Ask me who the great poets of the past are, and I can chant their names in a litany: Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton; Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. Ask me about the great novelists, and I can rattle off a string of names from Defoe and Fielding, to Austen and Bronte, to Dickens and Thackeray, to Zola and Flaubert, to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
But when the focus turns to the key authors of the last century, it gets a bit dicier. If I’m in search of great prose stylists who can expand my mind, challenge my thoughts, and reshape my view of the world, where am I to go? Where do I begin and what should my criteria be? I mean, honestly: are there really that many writers worth reading in this post-Victorian world that grows increasingly less literate with each passing decade?
Well, two names at least are obvious contenders for such an honor: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. But are there others who can match the vividness, the playful seriousness, and the no-holds-barred creativity of the “subcreators” of Narnia and Middle-earth? Douglas Wilson, a pastor and speaker who’s published over three dozen books on every conceivable topic and is one of the driving forces behind the birth and rapid growth of the classical Christian school movement, thinks so.
In Writers to Read: Nine Names that Belong on Your Bookshelf, he introduces us to Lewis, Tolkien, and seven other writers who’ve shaped his own view of the world and have provided him with hours and hours of literary delight. For each author, he provides an analysis of their key works sandwiched between a brief biographical overview and an even briefer list of which books to read and in what order.
In many ways, what drives Writers to Read isn’t the individual authors but Wilson—his sharp yet never derogatory wit and his broad and infectious love for life, literature, and the Word made flesh. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Wilson is an engaging raconteur, and most readers will surrender themselves to his breezy overview and extend him grace as he “thinks out loud” about authors and books he loves. Relishing Wilson’s nice turns of phrase will also help most readers appreciate the prose styles of each of the authors.
Fresh Perspectives on Lewis and Tolkien
Though many library shelves have been filled with books about Lewis and Tolkien, Wilson still manages to surprise us with fresh perspectives. He complains, for example, that people refer to Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength as “The Space Trilogy,” when one of Lewis’s major reasons for writing the trilogy was “to get people to stop thinking of the heavens as ‘space’” (93).
This isn’t just a crotchety comment; it’s quite true to Lewis. And Wilson develops this critique by guiding us through Michael Ward’s linking (in Planet Narnia) of each of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia to one of the seven medieval planets. Wilson is certainly right to champion Ward’s groundbreaking study as one that opens up hidden dimensions of Lewis to the modern, post-Enlightenment reader, even as he is right to champion in a more general way Lewis’s rehabilitation of the medieval cosmological model.
As for Tolkien, Wilson touches on a deep vein in Middle-earth that modern American Christians would do well to learn from. It isn’t the Greek and Roman but the Celtic and Teutonic myths of the north that formed Tolkien’s mind and serve as a mythic backdrop to The Lord of the Rings. (Lewis, Wilson reminds us, was inspired and inflicted by the same arrow from the north.)
Riffing off some lines from Tolkien’s scholarly essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Wilson observes:
In this ancient [Teutonic] view, defeat is no refutation. All the good guys go down at Ragnarok, but this does not mean they were wrong. This view was picked up and transformed by the Christian vision but not reversed. Heaven awaits, but earthly history is still grim. (85)
This is a good and fair reading of Tolkien, but Wilson doesn’t stop there. He ends his paragraph with this trenchant observation about Tolkien’s Norse-tinged Christianity: “We have [here] an early, noble amillennialism” (85). Without stirring up eschatological debates, Wilson cautions his readers away from a shallow optimism that’s more Enlightenment utopian than Christian apocalyptic.
Other Names Worth Reading
The other writer Wilson covers who will be on most of his readers’ lists alongside Lewis and Tolkien is G. K. Chesterton, a towering figure who, like the planet Jupiter, sheds his jovial influence over all the writers discussed. Wilson, who organizes his chapters by the authors’ birthdates, begins with Chesterton, and he does well to do so. Chesterton proves iconic for all the qualities Wilson loves: he’s a practitioner of paradox who “bends what is bent so that we may see it straight” (17); he sees the world as an “integrated whole” (18); he understands that the “artistic imagination . . . must govern everything” (18); he’s a “thoughtful contrarian” (21); he was “delighted with common men” (24); and he felt it was “good to be earthy and bad to be worldly” (25).
These qualities run like so many leitmotifs through all nine authors Wilson takes up. Thus H. L. Mencken, though he was an atheist, was able to use his Chestertonian wit, vision, and vitality to be a prophetic voice in America alongside a church whose “sentimentalism and pietism and other such viral infections” (41) had left her impotent to fulfill her role as prophet to the people. “God,” Wilson concludes with a serious smile on his face, “raised up a Philistine to provoke the covenant people to jealousy” (41).
The same goes for Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead. Though her Christian views—particularly her social and political ones—are decidedly liberal, causing her to attack evangelicals in a sadly rancorous and puerile manner, her novels, all set in the past, extend considerable grace to their characters. As an author, Wilson observes, Robinson is both benevolent and fair-minded, even expressing “a deep appreciation for a number of historical figures routinely lionized by conservatives—[Jonathan] Edwards, [John] Calvin, [William] Tyndale” (125). Though her attacks on pro-life Christians are simplistic and reductive, her characters—no matter how opposed they may be to her own sociopolitical views—are always three-dimensional. “In her novels, some of the characters have demons, but none of them are demons. She creates absolutely no cartoons” (131).
Like Robinson, Robert Farrar Capon—author of, for lack of a better phrase, literary cookbooks (The Supper of the Lamb and Bed and Board)—brings a double vision that sees some things with clarity and precision while remaining stubbornly blind to others—both in life and in the Bible—he wishes not to see. So, yes, Wilson admits, Capon is a picker and chooser of Scripture, but “when he celebrates what he has picked, there are few who can do it better” (114). According to Wilson, who shares the capacious appetite and thankful attitude of Chesterton for food and drink, Capon is one of our great modern apologists for a good kind of antinomianism that shatters the pharisaical naysaying of our modern “food fussers” (115).
Wilson rounds out his book with studies of T. S. Eliot (whom he celebrates as “a defender of the permanent things” whose poetry “carries the past into the future” ); P. G. Wodehouse (crafter of that beloved duo, Jeeves and Bertie Wooster); and his own son N. D. Wilson, whom he succeeds in treating with a sort of personal objectivity that’s both endearing and enlightening.
Wilson clearly wants us to enjoy his prose, his wit, and his commentary; but it’s even more clear that what he really wants us to do is close his book and start reading the nine authors he so loves. And it’s precisely that spirit, one which permeates every chapter of Writers to Read, that allows Wilson to emerge as a humble co-reader rather than an opinionated critic.