In the home where I grew up, and in all the other homes I was acquainted with, it was customary for parents to read to their children when they were little and didn’t yet know how to read well or at all. Once they were eight or nine and could read fully on their own, however, parents generally didn’t read aloud to them.
It was my exposure to homeschooling families and classical Christian schools that, thankfully, gave me the impetus to continue reading to my children well into their teens. And I’m glad I did. The exercise created strong bonds between me and my son and daughter and helped foster in them a lifelong love of reading, a deep-seated sense of wonder, and a propensity to be shaped and enriched by what they read. Today, they both teach at classical schools where the discipline and love of reading is foundational in a way that it no longer is in public schools—and certainly in a way not reflected in the wider culture.
It should come as no surprise then that I was delighted to find at the center of Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes’s Recovering the Lost Art of Reading: A Quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful a defense of that most “Victorian” of pastimes: reading aloud to grown children and teens. “Few activities,” they argue, “foster family bonds and childhood development more than reading aloud. Parents shouldn’t hesitate to begin reading to infants, perhaps even before they’re born, and shouldn’t stop when children become teenagers.”
Recovering the Lost Art of Reading: A Quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful
Leland Ryken & Glenda Faye Mathes
Reading has become a lost art. With smartphones offering us endless information with the tap of a finger, it’s hard to view reading as anything less than a tedious and outdated endeavor. This is particularly problematic for Christians, as many find it difficult to read even the Bible consistently and attentively. Reading is in desperate need of recovery.
Recovering the Lost Art of Reading addresses these issues by exploring the importance of reading in general as well as studying the Bible as literature, offering practical suggestions along the way. Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes inspire a new generation to overcome the notion that reading is a duty and instead discover it as a delight.
One report they cite reveals that reading to children is the “single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading” and is a “practice that should continue throughout the grades.” Further, they note how newer research reveals that “reading aloud to children goes beyond developing language and literacy skills to shaping social and emotional development” (129–30).
I can attest to the truth of these statements in my family, but I’ve also witnessed the good fruit of reading aloud in my best students, including those who don’t major in the humanities. Such students tend to come from tight-knit families where there’s mutual love and respect between parents and children and where the learning process is honored as a good in itself, apart from what career it may prepare the student for.
Reading as a Road to Virtue
So, reading aloud is a good thing, but how are parents to go about it? Are there any rules of thumb that can make the experience more effective and more valued? On this point, the advice offered by Ryken and Mathes is both sound and easy to implement.
1. Create a circle of love and light. Turn off lights in other rooms and shut down electronics. Encourage cuddling, but don’t insist children sit still or on your lap. Some children listen better while coloring or playing quietly. Don’t force teens to participate, but exude fun to woo them into the story and the family circle.
2. Revel in the reading experience. Don’t rush. Ask and allow questions. Let children linger over pictures or express their thoughts. Explain puzzling words or concepts. Don’t be self-conscious. Unleash the latent actor within you and read expressively.
3. Conclude before interest wanes. Children begging for more sets the stage for your next reading session. (130–31)
As a veteran of reading aloud, I couldn’t have come up with a better list. The sense of intimacy, the wonderful give and take, the exhilarating anticipation: all these things are real and palpable. I promise you that they’ll remain imprinted in your child’s heart and soul, as well as in your own.
And something more. There’s no better time or place than that eager, joyous circle of love to instruct your children in virtue—not just what it means to act courageously or charitably or wisely, but how it feels to do so. As Ryken, who spent nearly half a century as an English professor at Wheaton, and Mathes, a professional writer with over a thousand articles under her belt, explain, the best literature embodies goodness, truth, and beauty in a way that no report or video or online advice column could ever hope to do.
“Reading,” they explain, “intensifies our involvement with life and our understanding of it. Having vicariously experienced life under an author’s expert guidance, we carry away clarity of vision” (77).
Virtues taught in the abstract rarely stick; not so when those same virtues are incarnated in a well-written, well-constructed story that draws us in with such force that we experience it alongside the characters. When that happens, when we live through the story, words take on flesh, learning becomes encountering, and education gives way to illumination.
Reading as a Road to Truth
“Why,” the authors ask, “does literature matter? It matters because seeing human experience and the world accurately matters. If we regularly read literature, we will see life not only steadily but also in its whole scope” (65).
Young people today, along with most of their parents, live their lives trapped in a small, contemporary box, cut off from the past and from other cultures. Reading simultaneously focuses and broadens the mind, allowing us to see ourselves within the context of a larger world. Furthermore, because “literature embodies the great ideas by which the human race has ordered its affairs” (66), readers also gain insight into how to order their own affairs and how best to understand the society in which they live.
Reading simultaneously focuses and broadens the mind, allowing us to see ourselves within the context of a larger world.
Ryken and Mathes argue, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the best literature imparts and guides us toward the truth, but that truth is rarely abstract or narrowly utilitarian, and its acquisition calls for work on the part of the reader. How can we access that truth without being led astray and without turning it into a versified sermon?
First, the authors explain, we must “thoroughly interact with the text of a story or poem. Correct interpretation depends on our reliving the text so we genuinely know what we need to interpret” (174). Too many modern people are passive in their reading, letting the words flow over them without any real engagement.
Second, if we wish to draw out the truths latent in literature, we must not search “for the one right formulation of topic and theme. The whole bent of literature is to do justice to the multiplicity and ambiguity of real life, so our tendency should be to see a plurality of topics and interpretive angles” (174).
Or, as I teach my own students, when it comes to literature, there’s always more than one right answer—but there are wrong answers. Poems and novels do not mean whatever we want them to mean. Indeed, though the best literary authors don’t preach simple, one-dimensional sermons, they do “employ devices of disclosure to nudge readers in the right interpretive direction” (174).
When it comes to literature, there is always more than one right answer—but there are wrong answers. Poems and novels do not mean whatever we want them to mean.
But does literature ever nudge us toward God? Ryken offers several stories of readers who were brought to Christ through their interaction with literature. Two of those stories involve Milton’s Paradise Lost. The first, a man from Philadelphia, shared that “while reading Paradise Lost he felt within himself an ‘unholy alliance’ with the character of Satan. He realized he was a sinner, ‘cried out to the Lord to save [him],’ and found his prayer answered a week later” (253). The second was a “political refugee from China, who had been imprisoned for involvement in the freedom uprising of 1989 [and] read Milton’s Paradise Lost during his eventual college education in North Carolina. The result was that he ‘accepted the Christian gospel and it changed [his life]’” (253).
Milton’s great epic fits snugly within a category that Ryken and Mathes label the literature of Christian affirmation, but the authors also identify two other categories: the literature of common human experience (literature that expresses the shared wisdom of the human race while stopping short of explicit Christian references), and the literature of unbelief (254). Though the third category would seem to be one that Christians should avoid, the authors encourage discerning believers not to do so.
“If we are sufficiently active in supplying our own Christian convictions,” they assure us, “we can sense the existence of God even in literature that fails to acknowledge him. The literature of unbelief creates a vacant space, which a Christian reader correctly sees as needing to be filled by God. In the very act of protesting the omission of God, we find God—not in the work but in our interaction with it” (255).
Of course, if we were lucky enough to have been read to for many years by parents who loved to engage and dialogue with the books they read and who possessed the discernment to find both human and divine truths lurking in the nooks and crannies of their plots, characters, and themes, then we need not fear venturing boldly into the lost art of reading. Truth, goodness, and beauty wait for us on every page.