When I was in college at Howard Payne University and feeling stressed about school work (which looks odd to type given my lack of success in school) I would often take a novel, usually Louis L’Amour, and read it over a weekend. I would do it to escape. I didn’t want to deal with where I was so I would travel to some rugged place in the fictional west and vicariously be a hero.
In fifty years of being in a sentient relationship with my father, I have never known him to have ever read a novel. He jokingly would list reading novels as sin when he preached—a sin for him. But given the fact that I never saw or heard of him reading them, I suspect he actually believed that his preaching was accurate. This is odd given the fact that as a young boy my earliest fiction was books called Mountain Pony, Midnight, Gumpy, son of Spunk—all with his name scrawled in the flyleaf indicating he had read them when he was a boy.
Somewhere along life’s path, Dad quit reading fiction. I imagine he felt that it was a waste of time when there was so much other information that he could be processing that would help him know God better or understand people better. I should pull that thread with him and ask him about that.
I read fiction, without shame or guilt. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if a person wants to really understand the human soul he or she must read fiction. I used the word “must” intentionally. Something happens behind the veil of the analytical mind when you read a story. You get under the protagonist skin. You get inside their head. You feel what they feel and understand their motives.
Also, when we analyze all information before it finds lodging in our souls we fail to savor it. It’s like listening to a ballad sung by a throaty diva, a stand-up base, piano and brushes on a drum—it’s easy and safe to analyze technique instead of being swept away when the breathy saxophone comes into play a rift.
It’s like being a scientist who explains that the blood-red sunset is due to the fact that there is probably a forest fire somewhere that is causing the light to be diffused in the smoke particles. It’s like a biologist explaining the act of reproduction between a man and a woman. If non-fiction is only about information then why do we want to believe that there is more going on between a man and a woman that the desire for pleasure and reproduction when they make love? Only the poets will adequately be able to tell us. And they don’t tell us so much as show us.
So, here’s my thing: Read more fiction. If you want to be a better teacher, read more fiction. If you want to be a better preacher, read more fiction. If you want to be a better sales person, read more fiction. If you want to be a better father, mother, friend, husband, wife—read more fiction. If you wan to be a better person, read more fiction. For we are a story-telling people.
Also, how can you tell good stories if you are not a reader of good stories? It’s like trying to play better music and never listening to good music. It’s like trying to be a better cook without tasting good food. If you want to be a better communicator, then you must (there’s that word again) read and absorb good stories.
Good fiction is heart-language. I believe you can gain knowledge from reading non-fiction, but if you want to acquire deeper wisdom you find it in good fiction. Notice I said read good fiction. This would not include Louis L’Amour. When I was a child read as a child, but now that I am a man I have put away childish things.
As a rule, popular literature is not good literature. Much like popular music is not going to stand up to the test of time and be considered classic, popular fiction will not stand up over time. I’m not saying it is a sin to read John Grisham or Dean Koontz or Nicholas Sparks (well maybe Nicholas Sparks). I am saying read fiction that will be revered two generations from now.
A good place to start:
The Old Man and The Sea
Grapes of Wrath
A Good Man is Hard to Find
To Kill a Mockingbird
Light in August
One final reason to read good fiction: If you abide by the rule that you will never read fiction, and you are faithful to your self-imposed moratorium, you must abstain from reading about 40% of the red-letter words in your New Testament. In a word they are called parables. If Jesus used that much fiction to teach the most important aspects of the with-God life, then who am I to teach without it? Who am I to live without reading fiction?
It all started in a mountain home with books my father read as a boy. Those books were passed down to us kids and my brother and sisters devoured them—creating readers out of all of us.
When some folks have described my teaching style I’ve heard them say, “He’s not a preacher. He’s just a storyteller.” They usually mean that in some pejorative sense, but I take it as the highest compliment.
I’d be in good company with that moniker.
With many stories like these, (Jesus) presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. Mark 4:33 (MSG)