3 Losses of an Illiterate Culture

1. Loss of Contact with Essential Human Experience

Literature testifies to the human experience. The loss of reading leads to a disconnection with biblical and bedrock aspects of humanity.

The first benefit of connecting with the portrayal and analysis of human experience in literature is an increased understanding of life. We erroneously assume daily living automatically leads to an understanding of essential human experience. The situation is nearly the reverse: we are too harried by life’s demands to fully understand the first principles of living and of human nature. As literature projects human experience, we see our own lives more clearly and accurately. In this way, the literary enterprise shapes and forms us. The very nature of reading is contemplation of the human experience and the world in which it exists.

Self-understanding and a sense of self-identity also accompany such reading. At a commemorative ceremony at the tomb of Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel in 1924, Felix Timmermans said something that is true of literature as well as of painting: “In your work are reflected . . . our joys and our sorrows, our strengths and our weaknesses. . . . You are our mirror; in order to know . . . what we are, we have only to thumb through the book of your art, and we can know ourselves.”1To live well, we need to know who we are.

Recovering the Lost Art of Reading

Leland Ryken, Glenda Faye Mathes

In today’s technology-driven culture, reading has become a lost art. Recovering the Lost Art of Reading explores the importance of reading generally and of studying the Bible as literature, while giving practical suggestions on how to read well.

Another dimension is the human urge for expression. We want our longings and fears to be given a voice. We desire our experiences to be registered. This explains why authors and painters and musicians ply their trade, and why the public seeks out their offerings.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay, “The Poet,” observed that “all [people] live by truth and stand in need of expression.”2The problem is that “adequate expression is rare.” Literary authors become our representatives, “sent into the world to the end of expression,” articulating our deepest feelings better than we can. Literature can also serve a corrective function in its portrayal of human experience. The universality and broad expanse of literature, past and present, gradually builds up within readers an awareness of enduring values and norms for living.

Literature keeps calling us back to the basics, which are discernible under the details of a literary work. William Faulkner, in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, said that the literary author’s task is to call humanity back to “the old verities and truths of the heart . . . love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Without that foundation, “any story is ephemeral and doomed.”3Life itself is ephemeral if we do not connect with permanent principles of existence.

Another way literature serves as corrective is in its archetypes. These are literature’s recurrent master images and motifs. It is no exaggeration to call archetypes the building blocks of the literary imagination. Authors cannot avoid them if they try. But the reason archetypes are everywhere in literature is that they are everywhere in life. Psychologist Carl Jung, who helped establish the modern understanding of archetypes, championed the view that the human race shares common psychic responses to certain universal images and patterns. These images “make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them.”4Reading literature is a primary activity in our return.

The portrayal of human experience in literature also reflects a celebratory aspect. Recognizing our experiences creates a sense of personal identity. We feel “this is who we are.” That identity is not all good, but it is authentic. Christians are familiar with the act of confession, both confessing what we’ve done wrong and professing what we believe. Literature is a confession of the human race. We have a stake in it.

Entering the world of literature can accurately be labeled as “welcome to the human race.” All it takes to accept the invitation is to read a book or poem. To reject the invitation is to live in a diminished world, not fully participating in literature’s understanding and affirmation of human experience

2. Loss of Edification

While we have many sources of edification in our lives, we lose an important source by not reading literature. Christian readers naturally gravitate to literature that affirms a biblical viewpoint and portrays Christian experience, but such writings should not constitute our entire reading diet. On the other hand, something is wrong when Christians immerse themselves in material that assaults rather than supports their biblical values. The songs of Zion are better than the songs of Babylon.

Following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, when Christian readers take stock of what reading means to them personally, most will identify reading as a major source of spiritual input. Christian writers become spokespersons for the faith, and readers celebrate the truth these authors express. After his conversion, one-time British atheist Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that “books like Resurrection and The Brothers Karamazov give me an almost overpowering sense of how uniquely marvelous a Christian way of looking at life is, and a passionate desire to share it.”5

In addition to the literature of Christian affirmation, literature that affirms a biblical viewpoint, there is an even larger body of literature that we can call the literature of common experience. It does not espouse a specifically Christian view of life, but it is entirely congruent with Christianity. In fact, much of this literature is written by Christians.

This literature embodies general truth, not distinctively Christian truth. It is the communal wisdom of the human race, made possible by God’s common grace bestowed on all humanity. What is edifying about immersing ourselves in literature of common experience? General truth is genuine truth, and Christians “rejoice with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6) wherever they find it.

At the far end of the literary continuum, we find the literature of unbelief—literature that contradicts what the Christian faith asserts. We would not say that such literature is edifying, but our encounter with it can be. As we resist what is being commended to us, we celebrate what we have in Christ. Reading modern literature of despair can make us even more aware of our joy in the Lord. Literature categories edify in different ways, but most reading experiences can be edifying if we read self-consciously as Christians. Not reading prevents these new avenues of edification from developing in our lives.

3. Loss of an Enlarged Vision

Our concluding item in this inventory of losses occasioned by the decline of reading brings us back to where we started, the idea that a non-reader “inhabits a tiny world,” while reading produces a full person.6 C. S. Lewis advocated a theory of literature that became widely accepted. In brief, Lewis believes that “we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. . . . We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.”7

The decline of reading has impoverished our culture and individual lives.

Reading is not the only way to enlarge our fund of experiences. Traveling or conversation or television viewing can do so as well. But reading has some built-in advantages. One is the transport by which we can access a world of experiences and viewpoints different from our own and those of our contemporary world. All it requires is opening a book. Compared to the vast sweep of viewpoints and experiences represented by literature through the ages, our community and contemporary books comprise a very tiny circle.

We need to consider not only the quantity of experiences in literature but also their quality. Literature is a realm of the imagination. Anything is possible. Imagination instantly takes us farther than any travel in the real world. It frees us from time and place and ushers us into an expansive world. Few events in life give us anything close to literature’s beauty and range of style. Most activities, like a visit to the local coffee shop, confine us to the mundane and prosaic. The human spirit craves the emancipation of excursions into the imaginative realm created by eloquent wordsmiths.

Literature not only imitates the world around us, as classical art theory promoted but adds to our world’s materials. Literary authors are sub-creators under God. For avid readers, many of the places and events and characters of an invented world are more real, more inspiring, and more interesting than the local grocery store and the people in it. Individuals who know only the actual things live in a shrunken world.

What Have We Lost?

The decline of reading has impoverished our culture and individual lives. We have lost mental sharpness, verbal skills, and ability to think and imagine. Our leisure has little meaning, and we’re consumed with self. We fail to recognize beauty or the value of either the past or essential human experience. We suffer from a lack of edification and a shrunken vision.

Too many people drift aimlessly in a rowboat without oars when they could be sailing on a fully-equipped cruise ship, feasting on delicious food, visiting fascinating ports of call, lounging on white beaches, and diving into an amazing underwater world. Sadly, they may not even realize what they’re missing.


  1. Felix Timmermans, as quoted in Bob Claessens, preface to Brueghel (New York: Alpine, n.d.).
  2. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” in Major Writers of America, ed. Perry Miller (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 1:530–31.
  3. William Faulkner, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, (speech, Nobel Banquet, City Hall, Stockholm, December 10, 1950), accessed March 5, 2019, nobelprize .org /prizes /literature /1949 /faulkner /speech/.
  4. Carl Jung, Psychological Reflections, ed. Jolande Jacobi (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), 47.
  5. Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969), 79.
  6. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 140; Bacon, “Of Studies.”
  7. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 137.

This article is adapted from Recovering the Lost Art of Reading: A Quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful by Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes.

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