Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Review - Literature: A Student's Guide

“I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on/ in the world between the covers of books”. These opening lines to Dylan Thomas’ poem entitled Notes on the Art of Poetry point towards the power and beauty to be found in literature and specifically in poetry. In Literature: A Student’s Guide, author Louis Markos endeavours to convince the reader of literature’s aesthetic and practical qualities; he “beckons the reader to enter into the arena” (15) and wrestle with literature. This installment in the Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition series is, as the title suggests, focused on literature generally and, as we quickly find out, poetry in particular. Markos’ two-pronged purpose is to “provide a foundation for understanding and appreciating poetry.” (20) Markos is successful on both counts. He also wants to anchor this study in the Christian faith and this is where this book excels. One might find very effective works on literature, but to connect it to the Christian faith is what made the book compelling.

As a high school English teacher, and a Christian, this book was one I could not pass over when given the opportunity to read and review it. Markos’ goals of helping students understand literature is obviously one that I share in my profession. Instilling Markos’ second goal, an appreciation of literature, is an integral part of understanding literature. These two ideas go hand-in-hand. Though the author’s emphasis on poetry was unexpected, it was welcomed as poetry is not my strength and I could do with a better knowledge and greater admiration of this genre.

Markos begins fostering the reader’s understanding of poetry and literature with two chapters on poetic devices. The first focuses on scansion which is the metrical analysis of poems. It considers poetry’s metre, structure, stanzas and lines, as well as its rhyming.  This technical aspect of poetry is clearly explained in a manner that highlights its necessity. I found this section surprisingly inspiring; I found myself motivated to consider poetry in light of these conventions. The chapter is finished with an intriguing discussion on how and why this emphasis on form and structure, as opposed to the modern free verse phenomenon, points to our Creator and His creation.
The second chapter on understanding poetry looks at the poetic devices related to the words used and the images they convey. Terms such as allusion, connotation, denotation, simile, allegory, symbol, and metaphor are paraded before the reader. These terms are aptly explained and examples are provided. This section was very enjoyable to read and these devices are as important in novels, short fiction, and plays as they are in poetry. By explaining and elucidating these ‘nuts and bolts’ of poetry, Markos brings a greater depth of knowledge which is made distinctive through his experiences and expertise. These chapters made for good reading and will make for good resources in the future.

Through a detailed survey of Europe’s major movements in literature Markos delivers an informative discussion that encourages a greater appreciation for literature. I found his relating of each age’s authors, genres, themes, and approaches fascinating. He relates the role literature played, again focusing on poetry, in the periods known as Classical Greece, Classical Rome, Medieval, Renaissance, Late Renaissance, Restoration and Eighteenth Century, Romantic, Victorian, and Early Modern and Modern. This historical preview reminded me of many authors and works I know, and introduced some I was unfamiliar with. Having this lengthy account of the great authors and the great works, and how and where they fit in history and their relation to society, increased my appreciation for literature’s arguably unparalleled influence. My desire to read was invigorated, particularly my desire to read poetry. This section will be one that I return to regularly both in my occupation as a teacher as well as in my personal pursuit of reading.

The most compelling aspect of this book is how it takes literature in general and poetry specifically and firmly plants it the Christian faith. I found this was effective for two reasons. First, Markos uses examples from Christendom. In the section on poetic devices he demonstrates how the Bible itself uses certain devices and how famous works of literature allude to Christianity and the Bible. For example, Markos explains how Jesus’ use of the phrase ‘our daily bread’ in the Lord’s Prayer is an instance of synecdoche. Or, he explains how Jesus’ claim that he is the Good Shepherd is an allusion to the many shepherd-figures in the Old Testament.

The second means that Markos employs to entrench literature in the Christian faith is through  the examining of great Christian authors. Whether referring to Bunyan and his classic The Pilgrim’s Progress or explaining the impact of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, Christianity’s investment in the realms of literature is evident.  I found both the use of Biblical examples and Christian authors was effective in helping me see the interconnectedness of our faith and novels, stories, non-fiction, and poetry. This is a great service to Christian students who will constantly struggle to be in the world without being of the world. This is a great encouragement for all Christians to see the necessity and benefits of engaging our culture.

Literature: a Student’s Guide is a helpful and motivating book for Christians in academia or for those who are interested in books and reading. It is a clarion call for Jesus’ disciples to engage in culture through literature and poetry. It is a book that I’m sure I will be referencing in the future as I pursue my vocation and in my recreation. I recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. Hadn't heard of this one.... I will be adding it to my list. I also review literary criticism from a Christian perspective.