Although a 230-page book categorized under the heading “Literary Criticism,” Recovering the Lost Art of Reading is not an academic work written in the ivory towers. Instead, it is an inspiring book written in a conversational style that will motivate you to make reading a habit in your home and classroom. Leland Ryken is a former professor of literature at Wheaton College, and Glenda Faye Mathes is an author of both fiction and nonfiction books. As seasoned readers, they serve as the perfect guides to help us reevaluate our reading life and to remind us of why reading is part of our quest as humans to discover the true, the good, and the beautiful. I am a big fan of Leland Ryken’s writings and have been enriched by so many of his books including: How to Read the Bible as Literature, Words of Delight, Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays, and Redeeming the Time (used in the Alveary high school program). When I saw that he had written a new book, I was eager to read it and see how it connects to what I do as a Charlotte Mason educator.
Many books have been written that bemoan the reading habits of our society and the negative impact of screens on our reading lives. Ryken and Mathes take it one step further and offer a guide on how to make your reading experience a delight and not just a duty. They believe that to reap the benefits of reading, we need to read artfully and thoughtfully. Therefore, is it important to understand different genres of literature (novels, fantasy, poems, children’s books, and creative nonfiction) and the basic concepts that authors use to shape their story. Ryken and Mathes don’t belabor their points but keep the pace of the book moving. They provide just enough direction to give you confidence to pick up any category of literature and understand how the form and content work together to create a memorable experience for the reader. This is especially helpful for us as educators. We don’t have to lecture our students on literary theory, but we can incorporate these ideas as we discuss books and encourage them in their narrations and compositions.
No one appreciates the importance of good books more than Charlotte Mason educators. So why would we need to read a book about the importance of reading? Finding time to read and making reading a priority in the lives of our students and families is a constant struggle. We all have different excuses or even hang-ups when it comes to reading. For most of my life, I valued non-fiction over fiction. Since time is limited, I concluded that most of my reading time should be dedicated to nonfiction books about theology, housekeeping, parenting, education. I wanted to read something practical that would give me tips and advice in living my best life. Since discovering the writings of Charlotte Mason, I have come to realize the importance of fiction and the power of story to shape one’s thinking and character. However, those lingering thoughts about non-fiction versus fiction still enter my mind when contemplating what book to pick up on my nightstand. Recovering the Lost Art of Reading has given me some new perspectives about the value of fiction.
One of the perspectives that has influenced me is the authors’ leading theme that literature testifies to the human experience. Storytellers and poets present human experience as concretely as possible to engage our imagination over intellect. By allowing us to vicariously enter a character’s world, we, in turn, can see our own lives more clearly and accurately. I was trying to be practical with all my nonfiction reading when literature was really the door to enter a deeper understanding of humanity and myself.
There are many concepts in this book that resonate with Mason’s educational theories and methods. Even though the authors don’t mention narration, their explanation of the process of reading can be compared to narration. As Ryken and Mathes explain: “The process of literary analysis begins in the same way for every reader — by reliving the text as fully as possible. We initially determine what the author embedded and intended in a work, and then we complete the task by comparing those claims to our own framework of truth” (155). That is also the way that Mason wanted students to read. They relive the text through narration, and then they choose to reject or accept ideas. The rejection of ideas may be implicit as students are younger and in the process of forming opinions. But as they get older, they begin to articulate those ideas in discussions and compositions. They are doing literary analysis as soon as they begin their education!
I highly recommend this book and believe that it is a valuable resource for both practical knowledge and encouragement. But as much as I loved the brush up on literary theory, I was also deeply impacted by the authors’ articulation of the Biblical perspective on rest and recreation. Recreation should be thought of as re-creation or the renewal of the human spirit. Therefore, leisure pursuits should engage the mind and the imagination (the re-creating element). Literature refreshes at deeper levels than activities that provide mere diversion or distraction. Reading helps us transcend our confining world of preoccupations and worries.
One of my favorite quotes addresses this theme of recreation: “Biblical rest is valid and necessary. Mirroring God’s initial rest, ours may celebrate the beauty of nature or any accomplished artistic work, including a good book. Biblical rest embraces a view of leisure as freedom in Christ to use spare moments to be refreshed with meaningful rest, which certainly includes our freedom to read” (92). Instead of making the excuse that we are too busy to read, we need to say, “We are too busy not to read.”
Dr. Shannon Whiteside lives in northwest Indiana with her husband, Mark, and their 3 children. Before homeschooling her children, she was an elementary teacher and board member at a classical school. Since 2015, she has co-led Charlotte Mason Chicagoland, a homeschool community in the western suburbs of Chicago. She recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a Ph.D. in Education. Her research focused on storytelling aspects of narration and how Mason’s educational theories compare to the classical model of education. You can find her at www.shannonrwhiteside.com.