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“Moby Dick is the reason I went into British literature”

A couple weeks’ back, we travelled to exotic downtown Indianapolis for TGC19. With so many book loving people in one place at the same time, we took the show on the road to chat with a few friends. On this episode, we’re joined by Karen Swallow Prior to talk books and British literature, theology, pets, and few other things too. Listen in as we discuss:

  • Will Dave’s cats join him in the new creation?
  • How does reading help us become virtuous?
  • What challenges do the current (and forthcoming) generations face when it comes to reading?
  • Why is reading classic works so difficult?
  • Does anyone actually read Moby Dick?
  • Which is more virtuous: using the cliff notes or watching the movie adaptation of a book?
  • What do we really wish people understood about Jane Austen’s books?

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A few of the books we mentioned in this episode:


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Why should we read classic books?

Why is it important to read classic books? What do we gain from them—and what do we lose if we avoid them? This is what I’m discussing on today’s episode of Reading Writers.

For recommendations on where to start with reading classics, including the books mentioned in this podcast, check out these two posts:

Thanks for listening to this episode of Reading Writers. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving a rating and review on iTunes. Your feedback really does help more people find the show. 

Five (more) classic books we should read

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Last week, I indulged myself a little and started thinking about old books I love to read. Specifically, a few classic books that were particularly helpful for me as I’ve grown in my faith. But these aren’t the only sorts of classics any of us should read. There are more—a lot more, in fact. Whether for pleasure, knowledge, or spiritual or personal enrichment, we should always be looking for opportunities to expose ourselves to great works of the past. In light of this, I want to share a few more recommendations of various sorts and kinds for your consideration.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Of all the Lewis books I’ve read so far, this one is probably my favorite. Some have criticized it for being overly clever, but that’s what makes it work. You need a special sort of cleverness to pull off what Lewis did in this book, both negatively communicating truth while exposing falsehood. It’s brilliant stuff.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. There isn’t really anything I don’t love about this book. The characters are rich. The plot is compelling. The writing itself makes my heart happy. Read it, then read more Dickens. (A Tale of Two Cities is stunning, as well.)

The Iliad and The Odyssey. Telling the tales of the Trojan War, and the journey of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, as he journeyed home following the fall of Troy, these epic poems are some of the finest works of ancient Greek literature still in existence.[1. Fun fact: though it’s believed these were produced originally around the 8th century BC, the earliest extant copies we have today are from the 10th century AD.]

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Of all the books on this list, this is probably the most difficult to read in the sense that it requires much of you. The book is filled with philosophical discussions of the deepest sort, explored through a tale of patricide in a Russia rapidly moving into the industrial era.

Again, as with my previous recommendations, there are so many others that could be added to the list: The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, A Wrinkle in Time, and too many others to mention. The point here is not to be exhaustive, but to give a starting point.

Three classic books every Christian should read

I love old books. They allow me to engage with the wisdom of generations past. To see how authors and thinkers from centuries past answered many of the same questions we ask today. But I’ll be honest, it’s easy to get caught up reading too many new books. Not that new books are bad, of course. But we do ourselves a disservice when we neglect the old. This, I believe, is the heart behind C.S. Lewis’ famous rule:

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between,” he wrote. “If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”[1. God in the Dock, 200.]

I don’t follow this rule slavishly, of course. But I do read old books, and I try to encourage others to read old books, too. Here are three I have found especially beneficial from a Christian perspective:

All of Grace by Charles Spurgeon. Honestly, I could choose most any Spurgeon book for this list, but I have a special fondness for this one. I first read it in 2009 while sitting in a hospital while doctors worked on keeping Emily alive. While this book is a fairly simple presentation of justification through grace alone, it is one of the most hopeful books I’ve ever read, bringing me near to tears at least once with every chapter.

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton didn’t make anything simple for his readers. I suspect he respected his readers too much to write down to them. What I believe he did best, along with expecting his readers to use their minds, was play with words. His writing is fun to read, full of wit and whimsy. Do I agree with everything he wrote? Of course not. But I love his writing. It makes you want to come back for more (and you really do need to).

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Bunyan’s classic allegory of the Christian life is beautiful to read. He is one of the first Christian authors who helped me see how important “story” is to communicating our faith, and gave a powerful reminder that easy and following Jesus rarely go together. Although the book isn’t perfect (what book is?), it is one that strengthens me each time I read it.

There are other books I can and would encourage reading: Augustine’s Confessions, Müller’s Answers to Prayer, and Ryle’s Holiness, among them. But these are ones I would always suggest trying first.

What I read in October

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I read pretty aggressively, regularly making my way through over 100 books a year. With that many books in a year, it’s pretty easy to get into a rut when you read that much, always gravitating to the same stuff every time you go to grab a book. Maybe you’re like me; you’re reading regularly but are in need of some ideas for what to try next.

Throughout 2016, I’ve been sharing what I’m reading each month. I do this because I can’t review everything I read in detail and because I hope there’s something on the list that you might like to try. During the month of October, I read a whopping 12 books, and I didn’t abandon a single one! Here’s what I read:

  1. Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
  2. Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition, Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka
  3. Never Go Back by Lee Child
  4. The Treasure Principle: Unlocking the Secret of Joyful Giving by Randy Alcorn
  5. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  6. The Monster in the Hollows by Andrew Peterson
  7. The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson
  8. This Is a Book About the Kids in the Hall by John Semley
  9. Grayson, Volume 4: A Ghost in the Tomb by Tom King and Tim Seeley
  10. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  11. The New Teen Titans, Vol. 3 by Marv Wolfman and George Perez
  12. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Classic literature and modern stories

Let’s be honest: any month that includes Dickens, Twain, and Steinbeck is a good month for reading. All are brilliant (and Twain is brilliantly acerbic). A Tale of Two Cities is just beautiful. I really don’t know what else to say about it. Dickens’ words, the story of love and sacrifice, the quirky background players, and the setting of revolutionary era France… I can’t wait to jump back into this one. This was my first time through Tom Sawyer, and I’m glad I finally made the time. It’s definitely a work of its time, but it’s absolutely worth reading if you haven’t yet. I’ve read Of Mice and Men once in the past, but this was my first time as an adult. Like Tom Sawyer, it’s a product of its time, and because it’s a classic you might already be familiar with its story, but it’s hard not to be moved to tears by the final chapter.

On the modern fiction front, Lee Child’s Never Go Back (one of the Jack Reacher books) was a fantastically fun and straightforward action thriller. Like I mentioned in a recent episode of the podcast, this is the kind of book you want to read on a plane ride. Finally, the last two volumes in Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga are wonderful. I can’t wait for my daughters to give these books a chance because they’re going to love them. (And I’m looking forward to reading them again sometime.)

80s angsty super-heroics, secret agents, and Dick Grayson’s new theme song

The New Teen Titans was one of the bestselling comic series of the early 1980s, rivaling the X-Men during the classic Claremont/Byrne run. This third volume in DC’s reprint editions came across as kind of a filler volume (though it really isn’t). It’s origin stories and a couple of one-off adventures that really don’t move a larger story forward. Still, if you were a fan of the series, you’ll appreciate the look back. The first edition of Rucka’s Queen and Country spy series is as good as I remembered: it’s intense, intelligent and engaging. Because the original series rotated artists through different story arcs, the change between each is a bit jarring, but that’s pretty minor.

What I love about this volume of Grayson is that it’s the one where you really see the creators cut loose and have fun. They’re building to the end of their big story, and are clearly having a great time playing with spy tropes and the character of Dick Grayson, even going so far as to give him a hilariously terrible theme song! Love it.

Going viral, storing up treasure, and stories of comedians

Contagious is another book in a long line of marketing books trying to crack the secret of what makes something take off on the Internet. Why do some things go viral and not others? Berger’s insights are helpful and very reminiscent of books like Made to Stick and Winning The Story Wars. It’s a quick read, but worth checking out. The Treasure Principle is a challenging book that actually created some fairly significant discussion in our small group a few weeks ago. There’s a lot of good in it—the principles themselves are all sound—though I think Alcorn misses on his examination of tithing. Finally, This is a Book About the Kids in the Hall was an overall interesting look at the infamous Canadian sketch comedy troupe, though I wonder if the author made himself a part of the story a bit too often. If you’re a fan of their comedy, you’ll probably like the book, but I’d call it a library read, rather than one you should purchase.

Have a suggestion for a book for me or someone else to read or want to share what you’ve read? Connect with me on Twitter or Facebook and let me know!

Here’s a look at what I read in:

I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice

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Confession time: I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice. I’ve also never read Jane Eyre. Or 1984. Or even A Tale of Two Cities. But I have read The Catcher in the RyeThe Great GatsbyTo Kill a Mockingbird, and Great Expectations. So I’m not entirely uncouth. (Just mostly.)

When classic books are terrible

Some classic books are just terrible. Take Moby Dick, for example. It is one of the few books I can say I genuinely hate. I know that Melville is supposed to be the greatest novelist that America has produced, but I really didn’t find it to be that engaging a read. I first read it in high school as part of an independent study project, and nearly every time I picked it up, I fell asleep.

A few years later, I did give it another shot. I didn’t want to assume that I didn’t like it simply because I had a bad experience with it in high school. The experience reading it as an adult was not unlike pushing a boulder up a steep hill. In a snowstorm. Without pants.

Other books have been like that for me, as well: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis made me want to die inside, so I quit reading it (not because it was convicting, but because it was so dreadfully dull). I never really got the big deal about Romeo and Juliet when we studied it in school (maybe that means I should try again?). Dracula by Bram Stoker was just kind of there. As a teen, I think I tried to like it largely to impress girls (didn’t work).

When classic books are great

But some classics are totally worth reading: Great Expectations remains a favorite of mine among Dickens’ works (at least those I’ve read). The Pilgrim’s Progress makes my soul sing every time I read it.[1. And I know there are some folks out there who kind of hate it, but you’re wrong.] The Time Machine, A Wrinkle in Time, Mere Christianity and dozens more besides… These are books that I want to share with my kids. Books I hope everyone enjoys as much as I do, and question the sanity of those who don’t. (Kidding. Kind of.)

Classic books: a worthwhile endeavor

I always get a little sad when people seem to live solely in the present, at least in terms of literature. Not that modern books aren’t good, of course; but by avoiding the classics, you might miss out on something amazing—even if it’s your amazement at how much you can irrationally hate one book (like me and Melville’s opus). What reading classic books does is open you up to the wider world around you. Through them, you discover the origins of some of those weird words and phrases that have slipped into the modern lexicon, the ones everyone understands but no one seems to know where they came from (and just how much we owe to Shakespeare). But you also gain a better sense of the trajectory of western thought—how we’ve progressed (or regressed depending on your point of view) in our understanding of the world, and all that is. We understand where we’ve come from, what we’ve left behind, and perhaps even a bit of what we need to recover.

To me, that makes them worth reading. What about you?


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