The next work we turn to in my list of books everyone ought to read is The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.
The two criteria I usually use in evaluating books for my list are “teach[ing] and delight[ing],” “sentence and solace“, “edification and entertainment,” or however else one might put them. (I read somewhere recently that this idea of the two purposes of fiction dates back to the Roman poet Horace, which is not implausible but I have no way of knowing.)
The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the few cases, however, where I also refer to what my high school literature classes might call “generally accepted literary merit.” That’s not something I generally set much store by—in my experience, the “generally accepted literary merit” within today’s literary circles is in most cases inversely correlated with true merit as I see it—but the first, and probably most significant, reason for reading (and not just skimming) The Pilgrim’s Progress is that so many generations of teachers and authors have either agreed with that contention or simply presumed that their readers have read it.
Turning to my usual criteria, though:
My “delight” in The Pilgrim’s Progress is by now somewhat muted, because I’ve learned (from The Allegory of Love) what allegory looked like at its height, and can now see that Bunyan’s story is in one sense a very simplistic, almost degenerate, example of the form. But aside from that, the story is engaging and compelling, at both levels. And the imagery is so strong that even now, years after I last opened a copy of the novel, I can remember several of the famous early scenes. In sum, it is well worth reading even merely as a story.
Those strengths of The Pilgrim’s Progress that make it so enjoyable (“gripping”) to read also help to make it edifying. The strong imagery “works” so well partly because what Bunyan’s choices in his allegorical design are such good ones: despair as a miry bog we get stuck in and as a giant who locks us up, “worldly” life as a non-stop carnival that has guards to keep us from leaving, and so on—and above all our lives as a journey that begins when we hear the first parts of the gospel and realize our peril. Even if it were not nearly so enjoyable, The Pilgrim’s Progress would be worth reading—and studying, and more importantly taking to heart and applying to our own lives—because of the Truth it conveys, un-muddled by any of the themes (e.g. “just believe in yourself!”) so common in even “Christian” fiction today.
So, for edification and enjoyment—teaching and delight—everyone ought to read (and reread!) The Pilgrim’s Progress.