A Blow to the Skull

Girl in Chair
by Spence Munsinger

Over the last few years, I have heard several people tell me they do not read fiction.  Being busy people, they only have limited time for reading, and prefer to spend it on something that would inform them and teach them.

Having a large family with six kids plus a dog, and with both me and my wife working, I understand the concept of having limited amount of time. However, we do ourselves a disservice if we only read non-fiction and do not to read literature.  I should add the caveat that by “literature” I refer not to racy romance novels or poorly written thrillers – I mean solid literature that breathes life, deepens the reader’s understanding of life, and awakens a new perspective on the world.  This is something that literature and poetry can do like no other genre.

In his book Joyful Exiles, James Houston writes:

I have found that great literature can enlarge our horizons concerning the human condition.  As Werner Jaeger has pointed out, artistic expression “alone possesses the two essentials of educational influence – universal significance and immediate appeal.” …Poetry, literature, drama and art can help us explore [the complexities of life], just as Jesus spoke parables to challenge the moral complacency and conventional values of his times.

Direct assertion and dogmatic affirmation can become mere religious chatter that does not shock and challenge us as we may need.  Kafka wrote…in 1904 [that a book ought to] “shake us awake like a blow to a skull… [and] must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Identification with  literary characters can reveal more comprehensively the full moral consequences of our own choices and actions…. We may see the need to exorcise our own demons by seeing them depicted in the characters of the story.  At the same time, literary escape into the plot helps us see how hard it is to face ourselves directly; the indirect approach – like the parable – can challenge us from behind our defenses….

If God can use an ass to speak to Balaam, perhaps he can use a novel to teach us to accept life-changing events.

There have been several books that I have read that have brought about life-changing decisions or eye-opening perspectives.  Most of them were novels (The Brothers KaramazovPilgrim’s Regress, and At the Back of the North Wind to name three).  When I went through my divorce and subsequent full-time single-parenting of five children, novels were one of the ways God fed my soul.  I read them voraciously.

I am sad to say that I have not read many novels lately, and I think that is one of the reasons I find myself in a creatively dry season (even to get this post out I needed help from previous work I did). So I prescribe for myself (and you, if you are in a ho-hum season of life) 30 minutes of poetry or literature reading 5 times a week.

Feel free to increase the dosage.

There is also another reason – a hidden reason – behind not reading novels, one that is the bane and undoing of our culture today.  But that is a subject for my next post.


4 thoughts on “A Blow to the Skull

  1. Hi Nick,

    I was raised to a large measure by Robert Heinlein. His views of society, personal responsibility, and personal ethics expressed in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” or “Time Enough for Love”, resonated and echoed and still form my view of the world.


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