When the twin towers fell on September 11, I was an ocean away in England. I was spending most of every waking hour studying and reading medieval literature, but now my thoughts felt jumbled, and I wondered: did my academic work mean anything when terrorists attacked my homeland? Wasn’t studying — reading, really — superfluous, privileged, esoteric?
Does reading matter when the world feels like it’s falling apart?
C. S. Lewis addressed this very question on the eve of World War II in his sermon “Learning in War-Time.” He writes that “war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” Perhaps it is not that our cultural moment (or Lewis’s) is particularly unique, but rather that we are apt in times of peace to “amuse ourselves to death” (to use Neil Postman’s phrase). When our circumstances change, we have a clearer grasp on the reality we are used to numbing. We can numb with a novel or we may choose other methods of numbing — alcohol, shopping, Netflix, food, work, or sex. It’s easy to step back from the precipice of life — to ignore eternity and our own mortality. It’s easier to eat, drink, or watch endless reruns of Gilmore Girls than it is to pursue meaning, beauty, art, and God.
The question we must ask ourselves is: do the pleasures (including reading) that we pursue further the kingdom of God or are they more focused on ourselves? Are they a way to numb ourselves from involvement in the world or are they something more?
After a long day, it’s easy to plop down on the couch and pick up a novel to escape. In my nightly trip to the bath with a novel or to my bed with a cup of tea, I wonder if my reading is only an escape or if it’s a doorway to more.
When I reach for a novel at the end of the day, is it because I need a transitional space? Does reading allow me to learn more deeply about character and to grow in my habit of noticing? Or is it my way to numb myself from the pressures of life? The answers to these reflective questions help me discern whether reading matters in that moment.
Most of the time, when I grab my book it is because my soul is malnourished from all the hustle required to sustain a family of six and a writing career on the side. I need words — and the Word — to fill up the well that is depleted and weary. I need to integrate beauty right in and through the chaos of work and family life. I turn to words.
Reading fiction can be more than an escape; it can also be the foundation of a spiritual discipline. It enables us to practice empathy, to learn how to pay attention, and to find worth not defined by consumerism.
As Wendell Berry writes, “The finest works of art make a community and enlarge it.” Reading isn’t just about me. My time with a book at the end of the day refreshes in a way that screens or a sugar rush cannot. But this refreshment moves a person not simply deeper into oneself in an endless pursuit of self-knowledge, but ideally, moves her out into community. Art requires reflection, reaction, and interaction. It is founded on dialogue and the human search for meaning, beauty, and the divine. It creates community. It does so not just in the conversations we have about artistic objects — be it a song, a painting, or the novel in your book club — but also in its ability to fashion us into empathetic human beings.
Reading fiction is often the first place we learn to exercise empathy. When I read a good memoir or novel I step behind the eyes of the protagonist; I hear, see, and feel what life is like when I “climb inside of [someone's] skin and walk around in it,” to quote Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird). Reading good fiction gives us a moral playground where we can learn from perspectives vastly different than our own. When we are thrust into the world of the novel, we develop empathy for a character we might easily stereotype in our everyday lives (such as the down-and-out son Jack Boughton in Marilynne Robinson’s Home). When we have our own lives mirrored back to us in art, we realize that life is not often so neatly black-and-white as we want to believe. When we are wrapped up in story, we not only learn better, but we apply truths to our lives in new and creative ways (think of Jesus’ parables).
Reading fiction also helps us to practice slowing down. When we read well, it becomes an exercise in sustained attention. We check in with ourselves to see what stands out for us when we read. We can read for the grace of language, the gift of a well-chosen word, the beautiful turn of a sentence. Learning to delight in language calls us to slow down, to pause, to chew on words and their meanings. We hear the music and force of language in the poetry of Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, George Herbert, and Denise Levertov. What words catch our attention? What was the context for that metaphor? What is surprising? As we learn to notice, we also learn to develop patience: to grow with characters, to let a story unfold, to receive the gift of a sentence.
Reading fiction gives us a ticket to step outside the world of the marketplace where meaning is derived from economic transactions. When we immerse ourselves in good writing, we stake a claim that beauty matters. Instead of buying something online with a click of a button or turning the television on and off, I must engage my mind and heart in a book. A book becomes more than simply an escape or a pretty object to put on your shelf that makes you appear learned. It is more than a product. When we engage with the world of the novel, we place worth in beauty, grace, and the promise of transformation. When we read, we say that meaning is more than money and that money can be used in service to good art.
So — should we feel guilty for reading when the world can feel like it’s crumbling? Most definitely not. Reading not only prepares us for engaging more gently, truthfully, and effectively in our “real lives,” but also helps form our loves. Because we read, we notice. We empathize. We celebrate beauty. Reading is a sure road to character and living out the gospel in our workplaces and homes. Pick up a novel today.