessarily turning to C. S. Lewis to discover new depths to the atonement of Christ (2), but he’s one of the first authors I turn to when I need fresh courage to battle personal sin (4). Knowing which authors cater to specific reading priorities has been really helpful.