Many people like to read classic literature. But do they really need to know why they enjoy it? Today on Home School Heartbeat, your host Mike Farris and his guest Dr. Leland Ryken discuss why readers should understand how classic literature works.
Mike Farris: My guest today is Dr. Leland Ryken. He’s professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College. Dr. Ryken, welcome to the program.
Dr. Leland Ryken: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Mike: Dr. Ryken, as an English professor, you obviously think that students should learn about the nature and function of literature. Why is this so important?
Dr. Ryken: Well that’s a really good question. I want to make sure our listeners picked up on it. You didn’t ask me, “What are the nature and function of literature?” You asked me, “Why is it important to have some well-thought-out positions regarding it?”
I have two answers to that. One: There are some things in life which, if we know what they are and what they can achieve, we know we want them. Literature is one of those things. The best defense of literature I can give is just to explain what it is and does.
Secondly, our experience of literature will be a lot richer if we have some theory as to what literature is and does. I was an English major in college. I look back with embarrassment at what an undeveloped view I had of what literature is and does. The first thing I picked up in grad school was literary theory. I look back at my opening of my career at Wheaton, and I remember that the first class session was devoted to my giving some Christian literary theory.
Mike: Well Dr. Ryken, can you tell us about the persuasive power of literature?
Dr. Ryken: Let me just say that’s a very big subject. I’ll say also that one of the things literature persuades us of just by reading is that this is really entertaining.
Now what you had in mind is literature as something in which the author wants to persuade us. He has designs on us. The Christian world has never been fully able to make up its mind on whether that’s good or bad. I think it’s good.
Mike: How can understanding the author’s design for us, his desire to persuade us—how does that help us study literature?
Dr. Ryken: If we know that an author has designs on us, is trying to influence us, that wakes us up mentally. It alerts us that we need to be on our guard. On the one hand, I would say, it makes me more discriminating, because I know that I could be influenced in a wrong way. On the other hand, if I know that an author is influencing me in the right way, that’s just an additional avenue to appreciate it.
Mike: Dr. Ryken, why does literature have the ability to transcend the limits of time and space, allowing the reader to identify with characters he’s never met and go places he’s never been?
Dr. Ryken: For a moment, let me just pick up on that last idea: characters we’ve never met. C.S. Lewis defended literature as opening us up to experiences other than our own, and he called that an enlargement of being.
I think literature has the ability to do what you described because it is universal. News tells us what happened. Literature tells us what happens.
Mike: That’s really profound. How can this capacity to explore new people, new places, new ideas—how can this help engage students’ curiosity and enthusiasm for literature?
Dr. Ryken: Literature has the ability to transcend our own place because its subject is universal human experience. Let me say parenthetically that people who never see the point of literature are the ones who never develop this knack for seeing their own experience in literature. We will see ourselves in literature if we know that literature takes universal human experience as its subject, and therefore is timeless.
Mike: Well Dr. Ryken, could you share a few examples of classic literature that will help students to better understand the larger world, beyond their own culture and era?
Dr. Ryken: I will mention two of my favorite classics—ones that transport us far from our own place and our own cultural biases.
Homer’s Odyssey is thirty centuries old. It transports us to a world other than our own. And what’s the benefit of that? Well, it clarifies issues. The gift of literature is that it provides distance on the details that clutter our daily lives. Homer’s Odyssey shows me the value of home and family.
If I go back a century and a half to Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, I find this same ability to transport me to a world other than my own. When I am thus transported, I see the issues of life more clearly than I might by only looking at contemporary life.
Mike: Dr. Ryken, why do you think it is important for students to expand their horizons in this way?
Dr. Ryken: Because our excursions into the past protect us against bondage to the contemporary by showing us alternatives.
Mike: Well that’s profound. There are timeless truths. The world around us denies the existence of truth and timeless truths, and both are real.
Mike: Dr. Ryken, why do you think that reading imaginative literature is an important and valuable practice for people of all ages?
Dr. Ryken: This is a really broad question. I have spent a lifetime teaching and writing on that very subject. The short answer is simply to name the three tasks of the writer of literature—and we’ll see why it’s important.
First, the writer’s task is to entertain us. He does so with literary form, with inventiveness. That gives us an enlightened use of leisure time.
Secondly, it is the writer’s task to stare at human experience, as Flannery O’Connor put it, and then record the observation. He holds up human experience for us to look at. That gives us knowledge in the form of right seeing. Just as a photograph shows us what life is like, so does a work of literature.
Thirdly, the writer interprets the experiences that he or she puts before us. That yields ideas we contemplate—the important questions of life, and the author’s answers to those questions. The writer puts the great ideas of life before us. He may not answer the questions in the right way, but he has served us by raising the questions.
Mike: Dr. Ryken, thank you so very much for joining us this week. This is something that I really enjoy hearing about and discussing, and we look forward to having you with us again on the program. I’m Mike Farris.