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Why Read Classic Literature? An Interview with Dr. Leland Ryken

February 8–11, 2016   |   Vol. 126, Programs 6–10

Is your homeschool student struggling to stay awake through a classic story? Today on Homeschool Heartbeat, Dr. Leland Ryken helps you unlock the beauty—and the fun—of great literature.

“When we finish reading a classic, we carry away something permanent.”—Dr. Leland Ryken



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Would you like to learn more about classic literature? Click on the link to find out about Dr. Ryken’s Christian Guides to the Classics.

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Too busy to pick up a good book? Maybe you should make time. Today on Homeschool Heartbeat, Dr. Leland Ryken explains why.

Mike Farris: My guest today is Dr. Leland Ryken. He is professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College. Dr. Ryken, welcome back to the program.

Dr. Ryken: Thank you.

Mike Farris: In your new series, Christian Guides to the Classics, you have identified several works of literature as “classic.” How do you distinguish between everyday fiction and classic literature?

Dr. Ryken: It turns out that experts who define what we mean by classics are in pretty general agreement. I’ll name four tests that have worked measures up to rank as a classic. One, it has the quality of being the best. Two, the test of time, or, durability. The classics survive. Three, universality, by which I mean a classic appeals to the whole cross-section of a population. And fourthly, cultural importance and an additional dimension of that is, the classics have often formed the central part of a culture’s education.

Mike: Out of all the classics that do exist, why did you choose these particular works?

Dr. Ryken: My acquisitions editor wanted the first 10 titles to appeal to the homeschool market. Secondly, to date, I have written about the classics that I teach regularly, that I am fully enthusiastic about. Thirdly, the first 10 titles were classics that have cultural and educational importance. Really, the first 10 were easy to choose. The next 10 will be a lot more difficult to choose.

Mike: You've referred to writers of literature as artists. How can an understanding of literary form help students appreciate a work they are reading?

Dr. Ryken: I appreciate the question because literary form is often an overlooked element in people’s reading of the classics. Literary form matters first because it matters to authors. Whenever authors talk about their enterprise they stress literary form. Secondly, there is no literary content without literary form, so of course we need to pay attention to it. And third, the literary form and artistry make a work of literature interesting and entertaining. What draws us into a good novel? The ideas? No, not usually. The ideas are a byproduct. It’s the superior artistry and form that makes a classic entertaining.

Mike: Can you give us an example of form from one of your favorite works?

Dr. Ryken: Yes. When I teach Homer’s Odyssey or Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations I stand at the board and I ask the class, “What are the ingredients that the human race loves most in a story?” By the time the board is full, I just observe, “This story gives us all of those.”

Mike: Dr. Ryken, we all have less time than we would like to spend on reading. What makes classic literature worthy of that precious time?

Dr. Ryken: I will begin my answer by placing literature into the category of leisure time pursuits. God wants us to be all that we can be in our leisure life also. So I would say, let’s begin by dignifying the concept of leisure. We would all benefit from upgrading the quality of our leisure life. Literature offers that possibility.

What then makes literature a good use of leisure time? It has to do with the nature and function of literature. While being entertained, we contemplate human experience and come to understand it better. Let me just say, literature gives us the true, the good, and the beautiful. That’s a good use of leisure time. I also just want to challenge your listeners with the idea there’s a difference between killing time in our leisure activities and filling that time with something that’s both enjoyable and weighty. It all has to do with the carry-away test; when we finish reading a classic, we carry away something permanent.

Mike: Many good things can end up going wrong if they’re handled without care. Can classic literature harm students if they don’t know how to approach it?

Dr. Ryken: It can. I want to kidnap a key statement that T.S. Eliot made in regard to modern literature. He said, “So long as we are conscious of the gulf fixed between ourselves and the greater part of contemporary literature, we are more or less protected from being harmed by it and are in a position to extract from it what good it has to offer us.”

With the classics, I don’t think we have to begin with the assumption of this gap, but the rest of Eliot’s statement holds true. Literature did not escape the effects of the Fall. There is potential harm, and I would say the two greatest potential harms are infiltration of erroneous thinking into our minds, and becoming tolerant of immorality or even being misled on moral issues. Eliot said, “So long as we’re aware of this danger, we’re protected from it.” Good observation. And then, thus protected, we’re in a good position to accept the good that literature has to offer us.

Mike: Well, Dr. Ryken, that is exactly where your Guides to Classic Literature will come in, because you will help people be aware of the framework that they need to be able to approach this literature, and be able to extract all those things that are great, wonderful, true, beautiful, and good out of these classic works without ever being led astray.

Dr. Ryken, what advice would you give to students who are approaching the classics for the first time? If they could only keep two or three things in mind, what should those be?

Dr. Ryken: I have two main pieces of advice. First, when we know that a piece of literature is a classic, we should begin with a vote of confidence for the work. This does not mean we should be indiscriminate in our assessment of it. It means rather that we begin with an awareness that the world at large has regarded it as a great work. Greatness deserves to be respected and honored. The liberal establishment today attempts to instill an automatic bias against the classics. We need to reject that attempt at coercion. So advice number one: read receptively. Second, we need to read critically. Not with a presumption that the author we are reading is wrong, but in an awareness of the possibility that the author did not get things totally correct.

Mike Farris: That is a great way to approach literature, and I really appreciate you taking the time to share with our listeners these approaches. And I strongly urge people, if you want to understand or read the classics, whether you’re a homeschooler or not, I urge you to get Dr. Ryken’s books so you could approach the literature that has truly stood the test of time with the helpful guidance of a sound Christian man who knows and loves this work of art.

Dr. Ryken, it’s been a pleasure having you on the program. And I hope people will take advantage of your works! I’m Mike Farris.

Dr. Leland RykenDr. Leland Ryken

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) is the professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College, where he has taught for 43 years. Dr. Ryken has published three dozen books over the course of his career. His interests include teaching the Bible, Bible translation, photography, travel, and research in England.

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