‘Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.’Nora Ephron
To many of us today, reading is a luxury, and reading fiction among the rarest and priciest of treasures. But whereas treasure ought to be sought after, to the disdain and loss of many lesser goods, we forsake reading, and fiction above all—not only for other necessary goods such as work, family, and friendship, but for the empty, cheap, and short-lived pottery of Netflix, YouTube, and social media, in nights of drinking, sports, or any other event with which we can fill our time. But if many of the great men and women we personally or collectively respect often had read the great classics of literature, particularly fiction such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Dickens and Austen, Shakespeare, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and Beowulf—why then do we who admire these men and women not pursue the same goods they did? To be sure, there were a few key goods they sought, but many or all of them would say that reading was among the chiefest. So why is reading, especially fiction, so important and beneficial?
The good of reading can probably be simply put as this: To read what others have well considered and written down is good for the soul to better understand reality from a different vantage point, particularly if it is a higher vantage point. Not only do writing and speaking have different benefits and qualities, the dead cannot speak, and we limit ourselves greatly if we do not listen to the words of the dead in what they have written. ‘He who trusts in his own mind is a fool; but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.’1
Knowledge versus Knowing
Then why read fiction? If reading is good for increasing in wisdom and truth, why read stories? Do not books on theology, philosophy, psychology, history, cooking, and other areas of life grant one the knowledge to live well? Perhaps they do, in part. If they are good nonfiction books, they grant the reader truth. Nonfiction, such as what you are reading this moment, is usually a medium for truth (if it is good). One may write nonfiction in an inspiring way, and it may pertain to goodness in what it teaches (how to live, what is valuable in life, or how to do a particular good such as pipe tobacco smoking); but they appeal especially to the intellect so that the reader can discern something with the author’s help. This is a great good, not to be forsaken in the least. The greats in this category include works by St. Augustine, Aristotle, St. John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis. We ought to read these, so that we can understand the truth of goodness and beauty, of reality. Yet we turn to fiction, as it were, to know the beauty of truth and goodness, the beauty of reality.
Truth must be something you can love, and it must be presented as such. And though great works of nonfiction are often beautifully written, in order to truly love something, you have to know it. If I said I loved skiing, but had never skied, you would understand me to mean that I enjoyed watching skiing, but not that I loved the act of skiing in a personal way. If I said that I loved a woman, but had never met her, you would understand that I admired her, not loved her. For to admire means to wonder at, and wonder is the desire for knowledge, as Aquinas wrote, and so is not an end in itself. The end is the thing, the good, which I desire because of the splendour of its goodness, because of its beauty. Yet while I desire to know something, until I know it I cannot love it. Knowing about something is not enough. Knowing that something is beautiful is not enough. I must truly know the thing itself. This type of knowing is a familiarity from intimacy, which comes from the Latin for ‘inmost’. Thus I must experience a thing and take it into myself. The good of great nonfiction is that it reveals the truth of reality to be good and beautiful, and grants the first requirements to know something: to understand on some level what it is and what it is for, and to perceive that it is desirable. But this knowing the thing itself happens through personal experience. It is to this end that fiction, stories, aid us in coming to know reality by giving us a sensible taste of the beauty, inspiring us with the desire for the good itself whose beauty we have glimpsed, and not only showing us but leading us on the path unto this good, that in knowing it ourselves we may possess the good we desire, and so be happy.
Humility, Wonder, and Hope
Stories first of all help us to experience reality ourselves. They give us a different vantage point, as all reading does, but they allow us to walk with this lens. They help us to, as Atticus Finch said, walk a mile in another man’s shoes.2 Unlike movies which depict a scene, or nonfiction which tells a truth, fiction places the reader into a story similar to their own life. A good story is always familiar to the reader’s own life in that it has conflict, at the heart of which are life-like characters with unique attributes and personal interests. Fiction moves the reader to put himself in a character’s shoes and see from their perspective. Reading nonfiction is like viewing something with extra light shone upon it from a different angle. Reading fiction is like viewing something from a different angle yourself.
A good story moves the reader in various ways so that he can experience new things, and this challenges the mind, stretches the imagination, and stirs the emotions. The fact that, when we read fiction, we know that we are going to be learning new things of which we know little or nothing, this humbles us and puts us in a better position to understand. Rather than ‘comprehend’, which means to grasp together, we ‘stand under’ something with the humility of childlike wonder, desiring to know. There is little uglier than a man who is confident in his own comprehension of a subject. There is little more beautiful than a man with the wonder of a child, earnestly desiring to know some great truth. Such a man is akin to a daring explorer, a great scientist, a wondrous philosopher, a wise teacher, and a mystic. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, ‘The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.’3 Stories entice us to desire to know more. Staying up late to finish a good book, and the satisfaction of a good ending, are symbols of the beauty and goodness of a story that entices the reader and satisfies him.
Good fiction, as my friend Eleanor put it, ignites the imagination. It sets the intellect of the soul ablaze with the beauty and splendour of the story, stirring the soul’s desires for the goodness whose beauty it has now seen. For though the intellect is nourished by reality in the form of truth, beauty rightly relates to the intellect and the senses through which the soul perceives reality.4 That is, one may be taught some truth, or learn that a thing is good for him, but not be moved with the desire for the thing. How often do children, and even more so adults, reject that which they know is true or beneficial? Beauty, which is both proper order and delightful surprise, inspires one to desire a good thing. And when the soul rightly perceives a good thing, and ardently desires it, then it is moved to possess it. Part of why fiction is important is that it allows us to see the possession of a good, and teaches us by experience how to attain it. A book on marriage cannot inspire and move a reader to right action as can a story of a man and a woman who through adversity, trials, shortcomings, failures, and hard-fought-for successes finally achieve their goal of one another. Stories of sorrow and loss can be even more important, for all of the reasons given above. They allow us to in some way experience this loss, process it with reason and emotion, and struggle to understand. A story that is sad and beautiful will move one to desire happiness and goodness, even to value it more upon experiencing and witnessing its absence in some way in form of sorrow. This strength and desire are courage and hope, without which even a good man will falter in the face of adversity, and after much grief turn to despair.
I do not mean that all fiction must be allegory or fable. Much the opposite. Stories reveal to us how little we know and understand. They do not attempt to wrap up life in words through explanations, but to unleash it like floodgates upon one daring enough to open their pages. They reveal truth with all its apparent contradictions and mysteries, so that we do not get caught up in our own reasoning and become a maniac. So Chesterton wrote:
‘Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed that children were indeed the kingdom of Heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.’5
Stories present truth, but where knowledge is lacking they show the glory of humility and virtue, often as beacons amid great darkness. And where these things are lacking in us, a good story shines its beauty upon the darkness, as a radiance which pierces the clouds of self-deceit and breaks the walls of pride, giving the soul a taste of water and a glimpse of the heavens; that the soul, weak as it is, may expand and grow by the light of reality, inspired with its splendour, and strengthened with the love it has witnessed and which it now shares in, so that it may rise from the gloom to the very heights to which it has been called.
Special thanks to my friend Eleanor who has spent the past week conversing with me about this and sharing her wonderful thoughts.
- Proverbs 28:26 (RSVCE).
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
- Orthodoxy, Chapter 2: The Maniac.
- See St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae I, Q. 5 A. 4.
- Orthodoxy, Chapter 2: The Maniac.