The main problem with literature, according to Leland Ryken, is that people don't understand it. But though he's a respected scholar, he's not speaking as an academic—rather, he's mourning the death of meaning that leads readers to dismiss literature as mere entertainment, immoral, a waste of time, too emotional, or unrelated to real life.
Chances are you've heard these criticisms; chances are also pretty good you knew they weren't true, but didn't know how to counter such claims. Maybe doubt even crossed your mind. Is literature a pernicious waste of time? Does it corrupt morals? It is useful for anything? Ryken reveals the truth in Windows to the World, one of the best Christian defenses of reading great literature available.
He begins by showing readers why great literature is beneficial: it helps us broaden ourselves and our experience, serves as a catalyst for thought, reveals human nature and ideas, increases our awareness and powers of observation, and offers a reprieve from the chaos of the world. Ryken goes so far as to say Christians need literature, but he also cautions against the excessive honor that is too often paid to it, holding great books as alternatives to the holy God-breathed Word.
Literature doesn't teach us things the way encyclopedias or newspapers, simply listing facts for us to assimilate. It teaches by showing, letting us see from new perspectives, demonstrating whatever it is the author wants us to know. In this way, it instructs via the imagination, and Ryken goes on to show how the Christian has a special responsibility to cultivate the imagination as an imitator of God, the greatest imaginer.
Windows to the World is essentially a Christian's introduction to literary criticism, analysis, and educated enjoytment of good books. It gets a little technical at times, but Ryken is always quick to define terms and unravel difficulties. He addresses everything from "does literature tell the truth?", to the influence writers have on their audience, to the role of readers in completing what authors begin.
The final chapter is titled "Literature and Morality," and constitutes one of the finest treatments of the topic for non-specialists from a Christian perspective, looking at both the content and the implicit attitudes of fiction, and forming a biblical response and attitude. For those worried that a book "with bad stuff in it" might be a corrupting influence, this is must-reading.
We'd recommend this for mature high schoolers or adults; Ryken is straightforward, but this isn't light reading by any stretch, and readers will be required to grapple with significant ideas and themes throughout. However, the reward it will yield and the new dimensions it will lend to your reading of creative literature are well worth the effort Windows to the World requires.