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The End of Reading: Why We Should Read Good Fiction

The end of reading is not more books but more life. (Holbrook Jackson)

“I have sought for happiness everywhere, but I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book,” said Thomas a Kempis, and so might I say.  Readers are like that, you know.  As a child I remember one particular chair in one particular corner of our home, and the many books I read there.  I read through meals, sometimes as long as four hours or so at a time, emerging as if from some dream, somnolent, somewhere in the twilight between the imaginative world and reality.  It took some time to come home. But then my sister said something like sisters say, and I said something not so nice back, and the mashed potatoes were passed and reality re-cohered for me.  Yet I never came back quite the same. My life was changed in some inarticulable way.

I still have some of those childhood books, some pilfered from my mother's library.  In recently cleaning out her home for sale (she is in a nursing home now), we did not save much, and yet I did save many of her books, like Amy Carmichael's The Golden Cord, A.W. Tozer's The Knowledge of the Holy, and Hannah Whithall Smith's The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life --- all nonfiction, and yet by age alone much less worthiness these books are our "elders," due a degree of respect.

I like looking up to my bookshelf of books, some of which I consider not just elders or mentors but dear “friends,” books that continue to speak to me and, I suspect, will continue to teach me the rest of my life.  Sometimes I re-read just the first page of Beryl Markham’s West With the Night: “How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, ‘This is the place to start; there can be no other.’  But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names – Mwanza, Serengeti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakura.”   And then I feel the book tugging at me, saying, “Read on, read on,” and I find myself saying aloud those African names, just to hear them.  I will read it again, I say, another day, as I reluctantly place it back on the shelf. 

If you take the time to read this blog, you probably read books, as there is nothing much here for the pragmatic who have no use for books.  But in the interest of book-evangelism, of encouraging a ministry of words, let me tell you four reasons why reading good fiction is important to our understanding of ourselves, our relationship with God, and our relationship with others.

Good books enlarge our sense of reality.  They have the subtle effect of deepening our understanding of other people as we vicariously experience joy and sorrow through the lives of the characters.  In his novel (more recently, movie), No Country for Old Men, Colman McCarthey writes of a man who, while out hunting in a desolate part of East Texas, stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad, four men dead, and over $2 million dollars in a satchel and no one around.  He takes it, but how he takes it and how he wrestles with having it can teach us all about the insidious nature of greed.  Good fiction makes us more aware of what is real by presenting it in a fresh way.  We come to a greater understanding of others who, after all, are a lot like us.

Good books deepen our understanding of ourselves.  Joseph Epstein says that “we use books like mirrors, gazing into them only to discover ourselves.”  What is true of the Bible is, to a lesser extent, also true of good fiction.  We read of all its rag-tag characters, the best of which are beset by sin, and we see ourselves.  But we begin to change.  We see who we really are.  We see our need for Jesus, the one who saves us every day from ourselves.  For example, I knew what I needed, who I needed when I read this bit of dialogue in Hwee Hwee Tan’s Foreign Bodies between Andy (a twenty-something student fresh off a Damascus Road conversion experience) and fellow student (and love interest) Clare, who attempts to rationalize and scientifically explain his conversion experience: “I want God.  Somewhere along the line they killed God, and I want him back.  I want God resurrected, living in me.  But I don’t want the hippy, new age, pop culture, user-friendly, thought of the day, Celestine prophecy, spiritual quest as narrated as an adventure novel. . . . I want God.  I want something that will fill all of me, every nook and cranny, touch every cell, course through the blood, fill the spaces of the mind, touch the unphysicality of the soul. . . . I want God.  I want it all back.”  Isn’t that what we all want?  Reading that, I realized how small I had made God and how much I was missing.

Good books deepen our relationship with God.  Sometimes there’s a problem with the Bible.  We’ve read it so much, heard the stories so many times, that it’s all become a bit too familiar to us, like a two-dimensional flannelboard.  The deep truth and reality of it can wash over us and yet not settle in our soul.  A good book can defamiliarize the familiar stories and let us see truth in a fresh way.  I think of Frederick Buechner’s Leo Bebb, from his Book of Bebb, a charlatan, a flim-flam artist, a pastor, a sinner among sinners – and yet, Leo Bebb continues to speak the truth to me, reminding me that God loves sinners, something that’s easy to acknowledge but difficult to believe (that is, that we are really so bad, or that God could really be so good).  Addressing his congregation, Bebb said “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a great feast.  That’s the way of it.  The Kingdom of Heaven is a love feast where nobody’s a stranger.  Like right here.  There’s strangers everywhere’s else you can think of. . . . There’s strangers got married and been climbing in and out of the same fourposter for thirty-five, forty years, and they’re strangers still. . . . But here in this place there’s no strangers, and Jesus, he isn’t a stranger either.  The Kingdom of Heaven’s like this.”  That’s the way Leo Bebb talks and keeps talking to me. 

Books cultivate virtues that, as Christians, we care deeply about.  Reading produces thoughtfulness, patience, good reasoning, humility (as we withhold judgment until we have all the facts, or have read all the way to the end), and solitude (as we do this thing mostly alone).  You can probably think of even more, but this is a good start.  Books, both in their content and in the very process of their reading, aid our spiritual growth.

Once upon a time.  Once, upon a time.  Can you really bear not to read on, not to see what story unfolds?  Frederick Buechner says “all beginnings have a legendary quality about them, a promise of magic,” and indeed they do.  So, pick up a good book this week.  Open to the first page.  It all begins here: Once upon a time. . . .