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Review: Writers to Read by Douglas Wilson

writers to read

Do you want to know what to read or what to encourage your teens to read?  Why not ask Douglas Wilson, reviewer of over 1600 books since 2008 according to GoodReads?  He generally has his head on straight and he loves to comment on what he puts into it.

In Writers to Read:  9 Names that Belong on Your Bookshelf, Wilson recommends eight modern authors who have made him what he is, as well as one whom he has formed.  Some of these are to be expected:  Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Eliot, and, for a very different reason, his son Nate.  Other good choices are Robinson and, apparently, Wodehouse.  I was introduced to Mencken, who sounds interesting, and reminded of Capon, whom I cannot stomach.

Wilson discusses the writers’ lives and work but more than that, he outlines their main thoughts, brings in quotations from other thinkers, and compares all that with biblical truth. Some of these comments are worth gold.  Furthermore, I was introduced to a wide array of Wilson’s ideas about all sorts of things and those are always thought-provoking.

As Wilson himself admits, he is so influenced by the Inklings that he cannot even see how great the influence is.  I would say that these giants have formed him and led to his appreciation of fantasy, his worship of myth, and his summary of the Bible’s story as “Slay the dragon, get the girl.”   Since our North American world, both secular and Christian, is so dependent on the ideas of Tolkien, Lewis, and others, it was good to read about their lives, writings, and faith from a disciple’s point of view.

For some reason, this part of the book raised strong emotions in me.  Having grown up completely outside the Inkling tradition, I am irritated by their myths and fantasies.  Life itself is interesting enough to write about without using myth and fantasy; neither of these is necessary for either faith or literary excellence.  Wilson would counter that they make both so much richer.  I would suggest that is an illusion, one he cannot escape because of his background, because systems of myth and fantasy distract from the mundane solidity of real life which is, in its own way, infinitely richer, more joyous, more heart-rending, and closer to truth.

On the other hand, Wilson’s insights into many things, from cabbages to kings, were fascinating and left me with much to chew on.

One thought that was especially a propos was this one:  Modern man has an insatiable lust to interfere with ordinary things.  Although Wilson meant it entirely differently, that simple sentence sums up my problems with the fantasy writing he so admires.

On an entirely different level, Wilson does appreciate real life in all its daily realness, especially the words God has so graciously given us, and food.  Of words, he says, “If words are our weapons, then we need to train ourselves in the use of them.”  Of food, well, there is a long section about the spiritual foolishness of food fussers and the joy of adding butter.

And here are some more thoughts:

Pessimism is not due to the hard things, but to a lack of joy in the good things.  (Perhaps that is why Ann Voskamp’s search for gratitude lifted her above tragedy.)

A sense of poetry is at the bottom of all sound prose. (This is undeniably true, and it is also at the bottom of all good science.)

Journalism used to be about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, taking over the role of an ineffective pulpit.  (I really want to research that concept a bit more.)

Defeat is no refutation.  All the good guys go down, but that does not mean they were wrong.  (This, in opposition to the deadly silliness of the prosperity gospel.)

He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom. (This is the reason why I, a scientist, refuse to do even flower dissections in our homeschool, but encourage observing living plants and animals. The greatest miracle is not in how something is formed, although that is amazing, but in how it lives.)

The central point of food is not what you are eating but whom you are eating with…and that influences the thought you put into cooking. (This is obvious to me, but not at all to my family.)

We never recognize hubris in ourselves.  (Not even Wilson.  Not even me.  Nor you.  And that is one of the reasons why we live in community, why we read, talk, review books, and turn to the Bible over and over with the prayer that God will open our eyes.)

Do I recommend this book?  If you love the authors mentioned, absolutely.  You will see them with fresh eyes.  If you want to understand the North American evangelical fantasy scene or the classical education literary scene, yes.  This book is a good starting point.  If you want to learn more about some worthwhile authors, or if you enjoy Wilson’s writing and respect his opinions, absolutely.  You will not be disappointed.

Does Writers to Read have any place in your homeschool?  Because of its insights into literature, writing, and our place in this culture, teens who love reading, writing, or thinking would benefit from it.  Furthermore, if your teens are considering studying English at university, this book and the one mentioned below are essential.  For practical and immediate use in the average homeschool, however, Wilson’s wife Nancy’s short guide to American literature, Reading with Purpose, (link to my review) would be more helpful as a curriculum guide.

Note:  After reading his father’s recommendation, I tried Nathan Wilson’s books again.  Leepike Ridge was good.  I intensely disliked 100 Cupboards, but if your children read fantasy this series is probably better than most.  And his books for adults, well, they could use a bit more living.  Do watch for this writer a few decades down the road, though.

This is yet another book in the in the 2015 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and is also linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Literacy Musings Monday, The Book Nook, Finishing Strong , Trivium Tuesdays.  

Disclosure: A review ebook was provided by Crossway and Beyond the Page.

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