The Pleas of a Literature Major: Read More Novels

Unless you have chosen to be a literature major in college, you’re probably done with reading novels. In fact, you probably patted yourself on the back as you strolled out of your English 101 final with a confident thought: “I am finally done with reading novels.”

And, while technically you are finished reading novels (required ones, anyways, or spark notes), you shouldn’t be. Reading novels not only helps your attention span and intellect but can also assist you in your personal Scripture reading.

“But I don’t have time.”

“There’s too many other things to do.”

“I just don’t have the attention for it.”

You’re right. It seems today that this ancient art of “reading” has been lost amidst 500 word news articles, 140 characters, and two sentence status updates. Our minds have slowly been trained to pay attention to short bursts of information, forgetting how to get lost in the beautiful language of a novel or even the logical thought progression of 20th century prose. Not only have technological distractions and shrinking attention spans contributed to the decline of reading novels but our school-taught motivations for reading have hindered the past time.

It seems today that this ancient art of “reading” has been lost amidst 500 word news articles, 140 characters, and two sentence status updates.

We have been taught not to read for pleasure but to read for information. New articles now put the most important information at the top so its readers do not have to labor through unnecessary paragraphs and details. We search for articles that contain the information we hope to find on a certain opinion or viewpoint. Even in reading novels for school, it was always about information for a paper or for the test rather than a deep understanding of the thematic elements and aesthetic lesson of the novel.

But, thankfully, novels prove to us that the point of reading, this lost art, is not to acquire facts. If it were, poets would come right to the point and novelists wouldn’t spend so much of the world’s trees on pages and pages of description.

After all, just because we can know something outright doesn’t mean that we understand its significance.

Jesus really understood this. That’s why he spent a good amount of his teaching time in the Gospels telling stories, or parables. Jesus could have said, “Listen, God loves you like a son and is willing to welcome you back home no matter what you have done,” but instead tells the story of the prodigal son, engaging not just the minds of the listeners but their hearts as well. Novels draw you up into the truth of the story, pressing it into your heart and mind, and transforming you in some way. Reading a summary of something, hearing it secondhand, never changes us.

Reading novels develops attention span as you are required to practice deep attention. Novels force you to follow a line of progression that spans hundreds of pages, remembering little details, comments, character developments. Novels demand that you pay attention.

But aside from mental exercise, reading novels can be a pleasurable and transformative experience. Allowing yourself to become absorbed in a story can give you the sense of living simultaneously in the adventure and drama you are reading.  Novels requires us to not only comprehend the truth inside the story but to experience, reflect, imagine, and wrestle with what we read. And once we learn how to let stories overwhelm and absorb us, maybe we can finally learn to do the same with the Scriptures.

Today, many Christians try to read their Bibles using the “information internet” mindset, scanning for the quick summary information or certain viewpoint that they want. But you can’t browse the Bible like the internet; it must be chewed on like a good novel. We must read out of delight, not duty and not in search of information. We must follow the overarching plot of God’s grand story and let ourselves be absorbed by it.

Then, perhaps, it will really begin to transform us, like all truth told in story does.

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