As we continue to look at Leland Ryken’s recent publication A Christian Guide to the Classics (Crossway, 2015), we have moved into chapter 5, where Ryken begins to answer the question, How should we read the classics of literature?
In this chapter, “How Not to Read a Classic”, you will see that he answers this negatively first of all. He makes his point under six (6) headings, which we listed last week. Today, let’s see what Ryken as to say under Bad Practice #3: Assume that the classics are totally different from other literature:
…We tend to place the classics in such an elite category that we think of them as unique – totally unlike the literature to which we gravitate as an enjoyable leisure pursuit.
…We need to resist this inclination, and it is easy to do. The great storytellers who have given us the classic stories do not bypass what the popular imagination demands. By popular imagination I mean the literary preferences that people universally display…. The whole cross section of the population likes the same things in a story, such as plot conflict, striking events, memorable characters, suspense, violence, danger, a touch of fantasy or the supernatural, vivid settings, and suchlike. Storytellers such as Shakespeare and Hawthorne give us all of these.
The thing that distinguishes the classics is not that they ignore universal or popular literary taste. What sets them apart is that the writers give us more than the basic template. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth we find all the stock ingredients of a murder story, but we also get a profound exploration of sin and guilt. Homer’s Odyssey gives us an abundance of heart-stopping suspense and danger, but at the end of the story we realize that these stock plot ingredients have shown us essential qualities of the human journey that every person undertakes in life (pp.46-47)