Saturday, June 30, 2012

Value of Reading Fiction

Warning - this is a longer than average post, but there are some real zinger quotes in here from the book "Why Johnny Can't preach" and some solid recommendations at the end.

During a recent break-room conversation with a co-worker he expressed his reticence to read novels, or, as he said, "fake stories." I concurred with his assessment when he described the book he was reading. I like Ted Dekker, but he's not the pinnacle of mental stimulation. Since a fair amount of novels have passed through my paper fondling finger tips this year, it seemed like a great reason to post about some of these works, as well as the value of carving out the time to read such works. The latter discussion will come first, with a short list of works to follow.

The Value of Reading (good) Fiction 

First we should distinguish between the many types of fiction. Some categories are as follows: fantasy (both other worldly [Lord of the Rings, Start Wars, etc.] and ultra-worldly, [Hunger Games]), mystery, thrillers, romance, myths, legends, fairy tales. Then there are also styles more based in reality like literature, classics, and historical-fiction. Of the above categories, I tend to be most drawn toward classical literature, and lately, especially toward early american literature.

Reading this type of fiction often stirs my soul to action. Reading a long work affords the time to really get to know a character, and over time I come to love that character because of what they represent, qualities like courage, selflessness, integrity, honor, inner-strength, commitment to doing the right thing, lack of compromise in their character, honorable treatment of others, especially women. I find myself wanting to emulate these attributes; even wanting to be like them. This is no different than what happens with movies and TV. Watch enough of the big screen and you'll want to cut your hair like Tom Cruise, sculpt your abs like Matthew McConighay, sharpen the wit like Will Ferrell, and be cool like Rayland Givens. Thus it is no surprise that, as one commentator said, people no longer go to the movies to be entertained, but to learn how to live. But one important difference is that the impact of a good novel can be so much deeper and lasting compared to a movie.

Not long ago, sitting in a coffee shop, I overheard a conversation between a couple of High School students arguing that reading was no longer useful, how video has replaced reading as a more valuable and efficient means of learning. Really? What movie can teach one about the complexities of ancient Greek cultures and their influence on modern American life? 300? Or what movie does one watch that helps a medical student explore the inner depths of microbiology? No doubt video provides some knowledge, but it is a far cry from comprehensive. T. David Gordon, in his book Why Johnny Can't Preach says the following on the importance of reading:
Nothing of public importance can be covered in ten minutes; few important matters can even be adequately introduced in ten minutes. A culture that reads can consider what is significant because reading takes time, and that which is significant ordinarily takes time to apprehend. But a culture that is accustomed to commercial interruptions every six or seven minutes loses its ability to discuss significant matters because it has lost the patience necessary to consider them.” (p53-54)
One difference between a movie and a novel is that you get a much deeper sense of the complete person. You get to see their character played out over time, in more circumstances, and with a greater number of characters. And by the end of the story, one has more context and story to help separate the good from the bad so much more easily, and the good sticks much more firmly. Those that only watch movies lose the ability to make such discernments over time and often tend to focus merely on the greatest outward actions a person makes, rather than composing a careful picture of their character. Thus the reason a person can be praised for their accomplishments on screen, while their personal lives and treatment of other people can be a complete wreck.

Another great benefit to reading a longer work is the mental exercise of focus, of keeping up with multiple story lines and plots, and the resulting benefit of having carved out time to think, reflect, and connect deeply with a story. The story is really the greatest benefit, as it is stories that move us to action, which may be a reason Jesus often told stories. They move one to act and are highly memorable, touching the emotions in a way no didactic propositional statement can (a good biblical example is the way David reacted violently to Nathan's story based indictment of the King's actions in II Samuel 12).

Gordon offers a troubling assessment of the current state of reading: 
[American] culture has become almost illiterate regarding the close reading of texts [books in which how the thing is said is as important as what is said]. Further, our culture has become increasingly aliterate … [which describes] the phenomenon of peole who can read but do not read. (Pg 37)  
The average American adult reads fewer than nine books annually, and spends seventeen times as much time watching television as reading (including all reading – magazines, newspapers, etc.)… from 1982 to 2002, there was a 10% decline in literary reading among adults in the U.S.A. (pg. 35)
He also makes the the observation that Preachers can no longer preach because they have not learned to read. "Many ministers... will read the occasional book about history. But with few exceptions, the interest in historical writing resides in the events narrated, not in the skillfulness of the narration."The loss of connection to story, structure, and plot limits the communicators ability to unpack a key piece of the meaning of the text.

With preachers and with all citizens, especially Christians, we need people who can think deeply, to process the underlying questions of life. But if all that is ingested is meaningless dribble, one loses discernment, like struggling to tell the difference between a McDonalds hamburger patty and a fine filet-mignon. Yes, both are beef (at least we're told), but there is a vast difference between the two in quality and price.

Gordon points to media consumption as a culprit: “…much of the time the everyday noise of media is the buzz of the inconsequential, the just there.  This is neither the media’s downside nor their saving grace.  The buzz of the inconsequential is the media’s essence.  This pointlessness is precisely what we are, by and large, not free not to choose.” (p. 58) 

The result of being inundated by the pointless is a decreased sensitivity to deep issues, and a decreased tolerance for the richness of quality meat. “Our electronic media-dominated culture has robbed us of the reflection about life and its meaning that had previously been fairly common.” A few more quotes from Gordon on this:
“As a medium, reading cultivates a patient, length attention span whereas television as a medium is impatient.  One is therefore suited to what is significant; the other merely to what is insignificant.” (P. 54)
“To read poetry as it is meant to be read, you must push your way through the shallow-field perceptual mode that modern life makes habitual…. The harder it is for you to slow down, the more you need to be rescued from the twentieth century; the more you need poetry...The poet stops and stares at that which most of us merely glance at;  he pauses to notice what is humane, significant, and important.” (p. 51)
All of this points to the value of reading good quality fiction. Now to list a few that have been especially enjoyable over the last few months.

Some Recommendations

East of Eden - Steinbeck's book is a modern take on the ancient sibling rivalry between Cain and Able. One of the more fascinating parts of the book was the extended conversation around the meaning of a single Hebrew word in Genesis 4:7. Though not sexually explicit, one of the main character is a prostitute, but the character development between brothers (two sets) and two key supporting characters is rich and inspiring.

Jayber Crow - Musician Andrew Peterson said this book left him "sobbing on the floor of his office." The author, Wendell Berry tells the story of one man's journey back to his hometown where he learns about the role of community in learning about oneself. The powerful part of the main character is his commitment to true love, even when it requires great personal restraint and sacrifice. The thing I love about Berry's books is the overlap of characters. Julie, my wife, just finished Hannah Coulter, and Jayber (the town Barber) appears in the book as well. She was pretty stirred emotionally after reading it, reflecting back on how the story mirrored much of her childhood and community (Clay City, KY). Most all of Berry's novels are centered on the fictional town of Port William, KY. His emphasis on local community and culture creates a longing to see the return of small farming towns of the early 1900's.

Angel of Repose - by Wallace Stegner - Berry studied creative writing under Stegner, whose writings feature western settings and a wandering frontier feel. Reading Stegner tends to stir up longings for old adventure, taking life to places that no longer exist, like old mining towns and boot-legging trails. Stegner also does a good job of creating complex characters, exposing their flaws and their features, driving deeply to the very center of the person, helping to gain a better understanding of their motives and passions. This novel weaves together two stories, a fictional author telling the story of his grandmother, who made hard choices with her carreer and marriage, and the challenges they had to work to overcome as a couple. We also see into the affect her example had on her dying grandson, the man chronicling her life, who is facing his own crisis in a rapidly changing world.

Tale of Two Cities - by Charles Dickens. This book does a great job of helping one experience the mass of confusion surrounding the French Revolution and the fate of many caught in the blood thirsty era. The setting leaves one feeling unsettled about the stability of things we hold as absolutes, like decent government and neighborly neighbors. But it also calls one to consider the importance of ruling your own heart, of committing yourself to truth, sacrifice, and beauty, emphasized by the role of John 11:25-26 in the story.

A Picture of Dorian Gray - One of my favorite quotes (not from the book) is "Life is full of temptations disguised as small choices." This certainly describes Dorian's steady decline into a self-absorbed life, one that promises so much yet delivers so little. The part of the tale that is especially poignant is the steady desensitization of Dorian's conscience, to the point where it no longer speaks, and he no longer listens. what was once good has become evil and evil has become good. The absurdly putrid part of the book is the absurd maxims Dorian's mentor in mailaise makes throughout the book, thing like,
"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also. "
Every young person should read this book. Even with such nonsense laced throughout, which is inherently proposed as nonsense, it is still an important read, for one is more likely to spot such nonsense in real life as a result of seeing this absurd story played out to the end.

A Summer List for Our Son

Reading is one of the most important skills a person can develop, for from it flows the ability to gain a certain level of knowledge one needs in any given area all on ones own. Like any skill, there are varying levels, and the earlier you start working at it the better. This is why we've baited our son to read good works this summer - both fiction and non-fiction - because learning never stops when you're home-schooling.
His daily reading chart with books listed on right

Here's the list of books we've asked him to read this summer. He reads 30 minutes a day from this list, and then 10 minutes from the church history series listed at the end.

  1. Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys by Robert N. Webb
  2. Just So Stories - by Rudyard Kipling
  3. Otto of the Silver Hand - by Howard Pyle
  4. Five Little Peppers and How they Grew by Margaret Sidney
  5. Child of the King - by Bill Bright and M. R. Wells

I've also bribed him to read through a church history series called History Lives. We'll go to Magic Springs at the end of the summer if he makes it through the remaining four.

Wider view with Davinci's painting over his bed. What 7 year old doesn't have this setup?
This doesn't take into account the other books he's reading on his own, like re-reading the 3-volume "Operation Red Jericho" series, The Borrowers, various volumes from the Little House series and re-readings of multiple illustrated classics.

Make sure to take some time to pick up some good books this summer. Even if you only read a few pages a day, you'll find that it does something good for the soul. and by the end of the summer, you could have knocked out a large volume, which is a pretty satisfying accomplishment. It's also a great way to keep away from watching too much TV, as Lebron James has learned. And hey, who doesn't want to be like Lebron?

1 comment:

John and Pam Majors said...

A heard a man say he preferred reading to movies because the pictures were better.