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Lit! – An Interview with Tony Reinke

Most of the readers of this blog would accept the title of bibliophile.  But have you ever thought about your bibliophilosophy—why it exists, what it does for you, and how to manage it?  Tony Reinke, currently a member of the staff at Desiring God Ministries, is a guy who’s spent so much time thinking about those things that he had to write it all down.  Lit!: a Christian Guide to Reading Books (Crossway, 2011) is an excursion into why books matter for People of the Book.  In 185 swift-moving pages, he distills wisdom from Aristotle to Mortimer Adler and invites us to think about (for example) “Laying the Cornerstone of Our Theology of Books,” “How Personal Sin and the Gospel Shape Our Literacy,” and “The Purifying Power of Christian Imagination.”  His Part Two, “Some Practical Advice on Book Reading,” serves up ways and means of finding time, setting priorities, and much more, including (a big one with us) raising readers.

October has been Build Your Own Home Library month at RedeemedReader.com.  In November we’re excited about rolling out our Hobbit read-along posts.   But this last day of the month is a perfect time to pick Tony Reinke’s brain about books and reading.  And if you’re inspired to check out Lit! for yourself, so much the better.

RR.  I appreciated your chapter about “Seven Benefits of Reading Non-Christian Books.”  Another reason I’ve heard, which you didn’t specifically address, is that a Christian needs to be familiar with, or at least aware of, the culture around him in order to respond to it with relevant criticism.  What do you see as the virtues and limitations of that argument?

TR.  Well thank you! I guess it largely depends on one’s position of influence. A leader with a lot of influence must be more broadly read in contemporary non-fiction trends in order to offer careful guidance to those who are following. For most of us, I think we breathe in enough of the atmosphere of pop culture to know the trends. One way I think our minds are awakened to the subtleties and trajectories of culture—whether good or bad—is through disciplined reading of classic literature. I write about this more in my chapter on fiction, “Literature is Life” (chapter 9). Literature is not “fake.” Literature is about the stuff of real life. I think the perception of what we see and hear around us in an average day can be heightened and sharpened the more we read classic fiction. At least that’s my own experience. The Church has historically been slow to embrace and celebrate the value of classic fictional works, but I think fiction can enhance both our perceptions of the world and the perceptions of our own souls. At least that is the case I attempt to prove in that chapter.

RR.  Your list of reading priorities on page 95 was fascinating to me—and it encouraged me to think about my own.  I was wondering: does your wife have the same priorities?  How about your children?  Do the priorities of family members and close friends impact your priorities at all?

TR.  My reading categories were determined after a season of self-reflection. In one of those weird inner dialogues writers have with themselves, I asked myself why I read what I read. The reading categories in the book are drawn from this conversation. Various people in my life have influenced these priorities in different ways. Pastors have helped me in non-fiction categories, especially categories related to the person and work of Christ. Friends and readers of my blog provide excellent recommendations in historical and scholarly works. And my wife has helped me better appreciate fictional literature.

My wife’s categories would be similar to mine in a lot of ways, though she reads more biographies and homemaking books. I regularly “assign” to her books on key theological topics that I want her to read. Most recently I had her read From Eden to the New Jerusalem by T. Desmond Alexander. A lot of people are not aware that my wife is a gifted editor—which is quite a gift for a fumbling, bumbling, fuzzy-prosed author like me! So we share books on writing and editing as well.

Our children (11 to 5) read a variety of books, maxing out their library cards with both fiction and non-fiction. Our oldest reads quite a few history books for school and pleasure, and I think our daughter has checked out every craft book our local library owns. Our youngest most often uses books as ramps for his Hot Wheels cars. We read Scripture together most mornings and most evenings (Psalms after breakfast and Matthew after dinner). As their dad, I take it upon myself to lead the kids in their daily reading and reflection on Scripture.

RR.  What are you looking for when you read?  And at what point do you set a book aside because it’s not what you’re looking for, or could actually be detrimental?  

TR.  That question is simultaneously one of the most simple and complex I have been asked! Of course any fictional book that glorifies evil and/or unbelief gets tossed aside. Any author who hides the consequences of sin in their characters is a fool, and such an author tells lies. Avoid them.

On the other hand, what makes a great non-fiction book? Reading is such complex activity, isn’t it? Every interest that competes for my time, every pound of attentiveness God has given me, and all the inquisitiveness that presses for answers in my head, all collide in the experience of reading a book. It could be that a book is too poorly written (who has time for poorly written books?). Or maybe it’s too redundant (the author wrote a great article that got bloated into a book). Or maybe the book is not original enough (I’ve read all this before in previous works). There’s a certain cluster of strengths that a great book has, that mediocre books almost have, and that poor books don’t have. Articulating why some books fall flat is not easy to describe. There’s a prose style, an art to it all, that I think makes this question hard to answer. This is especially true when it comes to fiction. Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead stuns me every time I read it. But when people ask why I love this book, I have a hard time explaining why exactly it does. But it does. So what am I looking for in it? I don’t exactly know.

RR.  What advice can you give to book-lovers of limited resources?  How do you decide what books to buy rather than borrow?  (And do you have any suggestions for a book budget?)

TR.  Use the library. You don’t need much money to access many books. With a growing number of digital e-readers you can borrow books online for free, which is really nifty. I am not a huge fan of e-readers (like the Kindle) but they can save you a lot of time, money, and shelf space in the end. I personally think a family should free up as much money as possible to buy books. You’ll regret buying a lot of books whenever you have to haul them into a moving truck, but you will not regret having your books during all other seasons in life. One reason why I want our family to have a fairly large budget for books is because I bait my hook with the promise of new books to get my kids to read. Once our kids learn to read on their own (2 down, 1 to go) we buy them new books as fast as they can read them. It’s shameless, maybe teetering on materialistic, but the hope of new shiny books gets the kids to endure to the end of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. (That’s an easy 100 lessons if you have a lure.)

RR.  What are your favorite outlets for buying books?  Do you have any thoughts on whether to buy used or new?

TR.  I buy mostly from Amazon and some from Westminster Bookstore (especially theology, C. S. Lewis, and Tolkien). For used books, I check AbeBooks. Occasionally I buy used books, but really those purchases are mostly limited to when I travel to a used bookstore, which is rare these days. When I have time, I like to sift through the books at Loome Theological Booksellers, a bookstore fitted into an old church building in Stillwater, Minnesota. But I mostly buy new books. Twelve to $20 is a small price to pay for a great book that will enrich your life and soul. Buy a nice edition of the Bible first. That’s important. Then buy nice copies of The Lord of the Rings, Calvin’s Institutes, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Works of Shakespeare, and titles by P. G. Wodehouse. Find a particular interest, and then invest in nice editions. I’ve since stolen Desiderius Erasmus’s quote as my own book buying motto: “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

Tony Reinke (@tonyreinke) is an author, blogger, and a content strategist for Desiring God. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Karalee, and their three kids.

We’ve interviewed lots of book-lovers at Redeemed Reader, including Andrew Klavan, Alan Jacobs, and Gene Edward Veith.  If you’re wondering about the Electronic Revolution in the book world, you might be interested in Emily’s interview with Mike Sugimoto and my thoughts on Children’s book apps. Lit! is also part of our Literary Nightstand series.

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3 Comments

  1. I have really enjoyed this book! And I’m glad I’m not the only one with a big book budget. I’d rather have books than food, I guess:)

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