Well, it must be autumn again. Not only is my house threatening to sail away in a sea of leaves (mostly ugly brown oak, sadly), but I’ve been asked to teach a mini-class on literacy at Enrichment. The rhythm of the schoolyear is hard to resist, and almost every fall I’m asked to give a presentation on reading. I’m always happy to comply. This year, though, the notes to my standard presentation were lost in a cross-country move, so I’m asking myself–Why do I like reading fiction, again?
Apparently I’m not the only one asking myself that question. A recent study conducted by the National Endowment of the Arts finds that literary reading has dropped precipitously among Americans during the last twenty years. Now that DVDs deliver hours of bonus features and DSL delivers the internet instantaneously, why would I pick up a work of fiction in my discretionary time? A recent discussion at BCC generated a great list of great books; now I want your help in figuring out why we would read a great book in the first place. Here’s a start:
1.) Simple entertainment. Now that I spend most of my time caring for two preschoolers, the entertainment and escapist value of fiction is more apparent to me than ever before. When life is largely routine, varied and pleasurable stimulation is crucial to maintain one’s sanity and lift one’s mood: it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that good books, good food, good music, and good conversation give me a reason to get up in the morning.
2.) Didactic value. All books teach, either more or less overtly. Some fiction conveys factual information–I might pick up, say, The Work and the Glory to learn about church history. Some fiction conveys instructive experience that, together with the powerful reader-character identification that fiction produces, can teach valuable life lessons–I might pick up, say, Madame Bovary and learn excruciating truths about marriage, desire, adultery and despair.
3.) Spiritual value. On rare occasions, a reader might engage with a fictional character so fully and so intensely that the experience surpasses mere identification and recognition, actually enlarging the soul. Something like this happened when I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time; the exquisite closing lines of the novel, “That things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs,” provided what I can only describe as a redemptive experience. Grandiose as it sounds, these rare occasions might give us spiritual practice in Christ’s redemptive work of assuming another’s sin, sadness, and sacrifice.
Why do you read fiction?