Don’t Know Much About: Literature

Life Long Learning for the Curious Adult or Motivated Teen

So many adults with whom I speak feel cheated when they reflect on their own educations.  For many, school was merely a check-the-boxes, get-thru-it, pass-the-tests, and get-good-grades experience.

Often, these adults want to pursue a new adventurous path of self-education.  Especially for homeschool parents, a desire to teach well can certainly be an additional motivator!

But sometimes there are subjects that seem a little scary and a little overwhelming to tackle on your own.  If this is you, and you just aren’t quite sure where to start, I hope this “Don’t Know Much About” series will inspire you and encourage you in your own pursuit of Life Long Learning!

Don’t Know Much About: Literature

Life Long Learning Literature Books

If hearing the word “literature” fills you with dread that I’m going to hand you a list laden with books that weigh more than your head, take a deep breath.  We’re going to start small!  Not only do I hope to give you some accessible titles to ease you in to your more literary reading based on your current entertainment pursuits, I also will give you resources for learning more about HOW to read.

Just like a sugar addict finds it difficult to replace ice cream and chocolate with even the most delicious fresh fruit for dessert, so a reader’s palate that has grown undiscriminating on what my kids and I call “cotton candy literature” will find it difficult at first to read more nourishing books.  This doesn’t mean you can never read light and fluffy fare again (I enjoy it myself sometimes!), but it does mean you have to prepare yourself for it to be a little hard to stretch your mind in new ways.

Just like you shouldn’t give up on a new exercise regimen just because your muscles get sore after day 1, don’t give up on your new pursuit of quality reading just because it’s difficult at first!  Your flabby mind-muscles are going to get stronger over time, and soon you’ll be reading things you would never have dreamed possible!

(This post contains affiliate links.  Please see disclaimer.)

Learning How to Read More Deeply

If you want to start reading good books right away, skip down to the genre-matching section below.  If you’d feel more comfortable learning a few strategies for how to read well, however, here are some excellent resources to get you started!

How to Read Slowly, by James Sire

Sire states, “Learning to read well is a step toward loving God with your mind.  It is a leap toward thinking God’s thoughts after him…Some have asked me how to read so that the world view of the author becomes obvious.  How to Read Slowly is a rather long answer to that short question.”

After a brief introduction to the whys and whats of reading slowly, Sire goes on to focus specifically on the 3 main genres of literature (nonfiction, poetry, and fiction).  He then gives an overview of the larger context within which all books exist, and finishes up with helpful tips for finding the time and focus to read.  Under 160 pages to read, this title is an excellent introduction for learning to read with discernment and comprehension.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

This is the quintessential guide to learning how to read well.  It requires quite a bit of focus and attention to read if you’re not used to more meaty works!  But it is well worth the effort.  Adler describes the levels of reading (elementary, inspectional, analytical, syntopical), and trains his readers to be demanding, active, and engaged readers.  He also has an entire section devoted to specific approaches to different kinds of reading matter (practical books, imaginative literature, stories, plays, poems, history, science, mathematics, philosophy, and social science).

Adler summarizes, “We have shown that activity is the essence of good reading, and that the more active reading is, the better it is.  We have defined active reading as the asking of questions, and we have indicated what questions must be asked of any book, and how those questions must be answered in different ways for different kinds of books.”

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to approach their reading in a more engaged way!

Other Excellent and Useful Resources for the Self-Educated Reader

Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, by Gene Edward Veith

How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster

Invitation to the Classics by Louise Cowan and Os Guiness (This is especially useful as you begin to delve into reading classic literature and feel like you need a bit of guidance along your way.  A great reference to have accessible on the shelf!)

Realms of Gold and other works by Leland Ryken

Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O’Connor

Bibliophiles podcast

Close Reads podcast 

Anyone who delves deeply into even half of these resources will be well on their way to developing a deeper understanding not just of the elements of literature, but also of how to examine, interpret, and appreciate books well!

Genre Matching, or “How do I know where to start?”

It is well established here at Humility and Doxology that mine is a philosophy of done (simply and joyfully) over the agonies of perfectionism.  Don’t stress over whether you’ve picked the Best Book…just pick a book that seems a little out of your comfort zone.  You don’t have to start with War and Peace…I want you to actually finish some literature, after all, and not just give up and return to your reality tv!

Also, it totally “counts” if you reread a book from your school days.  Maybe you read Red Badge of Courage in highschool without much understanding or appreciation, but now you can revisit it with your newly-learned “How to Read a Book” skills and see it in a whole new light!  In fact, if you have good memories of assigned literature from your past, revisit those titles first.  The familiarity will be comforting, and it will give you an opportunity to apply the new skills you’ve developed.

Otherwise, let’s start with a genre you already enjoy (whether in book, tv, or film), and find a book that’s a bit deeper than those you would normally read.  These titles are full of rich allusions, big ideas, deep thoughts, and beautiful language!  Some are old, some are new, but they are all delightful.

This is not my list of the Greatest Books of All Time (although some of them definitely fit in the “Great Books” canon), but is instead a list of titles accessible to the newly literary adult life-long learner.  And you never know…as you build your mental stamina, you might be ready for War and Peace soon after all!

If you like Romance…

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Emma by Jane Austen

An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest (watch the play or film with text in hand and compare any differences you notice!)

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

If you like Sci-Fi and Fantasy…

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis

The Chronicles of Narnia (not just for children!)

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

If you like Mystery, Spy stories, or Adventure…

Father Brown short stories by G. K. Chesterton

Lord Peter Wimsey short stories and novels by Dorothy Sayers

The Thirty Nine Steps (this is the grandfather of the modern spy thriller!) by John Buchan

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

If you like Dystopian…

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Animal Farm by George Orwell

If you like Horror…

The Lottery and other stories by Shirley Jackson

If you like Historical fiction…

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sinkiewicz

Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

If you like Humor…

P. G. Wodehouse

If you’ve always wanted to read a Russian novel, but they scare you…

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

If you feel like you should read Dickens, but he intimidates you…

A Christmas Carol (if you’ve only seen a movie version, you’ll be delightfully surprised by the humor and elegant language of the original!  And it’s short, so not scary!)

If you’ve never read Shakespeare and don’t know where to start…

Remember, Shakespeare didn’t write his plays intending for them to be read silently on our own.  They were the original pop-culture entertainment of his day, and can still be best appreciated when heard aloud and acted out!  Here are a few film adaptations to start you off.  Watch the movies with the text nearby.  If you watch more than one adaptation, compare and contrast their interpretations!  Where else do you get an excuse to watch a movie as a literary endeavor? (Please use your own discernment as you watch these films, and definitely preview before you share with your children.)




Henry V


Much Ado About Nothing

As You Like It

The Tempest

You can also find excellent audio dramas of several Shakespeare plays.  One of our family favorites was Comedy of Errors starring David Tennant.

Now you know a little bit more about literature!

Relish the opportunities you have to learn and grow and stretch your mind as you delve always “farther up and further in” to the scintillating realm of literary studies!  Let us know what books you choose and what you have learned on the Facebook page.  One of the best parts of reading a good book is discussing it with others!

Make sure to join the Humility and Doxology email list (form in the sidebar) for future book suggestions and updates to the “Don’t Know Much About” series!

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4 thoughts on “Don’t Know Much About: Literature”

  1. cryptomathecian

    At the beginning of 2015 I made a new years’ resolution to read the 100 best books out of the canon of the world literature. Of course I had to kick off with the wrong list; Time’s List of the 100 Best Novels. The problem with this list is that it only includes works between 1923 (when Time was first published) and 2005, when it was compiled by Time Magazine critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo.
    I was already one month and a half into my challenge before I realized my mistake and switched for the Top 100 Works in World Literature by the Norwegian Book Clubs, with the Norwegian Nobel Institute. The clubs polled a panel of 100 authors from 54 countries on what they considered the “best and most central works in world literature.”
    This wasn’t manageable if you also want to have a real life. So I decided to spread my readings as much as possible over the different continents and time frames. This resulted in a rather randomly chosen sequence of 23 readings of which three don’t qualify as belonging to the challenge (because of above mentioned reason).
    On one book I gave up; The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. After five chapters of philosophy about noses, I was done with Tristram Shandy, gentlemen.
    Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes was by the Norwegian Book Club rated it as the absolute topper of the world literature, scoring with at least 50% more than whatever other book listed into their top 100. People who into their own life have had experience with delusional people may find it difficult to read Don Quixote as a comedy. When he was not fighting wind mills that he believed to be giants he was, on occasions, actually harming and robbing people.

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