Last Saturday night, my friends at The Curator asked me to roundtable a discussion on Why I Read Novels. It was a fun thing to think about and organize some of my scattered, simple thoughts about it. Here are some of the ideas I put out there.
Kafka said, “We ought to read only books that stab or wound us. A book must be an ax for the frozen sea within us.”
Well. I agree that books can uncover what’s inside us, but I don’t read books to be stabbed or wounded.
On the other hand, Flannery O’Connor said, “People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.”
I agree with Flannery. Hope is a rare treasure these days, and reading and writing can be acts of defying cynicism and despair, because words can declare truth and light beyond the present.
In The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs writes, “It should be normal for us to read what we want to read, to read what we truly enjoy reading.” He expects, of course, that we want to read what is true, good, and beautiful.
Why I Read Novels
- For pleasure and whim, as Alan Jacob’s book encourages.
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
- Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry
- My Antonia, Willa Cather
- For curiosity and vicarious experience. I read a lot of memoir and biography for the same reasons.
- Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi
- We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
- A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
- A Father’s Tale, Michael O’Brien
- The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
- Still Alice, Lisa Genova
- Because I like the author’s voice and skill with words
- Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
- Island of the World, Michael O’Brien
- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
- Gilead, Lila, Home, Jack, a series by Marilyn Robinson
- They help me understand the marginalized and characters I don’t usually cross paths with.
- The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
- A Man Called Ove, Britt Marie was Here, both by Fredrik Backman
- Novels give words for a common experience and understanding, such as eating the fruit in Perelandra or when the children shook snow off their boots and coats in the Narnian beavers’ house.
- Novels give shape and color to important values and ways of living.
- Strangers and Sojourners, Michael O’Brien
- The Shepherd’s Castle, The Baronette’s Song, The Fisherman’s Lady, The Curate’s Awakening, George MacDonald
- The Dean’s Watch, Green Dolphin Street, Elizabeth Goudge
How I Read Novels
Books are for seasons. I tried four times to read Gilead, and gave up. It moves very slowly, like all of Marilyn Robinson, and never suited me, until, in the right season, my mind slowed down enough to savor the message, and I could take it in and love it. To read the emotionally grueling but deeply impactful Island of the World, I need to be in the right season, which probably happens roughly once every ten years. (I also felt like I needed a support group as I read.) If everyone around me enjoys a novel but I don’t, this might not be the season for it. (Except for WWII novels, which have no viable season for me.)
My friend Marlene introduced me to the idea of “cluster reading” which I aspire to, and have only briefly dabbled in, and would love to do more. Read several books around one theme or time period from various perspectives. Last year my cluster reading was:
- A Gentleman in Moscow
- Agent Sonya (a biography)
- The Brothers Karamazov (which I didn’t finish–yet)
Another idea for cluster reading could be:
- The Chronicles of Narnia
- The Narnian (a biography)
How I Find Novels
Goodreads keeps my reading life organized, lets me see what friends are reading and what they’re saying about them. I write a review of most of the books I read, and friends can see what I put out there. I shelve books on To Be Read, Read, and Currently Reading. When someone recommends a book, I put it on my To Read list and don’t have to keep a mental list. I LOVE Goodreads! It’s an old app, loads slowly, and isn’t super user-friendly, but I still like it.
I get newsletters from my favorite contemporary Christian writers like Philip Yancey, Jen Pollock Michel, and Lore Ferguson Wilbert. Good writers are good readers, and when they recommend books that they’re reading, I listen up. I also watch what Christianity Today says about the newest titles coming out.
I don’t know how many disclaimers I should make here. We all know there’s a lot of rubbish out there, and novels get a bad rap for being sensuous and escapist, because many are that. I try hard to not read any books I wouldn’t want to recommend to friends. There are too many good books out there to waste time on less than great stories.
Story is a powerful form of communication that can set a reader’s compass and turn them to a positive direction. Jesus must have thought so too. Reading a good novel is a way to engage in hope, declaring that today’s devastation is not the only reality and there good things to reach for. Truth, goodness, and beauty will always have the last word. Because of this, I believe good stories will change the world.