Random Thoughts On Reading Fiction

Like most pastors, I spend a ton of time in sermon preparation. I love it and learn more during those times than at any other.  I also spend a fair amount of time reading non-fiction Christian books—on the ministry, on the home, on theological issues, on church history, etc. Not enough, mind you. But time.

For several years now I’ve also enjoyed reading fiction works. In recent weeks, for example, I’ve read Alexandre Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask (which was disappointing, not nearly as good as The Count of Monte Cristo), Nathanael Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (which shows how man’s inherent selfishness makes socialism untenable, but also contains some exquisite writing), and  Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain (because my 8th grader is reading it for school and I want to read what my girls are so we can share the experience). It’s been great for me. I commend the responsible reading of fiction to you. Here are some random thoughts on the reading of fiction. I invite you to respond with a comment, whether with your thoughts on what I’ve said or with recommendations.

  • Read old books you should know. In recent years I’ve tried to read books that have had a significant impact on our culture—well known authors, etc. Books I should have read back in the day but didn’t. I’ve included some classics (Les Misérables, now my favorite novel) and some not so classics (Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Scarlet Pimpernell; don’t judge me). I’ve read well known science fiction (Frankenstein, which was more thoughtful than I expected) and some romance (Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey). I’ve read some significant and some simple American works (The Last of the Mohicans, Roughing It, Death of a Salesman, and The Grapes of Wrath). (By the way, I get cheap paperbacks of most of these books, say, at Ollies. I’m guessing many of them would be available for free if I’d get myself a Kindle. Yes?)
  • Read new books that are affecting people today. I say this with caution, first because there is so much tripe available, and second because on a few occasions I’ve found myself reading something that I know offended the Holy Spirit. So be careful. But being acquainted with The Shack is probably a good thing. Khaled Hosseini’s novels about Afghanistan are amazing. You might want to know who Greg Mortenson is (though it’s non-fiction). James Bradley’s WWII books are great (again, non-fiction). Read a Grishom novel, if only to see what the attraction is (and honestly, I’m not sure).
  • Read to improve your use of language. I love words. I use them constantly, whether I’m talking, writing hymns, or preparing sermons. Reading those who use words well (Twain, Hawthorne, Austen) is good for me, even ministerially. On that note, I enjoy reading novels from my friend Jamie Langston Turner. Her stories are instructional and inspiring, and they’re artistically written. You’ll learn to communicate more thoughtfully and vividly by reading good fiction.
  • Read to illustrate. You’ll have a hard time finding a better example of justification (our being treated differently because of our exchanging of spiritual garments with Christ) than Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Les Miserables is a pitiful demonstration of human need and of gracelessness. The Journey to the Center of the Earth might help you explain… Well, there are exceptions. (Ugh.) But you get the point.
  • Read for fellowship. I enjoyed reading and discussing Hosseini’s books along with my wife. Reading Les Misérables while PJ did or The Count of Monte Cristo while a teen in the church did made for great conversations. Reading Laura Ingles Wilder books and The Chronicles of Narnia aloud with my children was time well spent. Talking about Johnny Tremain with Rebekah has been a small joy. (“How far along are you? Did this surprise you? What did you think about…?”) I’m an incurably social person, and I think it’s more fun to read when you can share the experience.
  • Read to relax. It’s a blessing to get involved in a good story. Sure, you need to read widely and not always lightly. I’m sure I err on the side of simplicity. But I’m much more relaxed and fulfilled after curling up with a classic novel than after watching the same story butchered by a Hollywood remake. (Though watching some BBC Masterpiece Theater series almost qualifies as reading. I love those.)

I’m no great reader—not by any stretch of the imagination. I’m too random. I’m too slow. (I wish I could turn off whatever it is that makes me legalistically read every…single…word and muse on the construction of every…single…sentence.) I’m sure I should read more Puritans. There are classic theological works which are unknown to me. I should read more non-fiction. So I’ll work at it. Still, I urge you to mix in some fiction once in a while, and don’t feel like it has to be something difficult. Learn. Think. Get informed. Relax. And rejoice in the common grace that makes it possible.

In fact, as it’s my day off and the house is empty, I think I’ll go take my own advice right now…

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12 Responses

  1. You didn’t say anything about the Left Behind books….

    Agreed. Reading is so important for pastors and teachers. You can’t read everything, so it is important to read selectively and well.

  2. Yep, you can get most of those classics free on the Kindle. A lot of old good childrens books, also, are free on the Kindle.

  3. I would recommend ‘reading by ear’, i.e., audiobooks. I often have a book going in the truck as I am putzing about. It is amazing how many books you can go through even though you are listening only in 5 minute snatches. Of course, some trips take more than 5 minutes so you can get through quite a bit.

    I have read almost all of Austen, all of George Eliot, and others over the last year. Our library has a system where you can borrow audiobooks free. This has been my source for almost all.

    A tremendously moving book filled with illustrations read recently is Endurance, the story of the Ernest Shackelton expedition. (I guess this is non-fiction…) Well worth it.

    Of course there have been some duds also. It is a difficult thing to make yourself stop listening to a story, so you do have to be careful. Some writers are just vulgar, albeit good story tellers – that doesn’t necessarily mean they are overly explicit, but their themes are vulgar and profane and do not edify. I have quit on a couple or three books… hard to make one’s self do it, but I think necessary.

    All in all, audiobooks read by a professional bring out nuances you miss in just reading yourself.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  4. […] 24, 2010 by Chris I’ll occasionally talk about books on this blog (here, here, and here for example). But I’ve got nothing on this guy. Brilliant. (I apologize to those who, like […]

  5. Excellent! Thank you for the encouragement. But you don’t need a Kindle to get free pdf or audio books. This site (with numerous others) has free classic books in the public domain (essentially any book that’s around 75 years old is in public domain and the copyright has expired):
    http://www.planetpdf.com/free_pdf_ebooks.asp
    Or this one has free audio books with many classics, again all in the public domain:
    http://librivox.org/

  6. If Fantasy is your flavor, you cannot beat Tad Williams. He has been compared (and IMO, rightly so) to Tolkein. He is not a mass producer and his books are not short, but if you can appreciate a good wordsmith – he is worth a read.
    Of course, it’s hard to beat Louis L’amour for a quick manly read!

  7. Hey, all. Thanks for stopping by. Good stuff. I’ll add a Zane Grey in occasionally, too, lhwyco. :)

    Mary, as much as I enjoy the works of dead people, I need to get the Kindle just to facilitate reading them. I’m convinced.

    Don, we enjoy audio books, too. The Focus on the Family series is nice, though it’s dramatized and abridged. And you’re right, it’s hard to put a book down, even when you should. Another reason it’s nice to read based on a recommendation.

    I should have mentioned that I’ll occasionally enjoy a sports/history book. The Greatest Game Ever Played is very like Seabuscuit in that both describe the country during the early 1900s. I enjoyed both.

    Finally, I mentioned Frankenstein. That was actually one that had a great sermon illustration / teaching point, as I discussed posted here when I finished it.

    Enjoying a bit of Hugo’s Notre Dame today, but some yard work beckons on this beautiful day. Fortunately, I’ve been feeling better. Praise the Lord.

    Enjoy your books, and feel free to make some recommendations. Most importantly, don’t let these books squeeze out The Book.

  8. …I would recommend reading Dostoevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment.

  9. Chris, we first got on to audio books during long deputation trips. It was amazing how quiet the car would get while we all listened to a story. I-80 in Nebraska was once traversed to the sound of Huck Finn. And we still have lines from Alice in Wonderland that are family code.

    I have listened to some of the LibriVox recordings. They are good, but they are mostly volunteer efforts, I think. The books I get from our library are commercial productions with some marvellous readers. They are really way better than the volunteers. Of course, not all libraries have this service. I would suspect, though, that you can get a CDs at your local library.

    Another title I would recommend is Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I am struck by these Victorian era novelists and their conflicted views of Christianity and the heavy religious themes expressed in their books. George Eliot has a woman Methodist preacher give a clear gospel message early on in Adam Bede, but it is a message Eliot herself rejected.

    Well, I’ll get off my soapbox…

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  10. […] Random Thoughts On Reading Fiction. […]

  11. most of the time i listen to audiobooks while surfing the net, i love to multitask he he ‘

  12. would like to thanks for the efforts you have made in writing this post. I hope the same best work from you later on too. Actually your creative writing skills has motivated me to start my own website now.

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