By Corey Poff
An explanation (or excuse) for this piece can be found in a certain truth, which seems to me very obvious, but which I have seen under attack: that men should be readers. And by readers, I do not merely mean readers of car manuals, the Internet, or those instructions on the backs of microwaveable meals. I mean readers of books, and especially, in this case, readers of stories.
This truth, I say, is under attack. It isn’t that men are lining up with protest signs or writing polemics or having bonfires. It is much more subtle than that. Ray Bradbury’s observation is apropos: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” To bring the discussion into narrower focus: there are worse crimes than abhorring good stories; one of them is not reading them.
Our neglect of the story has, I think, largely to do with a myth which many of us accept, often without knowing we accept it: that reading fiction is somehow a waste of time. That time spent in a fairy tale or in a novel is intrinsically of lesser value than, say, time spent in a book of science or history.
This is wrong. It is wrong because it is thievery, and it is thievery of the worst sort: not only are our purses snatched, we’re told to smile and feel sophisticated while it’s happening. “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Reader of Novels…”
I exaggerate, of course, but it is very near the truth.
I have no quarrel with non-fiction. I love reading about history and theology and philosophy and culture. I love Paul Johnson and John Calvin and Aristotle and Ken Myers. What I do not love is a reading pile that makes no room for stories about magic rings and an Earth that isn’t quite Above and isn’t quite Below but is very comfortably in the Middle. If you have no use for Elfland (as Chesterton calls it), do not take it as a reflection of your mighty intelligence; take it as a reflection of your lack thereof. Real men step into Elfland and become as children again, and they are better men for it.
I mentioned thievery. Sneering at fiction means we are robbed of at least two things. We are robbed, in the first place, of joy. I realize there are those who love to hate fiction, who revel in their sloughs with an alarming amount of enthusiasm. But there are others, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, who just want out. Reading fiction is a guilty pleasure – they enjoy it, but they don’t know if they ought to, especially when they could be reading that new book on multiverse theory. This, as old Winston would say, “is the sort of nonsense up with which we shall not put.”
Good storytelling should not wring from us an embarrassed grin, but a thunderous shout of glad rejoicing. For in telling stories, man is like his Maker. Our imitations are feeble, yes, but imitations they remain. The imago Dei is scarred, battered, and broken, but it is there nonetheless, and it is not easy to forget. “How is it possible to delight in stories?” they ask. “How is it possible not to?” we reply. So the question is turned on the accuser and the warrior falls on his own sword.
We are robbed, in the second place, of truth. This may sound like a paradox – fiction is the opposite of truth, no? – but it really isn’t. Fiction is not the opposite of truth. Fiction may be, and often is, the opposite of fact; but it is not the opposite of truth. Quite the contrary. Fiction can be, and often is, a more effective vehicle for truth than the most factual of textbooks. A fact may tell us what is (sometimes not even that), but what it cannot do is tell us what ought to be. It may be a fact that Johnny stole an apple; it is certainly the truth that he ought to have paid for it.
Chesterton says it best: “People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are. Life may sometimes legitimately appear as a book of science. Life may sometimes appear, and with a much greater legitimacy, as a book of metaphysics. But life is always a novel. Our existence may cease to be a song; it may cease even to be a beautiful lament. Our existence may not be an intelligible justice, or even a recognizable wrong. But our existence is still a story. In the fiery alphabet of every sunset is written, ‘to be continued in our next.’”
Fiction gives us the opportunity to see truth in action, truth in the concrete. Virtues like honor, courage, justice, and love – virtues which every man should pursue with a vengeance – begin to live and breathe and move and bleed before our very eyes. The story of Beowulf will light a fire in man’s bosom that a hundred lectures on heroism never could. We read of Atticus Finch and his quiet stand against racism, and we see that manhood is about more than mere physical strength. Around the campfires of The Road, the power of a father’s love is pictured with such clarity and emotion, we are left trembling, burned, thunderstruck, our eyes wetly shining. That is a feat no parenting textbook could ever achieve.
Stories, as N.D. Wilson has so eloquently described them, are like catechisms with flesh on. In reading them, we are influenced, often more deeply than we will ever know. In not reading them at all, we are depriving ourselves of a great and glorious and God-given treasure. We are ungrateful men. We cast out pearls, and in doing so, we act like swine.
Corey is an eighteen year old homeschool graduate who can describe himself in six words: redeemed sinner, compulsive reader, avid writer. He blogs regularly at the Ink Slinger (www.inkslingerblog.wordpress.