Review of Writers to Read by Douglas Wilson
Douglas Wilson’s latest book has the one most important attribute for a book of its nature: it’s short. With great writers out there like the nine he lists, it’s hardly worth your time to read about them when you could be, you know, actually reading G.K. Chesterton, H.L. Mencken, P.G. Wodehouse, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkin, C.S. Lewis, R.F. Capon, Marilyn Robinson, or N.D. Wilson. That’s where the real experience and joy comes from – who needs critics? If Wilson didn’t have some decent insights of his own, I’d recommend borrowing this book from a friend and skipping to the end of each chapter to the section called “If You Read Nothing Else.” That’s where he lists the most important or most worthwhile works of each author. Just make a list, ignore the part where he bashes on The Lord of the Rings movies, and start reading.
As for the book itself, Wilson attempts his literary best and tries to show (with mixed success) that Hey, these writers have made me good with words, see? Often he’s quite clever, such as when he writes “Menken was an autodidact, a word that I confess I learned all by myself.” See what he did there? Or when he writes of how Wodehouse was a “genius in working with metaphor, and metaphors that were like metaphors, like similes, if you catch the drift.” Yep, I caught it. Well played sir.
But other times I think he tries too hard. I often found myself having to stop and figure out collections of sentences that seemed to be non-sequiturs. Sometimes I wondered if I had found a typo (newspaperman Mencken is rolling over in his grave) or failed to see some sort of point or idea Wilson was driving home. More than once I read a pair of sentences over and over again, unsure of whether he was driving at a paradox or had mistakenly used an extra negative. Granted, some of it is probably on me for not catching the multitude of deadpan literary references, which is Wilson’s way of winking at those who can appreciate said references.
As far as criticism goes, Wilson is more enjoyable than most – probably because he isn’t a professional, trained literary critic. He’s writing for the common man, the lay reader, and Chesterton would be proud. Writers to Read reads less like one of those tedious introductions to a Penguin Classic and more like a conversation, a collection of essays or blog posts that is mercifully not too academic. Indeed, it is fun and lighthearted, full of grace, joy, and gaiety like Capon and Lewis. Better still, Wilson compliments the thoughts of these brilliant writers with some truth bombs of his own. Here are a few of my favorite:
Writing of Chesterton: “When grace is not center stage, coercion is always standing in the wings.”
Of Wodehouse: “When we use a metaphor wisely or appropriately, we are not skidding away from the truth but rather converging on it. We are finite, and so we cannot speak of comprehend the ultimate metaphor all at once.”
Of Eliot: “The poet is preserving the atmosphere in which the words of the gospel can be spoken. The true poet is keeping alive the possibility that words will still be able to do in the future what only the Word can do… How will they hear of heavenly things if that haven’t had their imaginations prepared by the poets?”
Of N.D. Wilson (his son): “Tolkien once chided those who objected to fantasy literature as ‘escapist.’ He said that we have a name for people who don’t like escape—we call them jailers. Everything turns on what we are escaping from and what we are escaping to.”
Personally I found the observation about Eliot to most profound moment in the book, if only because it provides a gospel-centered justification for the pursuits of aspiring literary types such as myself.
If there’s any major critique to be made of “Writers to Read,” it’s that the authors selected here are folks that Wilson generally agrees with. With the exception of Mencken, a crackerjack writer but certainly the oddball of the group (the token heathen, perhaps?), none will take you too far outside the bounds of Christian faith. They all certainly deserve to be read and will leave their readers more thoughtful, enlightened, and improved as writers, but I can’t help but feel that highlighting this particular bunch will continue fostering a subculture of Christian-approved literature – a realm over which Lewis and Tolkien already reign.
I’m sure Wilson would reply that there are plenty of godless but talented writers out there and that he reads them and appreciates them. But hey, these are the nine he chose to bring to the printing press and slap with a stamp of approval. He asserts that wherever “grace has gone and taken deep root… vivid prose flourishes” and that “the real test of a theology is not to find the solitary genius; the real test is when you find a crop of poets.” But I could drag out a whole host of evangelical literature and preachers where grace has taken root but vivid prose does not flourish – and vice versa. Wilson’s son Nate may stand out as an exception, but “Writers to Read” hardly settles the debate over the relationship between one’s theology and word-craft.
There seems to be a deliberate effort these days to keep the reading of good literature – or even just the act of reading itself, for that matter – alive and well. In “Writers to Read,” Wilson has contributed commendably to that effort. If through this book he convinces a few people to pick up Marilyn Robinson instead of the latest Angry Birds, he has my applause.