you need to read novels

Michael has recently picked up on Justin’s suggestion that you need to read poetry to become a better Bible reader — and proclaimer. I whole-heartedly agree.

But the flip-side to being able to feel your way into God’s word, is a kind of prophetic ability to get under the skin of those you’re serving and speaking to. I want to suggest that reading novels can help us with this. Big time.

On the one hand, a typical trashy airport novel reveals loads about the fears and aspirations of … well, most of us!

It does so largely by the assumptions it makes. Assumptions you’re invited to share (at least for the duration of your reading experience). Assumptions about what’s valuable, exciting, significant, etc. And, best of all, assumptions that come packaged in a more or less gripping plot.

Reading trashy novels gives you practice decoding such assumptions. Identifying the desires (and anxieties) they tap in to. And feeling their pull for yourself. It’ll help you ‘exegete your audience’, as they say.

Great novels, on the other hand, do a lot of this work for you.

They go about this in various ways. Producing the effect that the amusingly-named Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky has dubbed ‘defamiliarisation’.

According to Shklovsky, ‘The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged’. That is, it’s about slowing you down and making you pay attention to what you’d otherwise rush past and take for granted.

Which is why a great novel is typically more demanding than an airport novel. But it’s worth it because of the questions it raises, the light it sheds on human behaviour and motivation, and the stunning vistas it opens up on life.

That is why you need to read novels.

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4 comments

    1. Love it, Tim!

      Although I’m all for the benefits of reading fiction, I am at least half tongue in cheek when I say you need to. I’m pretty confident you can get at the things that reading fiction helps you get at without ever turning the page of a novel (e.g., perhaps you could travel widely and spend lots of time interacting with people who aren’t like you, etc). But in my experience, reading fiction is excellent practice — and usually far more affordable/comfortable than alternatives!

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