Genre, Genre, What are You? (Plus a Gabe update)

Are we there yet?

You mean, at the end of this series? No! It’s taking me a long time to get through it because I do not post every week. So, I’ll see if I can up the pace on this series about being a good reader and a self-discipler.

We’re on point two of six points on The Reader-Navigator’s Map.* Point 1 is Biblical Literacy (both the anchor and rudder) and point 2 is Genre Identity (the ship’s hull). As the ship’s hull, I see an understanding of a book’s (or a writing selection’s) genre as some ballast in my ship (my mind) giving me balance and perspective, essential to reasonable interpretation, analysis, and appreciation.

Don’t you love to learn and to read? I doubt you would read my blog otherwise. Since we must be rather brief (a book I am not writing here), I would like to offer a smattering of quotations from some expert readers along with some commentary to help us consider the impact of genre (categorization of literature) when reading.

I’m sure  you view writing as a craft. Writers are sometimes called wordsmiths. Have you ever thought of reading as a craft? This is not my idea. A fascinating thought! Who said it?

One of my favorite authors and expert readers, James W. Sire, calls reading a craft, “something that can be isolated, studied and learned” (page 13 in his excellent book, How to Read Slowly subtitled, A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind).

Within one sample of critical reading that Sire provides, he offers four primary questions the reader should ask (34). The first is “What genre” is the selection? The second is “What is the thesis (main idea)”? The third is “What evidence”? The fourth is “What objections” does the author make to his/her own argument?

After answering these basic questions, Sire says the reader will then have a better idea of further questions to ask (34). In his books, The Universe Next Door and Understanding the Elephant, Dr. Sire helps the reader to cultivate a Christian worldview (via the Scriptures) and to think and read “world-viewishly”, learning to identify authors’ worldviews, which requires asking further questions of the texts. These are issues for our next few posts.

Genre, as you realize, is a French word, which is why it’s soft and fun to say. The French word is from a Latin word, “genus” as in genus and species. Genre means a kind, category, or style and is usually employed in the Fine Arts: literature, visual arts, and music. When we listen to music, tour an art museum, or read literature, we discover that in order to understand and interpret each piece, we begin by identifying its genre (as well as creator, context, time and such). We first need the big picture so we can put the piece on the map. Then, we can look at details, and in time consider meaning, value, and personal impact.

Even books on prayer contain multiple genres. The genre impacts how you interpret and use the material.

So, what are our basic, literary genre options?  The most general forms are prose, poetry, and drama. Another division of the main categories are these: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. Within these are further divisions. Under fiction there are the short story, novella, novel, fantasy, mythology, fairy tale, fable, mystery, and more. Nonfiction contains history, prophesy (which could be fiction or nonfiction), biography, letter, essay, report, textbook (hopefully nonfiction), reference book, literary criticism- possibly, and others. Drama includes play, opera, and musical — all of which may also contain poetry. Shakespeare’s plays are largely written in poetic form expressed through iambic pentameter (which is just fun to say!).

Poetry follows many forms: narrative, epic, haiku, free verse, sonnet, elegy, ballad, limerick, Hebraic parallelism, and such.

It is not hard to see that in order to read for understanding and appreciation and in order to read fairly, we must recognize the genre of a work and consider how that genre shapes and informs the limits and freedoms of the work.

I would like to give an example here, but I have a few more quotations from two other expert readers. So, why don’t you think of a book or article you’ve recently read and consider the impact of the genre upon the way you view, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate the work?  It could be a book of the Bible, a British classic, a Wall Street Journal article, or a New York Times’ best seller.

The first rule of analytical reading, explains Mortimer J. Adler in his classic, How to Read a Book, is this: “You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.” What? You have to read to know! He explains what you can learn from the title of the book, and his previous chapter is about what he calls “Inspectional Reading”. Interestingly, this first rule is stated early in chapter 6 which is entitled “Pigeonholing a Book”, which sounds presumptuous, but as he explains his process, it is not. Chapter 5 is called “How to Be a Demanding Reader”.

There is so much good stuff in this book! I recommend that  you track it down — at your library or online. Even reading the table of contents is illuminating because of the substantive chapter subtitles!

Under my point 4, Thinking Habits, I hope to present Adler’s “General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette” in which he delineates how to agree and disagree with an author. This is gold. (Anticipation!)

Let me include one more expert reader who also writes well. Gene Edward Veith, Jr. writes, “The centrality of the Bible means that the very act of reading can have spiritual significance. Whereas other religions may stress visions, experiences or even the silence of meditation as the way to achieve contact with the divine, Christianity insists on the role of language” (page 17 in Reading Between the Lines subtitled A Christian Guide to Literature).

The Bible, a library of 66 books, contains multiple genres: narrative biography-history, prophecy, law (imperatives), poetry/song, lament, wisdom literature, genealogy, parable, letter, and expository essay. Our understanding of genre impacts our reading, understanding, interpreting, and applying of Scripture.

In anticipation of points 3 and 4, Knowledge Soup and Thinking Habits, let’s read an inspiring paragraph from Veith’s book. Noting that we are “people of the book,” Veith writes:

“Such reverence for reading and writing has profoundly shaped even our secular society. Certainly, non-Biblical cultures have made great use of writing, but this was almost always reserved for the elite. The religious idea that everyone should learn how to read in order to study the Bible (a view implicit in the Hebrew bar mitzvah and carried out in the Reformation school systems) would have radical consequences in the West. Universal education has led to the breaking of class systems, the ability of individual citizens to exercise political power, and a great pooling of minds that would result in the technological achievements of the last four hundred years. It is no exaggeration to say that reading has shaped our civilization more than almost any other factor and that a major impetus to reading has been the Bible” (19).**

Language is the invention of the Creator and Ultimate Author who has employed diverse genres to communicate with us. Hebrews 1: 1- 2a claims, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,  hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son. . .  . ” We have the exciting opportunity to explore, as the KJV expresses,  His “divers manners” as well as the “divers manners” of a diversity of human authors — thereby exercising our minds — growing stronger and wiser —  through language loving God and others .


A Gabe Update: He is still in the hospital and has both lost and gained only a few ounces. After 20 days in the hospital, he is presently on the losing end of the weight issue, still agitated and sleeps little. His situation is very precarious. His mother, already so thin, is distressed and losing weight. Grandparents are caring for the four younger siblings. They are immensely grateful for your prayers and are living on such prayers. Thank you.

*A reminder: The Six Sailing Points on The Reader-Navigator’s Map:

  1.   Biblical Literacy = both anchor and rudder                                                                                                                      2. Genre Identity = the ship’s hull                                                                                                                                    3. Knowledge Soup = the ocean                                                                                                                                          4. Thinking Habits = wind in my sails                                                                                                                              5. Influence and Influenced = Reader-Pilot’s changes/growth                                                                                      6. Impact = From Pilot to other passengers — changes/growth

**Veith published this book in 1990. A fuller reading of his works will show his recognition of the negative impact of reading, technology, and the media, as the Enemy of the Creator-Author works to “kill, steal, and destroy” all that is good. Veith also writes about bad books and what to do about them. But in this quotation, we are reminded of the power of the word/Word for life and for goodness.

Categories: Christian Reader, Study methods & disciplines | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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