Why Read Fiction?

Here is an excerpt from a post on Why Read Modern Fiction from The Philosopher Mom which I thought of interest:

Why should we read things like Brideshead Revisited, Silence, A Man in Full, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Love in the Ruins, The Lord of the Rings, Kristin Lavransdatter, or even… Love in the Time of Cholera? If time is short, shouldn’t we be almost exclusively reading the Catechism, the Bible, or various devotional works?


I’d like to think about this question sincerely, because there was a time in my life when all I wanted to read were works by saints or works on points of doctrine or ideas. There’s nothing wrong with these seasons of life, so long as we do not absolutize them for ourselves or others.

The place of fiction and, in particular, modern fiction in the life of lovers of wisdom–philosophers!–has to do with knowledge of self, knowledge of the world, and knowledge of God.

The most important thing to remember is that all truth is one, and ultimately is found only in union with God. This does not mean, however, that only art or literature explicitly devoted to God speaks truth. As Augustine wrote, the human heart by nature groans and aches for God alone–all human works, however broken or disgusting, can give expression to this desire and thus to the fulfillment of this desire.

We should be reading the great works of modern fiction (amen, time is short, so skip the trash unless you’re on a brain-vacation!) and helping our of-age children to do the same. We should read fiction because it speaks the language a whole dimension of ourselves that perhaps the Summa Theologica does not: the imagination, the will, the heart. It engages our intellect, too, in a new way: Rather than an analysis of a problem, it invites the reader to inhabit the questions at hand. If holiness or viciousness are only fully grasped in an encounter with a living person who is either holy or vicious, then fiction can draw us ore closely to a lived experience of these realities.

We should be reading modern fiction because we are moderns. Even more than that, we are post-moderns. It does not do for us to stop with the Greeks, the Medieval poets, Dante, or even Shakespeare. The reality is that, for us and our children, the world is a different place now than it was in 1900. I am glad I had to read 1984, Farenheit 451, In Cold Blood, Ordinary People, and even… ugh… Catcher in the Rye. I am even more glad that my 20th-century reading list did not end with high school but went on to include the works listed at the top of this page–and many more.

In reading the works of modern authors, we listen to the voice of our immediate companions on earth. We hear the influence of Nietzsche, WWI and WWII, the Cold War, the sexual revolution, the loss of confidence in natural science, the loss of so much. We also see the ongoing thirst for truth, beauty, and goodness–and the unlikely moments in which these are found in our own context. We learn to speak the language that those around us speak. This is the only way we ourselves can grasp the truth of our condition: in order, creatures, humans, moderns.

Now, truth is sometimes depressing. Especially Ray Bradbury’s fiction. Ugh. Tom Wolfe is no walk in the sunshine, either. But they articulate and paint for our souls images, allegories, and stories from which Christ himself does not shrink. Neither should we. All truth is one; all truth is of God.

Follow the above link to her blog if you would like to see more of what she has to say.  I’ll be interested to hear your reactions at our upcoming meeting.


5 responses to “Why Read Fiction?

  1. I agree wholeheartily with this post. Last summer, I borrowed audiobooks of the Chronicles of Narnia to play in our van while we were traveling and driving around town. Although, they are fiction, they have deeply Christian themes about right, wrong, betrayal, and forgiveness.

  2. Judy,
    Thank you for the information. I am almost finished with the Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I found out that although she is a self-described “reverent agnostic”, she found a spiritual mentor in St. Therese of Lisieux. Gretchen ended up reading no less than 17 books on the “Little Flower”, and reread her spiritual memoir, Story of the Soul, many times. Guess what I am reading next…

    • Mary, how opportune! I was just formulating a response to your earlier comment. I will check out the “Happiness Project”–that’s a new title to me. As for “Story of a Soul”, our pastor and I were recently talking about getting it onto our book club’s reading list for this year. For both of us it would be a re-read, but often new things come to light when you re-visit a good book, and we think other members would really get a lot out of it. Coincidentally, I taught at a secondary school called “Little Flower Academy” for years…

      With regard to your earlier post, I think it’s interesting that she talks about the reader “inhabiting” rather than analyzing situations in fiction. I was just reading today in the newspaper about research that shows that children who read a lot have more empathy with others.

      How I wish you lived around here so we could “book club” together! But maybe we can do it this way, discuss books on our own…anyway, thanks so much for commenting!

  3. I’ve enjoyed your comments on my blog, and I thought this essay on the worth of fiction was excellent. My recent book, Back to the Best Books, has 36 selections for book clubs that would, I think, be of interest to you. It’s available at Amazon.com. I write for an online magazine with similar standards, and I know it can be challenging to find appropriate selections. This month on my website I review Home, and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Both books deal thoughtfully with faith, belief and how we communicate these things to our children. I think your group might like them. Meanwhile, I’m going to check out Silence, by Shusako Endo. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • Thank you for reading and commenting! Your book sounds most interesting, and I will definitely check it out. I plan to keep up with your website as well. I’d love to know if you enjoy the Endo book – drop me a note, if you remember.

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