Why Reading a Novel is Good for Your Soul
Most of us like a good story, but most of us can’t justify the time it takes to read a novel. Why should I read a story that isn’t “true” when there are so many important stories to follow in the news? What could Jane Austen or Charles Dickens have to do with my walk with God today?
Before we answer those questions, maybe we should ask, “What is the point of learning at all?”
One answer is “know thyself.” The Greeks, particularly, valued self-knowledge as the reason for learning. Unfortunately, many Christians read 1 Corinthians 8:1, (ESV), which says, “we know that all of us possess knowledge. This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up,” and use it (sometimes rather unlovingly) to squelch the life of the mind. But even Jesus used stories in the parables to teach His disciples right ways of thinking and being in the world. Roughly 20 years before the coming of Christ, the Greek poet Horace wrote that literature should both “delight” and “instruct” the reader.
Building on this point, the 16th century poet Sir Philip Sidney argued that the purpose of education was not only “well-knowing” but also “well-doing.” Sidney asserted that imaginative literature is the best means for achieving both.
How can this be? Consider the following outcomes of reading fiction:
- Reading fiction can be restful. Most of my students report that they read novels to “escape,” much like they watch TV. Research on brain function has shown that reading for pleasure can increase blood flow to the brain. Your mind visualizes what you’re reading and increases the “escape” factor of a pleasurable novel better than screens. In the same way that “getting out of town” brings a new perspective, even if the vacation is busy or short, reading a novel—even a difficult one—can refresh your mind.
- Reading fiction helps you explore responses to the world in a safe place. Reading affects the brain as if you had really experienced the events on the page. So, stories can help you encounter a variety of positive and negative situations and consider appropriate and inappropriate responses to those events. However, because the events are fictional, the consequences of your decisions do not affect others. Your critical faculties for decision-making can be honed in a space for which mistakes have no long-term ramifications. Many professional disciplines use the case study approach for this very reason.
- Reading fiction can move you from “right thinking” to “right action.” A third reason reading fiction is a good choice ties us back to Sir Philip Sidney’s argument. Reading can increase your empathy for others. Engaging in the lives of fictional characters on the page can improve your awareness of the plights of people in your daily life. And empathy is a powerful motivator of action. The novel becomes a delightful place in which to learn how to treat others.
So, pick up that novel you’ve been shoving to the bottom of the pile, settle in with your favorite cuppa, and let your brain get to work—guilt free!
Tips for reading fiction through a Christian world-view:
- Can we imagine the characters as real people? Do I connect to the people as human beings? Can I connect with the characters even if their situations are unfamiliar or unrealistic? For many people, the characters in a story make or break the book. Humans are inherently interested in how other humans live their lives and bear their burdens.
- Does the story reflect a U-shaped reality? Humanity was created in perfection, but the fall resulted in a downward movement. At the Cross, however, the downward trajectory of the human condition was reversed. We can now find ourselves reconciled to God, which means no matter how dark the middle of our story might be, hope is available in the end. When you read a novel, observe whether or not the plot reflects that movement. Not all novels project the entire spectrum of creation-fall-redemption-restoration, but many place their characters along some aspect of that story line.
NOTE: The story doesn’t have to specifically mention God or Jesus to be U-shaped. Christians can find this story told everywhere. Who or what causes the shift from fall to redemption? Friendship, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, repentance? These concepts are central to the Christian story of redemption, and they may appear in miniature in fictional stories that tell the truth about humanity.
- Did I see myself better? As I read, have I measured myself against the truths told in the stories? Have I asked what would I do in that situation? How would I react if I were that character or if I were faced with that choice?These questions encourage the personal knowledge the Greeks pursued and Christians should prayerfully seek.
- Did I exercise my critical faculties to reflect on right action? In response to the actions of a novel, questions such as “What could they have done differently?” or “How would I have responded?” could result in ideas about “well-doing.” Imaginatively taking on the dilemmas and challenges found in a good novel can help a reader consider alternative reactions to real-life dilemmas, but in a safer, low-stakes environment.
Interested in leading a book club? Check out our Equip Women leadership unit called “Facilitating a Book Club: Making a Story Accessible,” under our Ministry Resources tab. You’ll find leadership units on several topics of interest for equipping women to lead.