Why Read Literature?

Classical Curriculum Great Books

With all there is to learn in the world…typing class…foreign languages…soccer practice…why do we give so much focus on literature? We all read literature in school, as did our parent. It is has always been taught. But does it have a role and a purpose in todays culture–one that at times feel stretched, tense, and chaotic?

Good literature can speak to our souls and minister. Good literature – Great Books – as we call them, have stood the test of time and imparted wisdom and virtue for generations.

4 Criteria of a Great Book

A book may be considered “great” if it meets three criteria.

#1 Universality: A great book is timeless and not bound by any one location—it affects, inspires, and moves the hearts of its readers even if they are far removed from the time and place in which it was written.

#2 A Central One Idea and themes that address matters of enduring importance. A Great Book should address things that matter and teach wisdom and virtue.

#3 Noble language: A great book is written in beautiful language that enriches the mind and elevates the soul.

And if I was to add just one more criteria- it would be specific to those of us as Christians, but that the book must:

#4 Meet a standard of Godliness. So many of the “Great Books” have been chosen by atheistic teachers over the last hundred years who desire to see Christ taken out of the educational setting. It’s important that we don’t “wade through the muck to find one kernel of corn.” Take what we have been offered as Great Books, read them with a critical eye, share with our children books those that are universal, themes of enduring importance, noble language, and stories that honor God. Not all books will be overtly Christian in nature, and that’s fine, truth is truth and all truth comes first from God. If pagan Greeks espouse wisdom but we know they don’t worship the one true God, that’s fine, so long as what we are reading is good and wholesome and not wicked and abased.

So now that we have established what kind of literature to read, here are six reasons why classical students (and their parent teachers) should:

6 Reasons Christians Should Read Great Literature

1. Reading great literature exercises the imagination. We enjoy stories; it is a pleasure to meet characters and to live in their world, to experience their joys and sorrows. In a practical sense, an active imagination helps us perceive truth, make value judgments, and deal with the complexities of life in creative ways. It even aids in our ability to use logic and to reason well.

2. Reading literature transports us out of our current context and into other ages and places. Literature serves as a guide and vessel for our exploration of the world and history.

3. Reading literature enables us to see the world through the eyes of others. It trains the mind to be flexible, to comprehend other points of view—to set aside one’s personal perspectives to see life through the eyes of someone else. Reading literature nurtures and develops the power of sympathetic insight.

4. Great works of literature have played a fundamental role in shaping society. Books have the power to shape culture and history.

5. Reading literature increases vocabulary, spelling, and use of the English language. When you read great literature it requires deliberate, conscious thinking in order to understand and comprehend. The average number of words per sentence in the sixteenth century was 65-70 words, but, not surprisingly, that number has steadily declined through the modern era to about 15 words today. Likewise, the average number of letters per word has declined, revealing a decrease in the use of longer, higher-level words. The continual exposure to elaborate, elevated syntax and diction develops not only our thinking abilities, but our speaking and writing skills too. We begin to conceive of sentences in the manner of the great writers, imitating their techniques in style and vocabulary. In short–reading great writers makes us better writers too!

6. Finally, reading literature helps us to know ourselves—all of humanity actually. For the subject of literature is man. In its pages, we learn about our creative and moral faculties, our conscience, and most importantly, our soul. We see man at the height of his glory and the depth of his folly—with every heartrending thought, action, emotion, and belief in between. In other words, literature holds a mirror up to human nature, revealing its inner depths and complexities, its array of virtues and vices; and moreover, it holds a mirror up to a cultural age, illuminating its shape and ethos.

7. And lastly, reading great, God honoring literature is like “iron sharpening iron.” It draws us and our children closer to God. It reinforces in our children’s minds all that we have been teaching them and all that they have been learning at church. They get to see Christ-like concepts acted out in other families, countries, eras in time, etc. We read the struggles and temptations that are common to the human experience and see how truth, wisdom, love, and virtue triumph.

What great books have you read lately? Share in the comments below!

Need some great books ideas? Here are some to get you started!

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