Three years ago, a friend of mine from way back in high school, now a high school English teacher, asked me to send her some book recommendations. I did, but I noticed that of the twenty-ish books I sent her, only one was fiction. It was hard to drum up fiction that I would recommend. Because I was then totally embedded in the doctoral dissertation writing process, that’s not too surprising, but it was a jolt to my system. I used to LOVE reading anything I could find, but it had been a while since I’d read anything that didn’t require a highlighter and a pencil and sticky tabs to remind myself of a bit of text that I would like to use later.
That jolt ignited in me a need to read again – to read for pleasure as well as for study. I had never really stopped, but the process of writing a dissertation marked a time that I knew that I had to read for pleasure again, or my brain would melt. So I got intentional. I started asking for recommendations for “real literature.” I started by looking at previous Pulitzer winners, then learned about other book awards. I read some of them, but I found other, better ways to get book recommendations for myself.
I found Goodreads, which helps me get book recommendations. I rediscovered the library as a source of books rather than just a remote office. I found book review podcasts.
I found that I was not just reading for pleasure, but also paying careful attention to how an author did what she or he did. I found that I was not just reading for pleasure, but also paying careful attention to how an author did what she or he did. I was mesmerized by the stark brown descriptions in The Road by Cormac McCarthy; I marveled at the way I entered into the mind of the autistic main character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I treasured the way the character was enfleshed in Brendan: A Novel by Frederick Buechner.
Last fall, while teaching a prayer class at the local seminary, I met a few people – Lauren foremost among them – who had a lit background and were working on that arts & culture intersection. That ignited a more intentional round of reading, which continues.
Here’s what I’ve remembered, or discovered: Good literature is about story. Often, it’s about The Story, it’s just cleverly hidden just underneath the surface. And usually – much liked Jesus’ use of parables to teach a deeper truth than the surface meaning might suggest – the story explodes on me with a profound sense of life which I wouldn’t get any other way.
I still read a lot of nonfiction with a highlighter and pencil and sticky tabs handy. But the creativity and whimsy of a good novel is a completely unique, and complementary, piece of my ongoing reading life.