Books: Lit!

I read this because it is recommended by Carolyn Weber, whose books Surprised by Oxford and Holy Is the Day I appreciated so much, as a help in finding the right books to read to serve our purposes in reading. I had hoped for specific suggestions of good literature to read, but while Reinke mentions some titles in Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books, for the most part it provides general principles rather than specific examples.

I suppose my biggest disappointment with Reinke’s book is that it is clearly intended for nonreaders. At least that’s what C. J. Mahaney says in his Foreword, and the book as a whole seemed to bear out that statement. But I can always learn something new, and given Weber’s recommendation I thought I would.

The one section of the book I found the most interesting is the one that compares words with images. Reinke claims that “most of us have only known a world dominated by images: glossy magazines, wide billboards, corporate icons, realistic video games, 3D movies, and high-definition TVs.” In such a world, reading books which communicate with words rather than images may seem to require more effort than many people want to put forth.

I suppose that is true for many people, though it does not match my own experience. I rarely read magazines except in doctors’ waiting rooms, and I read them – I mostly ignore the glossy pictures.

Recently I leafed through a magazine in the college break room, on a day when no one had brought in the daily newspaper. It was a women’s magazines, and I found it dismaying how much of the magazine was focused on a woman’s appearance – how to dress stylishly, do hair and makeup just so, how to lose weight to look better, how to look healthy, and alluring. None of those are bad topics, but the overwhelming emphasis on appearance meant that I quickly finished all that was of interest to me in the magazine, which was very little.

I pretty much ignore billboards when I drive, other than to play the alphabet game. I notice them when they change, and they serve as landmarks of a sort to indicate where I am on the highway (assuming they have not changed recently). But as images they are far less appealing than the trees and the sky and the birds flying overhead.

I think I have played one realistic video game. I enthusiastically bought a copy of Myst when it first came out (back then we had a Mac), and played for a few hours until I found I could get nowhere without some kind of guide. I dislike using guides to play games, and generally avoid those that make them necessary. I much prefer card games (FreeCell is my favorite) and puzzle games that use relatively simple graphics.

I have watched a few 3D movies. It was fun the first few times, just for the novelty of it. And as most of them were nature movies, it was cool to feel as though I were right there in the middle of the ocean, or the rain forest, or the sky. But the last time I watched a 3D movie (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), I felt nauseous and spent half the movie with my eyes shut. (I’m told it was due to the frame rate of that movie, but I have no desire to try another movie to see if it’s safe to watch.)

We have a high-definition TV, but we don’t pay for cable, and without cable we just get the channel showing local announcements, town meetings, school concerts, and such. So the TV makes a nice monitor for the PS3, Wii, and DVD player. Once in a while we watch a movie together, but mostly I prefer books. There just is very little on TV that is as entertaining as a good book.

Obviously many people, including the intended audience of this book, find TV and movies and video games so entertaining that it is hard to make themselves turn off the electronics and pick up a book. I am happy to say that although the rest of my family does spend a good deal of time in front of a computer screen (this includes watching movies and TV), they also spend a fair amount of time reading, and require no urging to do so.

Reinke sees a theological issue in this matter of words versus images. God gave us Scripture in the form of words, and one of the Ten Commandments was a prohibition of carved images. Images are not necessarily idols, but they are limited in what they can communicate, compared to words. They are appealing because they can communicate a great deal more quickly, but they do a very poor job conveying unseen realities.

We have a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, and for many kinds of communication a picture is more appropriate. When it comes to setting up a new piece of equipment, diagrams are invaluable. A description of an unfamiliar place leave me with very little idea what it looks like; a photo conveys it very well.

But as Reinke points out, images cannot explain why things appear as they do. We make assumptions about what we see, and only words can tell us whether those assumptions are accurate or not. We recognize other people’s emotions as indicated by nonverbal behavior, but often misinterpret the precise nature of those emotions and are ignorant of the circumstances behind them.

And images can tell us very little about God, faith, eternity, justice, hope, salvation, and other invisible realities. Pictures of scenes from the Bible may remind us of stories we already know, but apart from the stories (in words), the pictures would teach us little, and would probably be misinterpreted. We have symbols to represent concepts such as love and hope, but we would not understand them without words to explain them.

A number of years ago, I read a book that explained in a way I had not understood before why images of God are forbidden by the Second Commandment. An image can convey some limited aspect of God’s nature, such as strength or kindness, but then one would tend to focus on that aspect. One could have a number of images to convey various aspects, but even aside from the difficulty of conveying certain concepts in visual form, we tend to focus on what is clearest or most appealing to us.

Even in our minds, we create such images. And according to that author (I think it was J. I .Packer), to the extent that we focus on the aspects of God that we prefer to think about, we are violating the Second Commandment, even if we never create a picture or a sculpture to try to represent God.

Reading books is one way to counter that tendency. Reading books about theology and the Christian life, especially by a variety of authors from different backgrounds, enlarges our understanding by expanding the ways we think about God and how we works.

But Reinke also writes about the value of reading books that are not written from a Christian perspective. In this, I felt that I was just getting a brief review of what I learned in college. I attended a Baptist liberal arts college where we were taught that all truth is God’s truth, and that there is value in reading even books that are contrary to a Christian worldview, so long as one has first developed a Christian worldview and can discern truth and error. Reinke discusses all this and I agree with it but can’t say I learned anything new from his discussion.

In the second half of the book, he gives practical advice on topics such as prioritizing one’s reading, writing in books, and encouraging others to read. I am certainly not as methodical as Reinke in prioritizing my reading, and I spend more time on leisure reading than reading for spiritual or intellectual development. But then, reading is my primary leisure activity.

My financial priorities at this time preclude spending much money on books, so I am limited largely to what I already own and what I can borrow from the library. If I could decide first what sort of things I wanted to learn, then find the best books for learning them and go purchase them, my reading selections would no doubt be different. But even so, I suppose I could be somewhat more intentional in finding books to read rather than happening upon them.

As for writing in books, Reinke hasn’t convinced me. He suggests, for those like me who are very uncomfortable with the practice, to try it in one chapter of his book. But of course this is a library book, so I’m not going to write in it. I have always been good at sensing what parts of a book are the important parts and at remembering them (a large part of what made me a good student in school), so I don’t think I’m losing a lot by not writing in my books.

As for taking notes on what is important so that I can find them again later, that’s one thing I use this blog for. If I made my notes in the books, aside from needing to own them, I would have to know which book I made the notes in about a particular topic. By writing about them in my blog, I can use the search function to find what I wrote previously that I thought was worth making mention of.

As for encouraging others to read, I’ve obviously succeeded with my sons. Despite Reinke’s recommendation, I don’t read to my teenage son and don’t intend to try to. He enjoyed being read to when he was young and I enjoyed reading to him. Now I sometimes enjoy reading the same books he does and talking about them.

Reinke suggests starting a book club at church. I’ll give that some thought. The women in my Bible study might be open to the idea. The difficulty is finding the right books. And that – getting suggestions of good books to read on various topics – is something I’ll have to look for somewhere other than Reinke’s book.

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