Is your student too busy to pick up a good book? Maybe she 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. Leland Ryken: Thank you.
Find exciting stories [0:23]
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
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 a work
measures up to 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.
Classic ingredients [1:38]
Mike: You’ve referred to writers of literature as artists.
How can an understanding of literary form help students appreciate a work they are
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
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.”
Why stories matter [2:47]
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.
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.
Tuning your fiction radar [3:51]
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.
Growing as a reader [5:14]
Mike: 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
the work 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: 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.