Books Theology

I’ve Been Reading All the Wrong Books

March 4, 2014

I used to think I read only the “right” books. Or perhaps I should say I read the “right type” of books.

I was fairly proud of the books that I read – books that everyone ought to read. In fact, if I am honest, I used to look at what books other people were reading and then judge the person based on whether they were reading the right books or the wrong books. In my mind, you were only a good reader if you read the same books (or same sort of books) that I read. You couldn’t really consider yourself a “reader” if you read the other books – the “wrong” books. They were too easy to read, and didn’t really require any effort or intellect.

But I have recently discovered I was wrong: I have been reading all the wrong books. 

You see, up until the last year or so I had been reading predominately theology books, with the occasional biography or autobiography thrown in for variety. But I really only read non-fiction. That was what real readers read. Fiction books were for people who just weren’t educated or intelligent enough to read non-fiction (the “right” books) – or perhaps lacked the discipline it required. So these “lower readers” were feeding themselves the fluff and sugar of fiction because they had not developed the refined and mature taste of the hearty meat of non-fiction.

If you really wanted to read, you would find a dense book of theology, or studies in history, or sometimes true accounts of someone’s life or some great event. But never a story – and much less a fiction story, that was simply made up instead of based upon real life facts and concrete data. Fiction was escapism. Fiction was avoiding real life. Fiction was a cop-out for readers. At best, fiction was for children, or perhaps for occasional entertainment. But mature adults ought to have grown out of made up stories, like I had. Then they could start reading the right books, like I did.

Several years (and hundreds of non-fiction books) later I have been given reason to reconsider my position on what are the “right” books to read. The shift began when I finally gave in to the pleas of my unenlightened “lower reader” friends and actually read some of the “wrong” books I had been avoiding, with all of their fluff and sugar. And to my surprise, I found that perhaps they were not actually the wrong books. Maybe they were really the right books.

Two authors helped me come to something of this conclusion: Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis.

Up until I read some of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, I had always read books to “get something out of them.” For my purposes, I read to find illustrations for teaching, or quotes to insert into sermons. If a book had a good amount of sentences or paragraphs I could underline and use in sermons or while teaching, it was a good book. If I underlined very little “memorable quotes” or “useful material” then the book was tossed aside.

Flannery, however, changed this. For the first time in my life I read a book that yielded no sermon or teaching quotes, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. So I read another of hers. Again, I could find no “practical use” for the stories I read, but I couldn’t stop reading them. So I devoured all of her short stories in The Complete Stories – and since I knew that non-fiction was all fluff and sugar which was liable to rot my teeth and ruin my good and healthy appetite for books, I expected I would grow tired of reading soon. I thought this experience was like a binge of junk-food eating that I would eventually grow sick of and return to “the good stuff.” But to my surprise, my appetite actually grew for more fiction (and non-fiction) the more I read. I found myself reading more books than before – and enjoying my reading even more than before!

I had been reading all the wrong books, and none (or very few) of the right ones. I would not have put it this way until I began re-reading Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia this year. When I got to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I was startled by how similar I was to Eustace (who, if you have not read the book is not one of the characters you want to identify with at the beginning of this story). He makes fun of Edmund and Lucy (the heroes of the story) because they let their imaginations run wild, while he proudly stays grounded in reality. Lewis’ diagnosis of what is wrong with Eustace is that he has “read only the wrong books” (Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 71). Since he has not read any fiction, he is nearly useless in the adventure, and in this specific instance does not know how to recognize a dragon when he sees one. In fact, what he thought was “useful” and “practical” reading turns out to be useless and unpractical in the story. Ironically, he ends up turning into the very dragon he didn’t believe in.

Like Eustace, I thought reading theology and non-fiction books would better prepare me for the “real world” of pastoral ministry than reading fiction and made up stories that had no foot in reality. Non-fiction was practical and useful to me. Fiction was really just for entertainment, but had no real-world and concrete applications. It was fantastical and thus, not real. But Flannery disagreed with me. In her collection of essays, Mystery and Manners, she says that she is always irritated when someone suggests that fiction is “an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system” (Mystery and Manners, 78). She argues that fiction is actually more concrete and tangible than non-fiction writing by its very nature – and shockingly so.

Sadly, I have found that sometimes reading theology can itself be an “escape from reality” – I read so that I don’t have to deal with the mess of a relationship that has not gone the way I expected. Systematic theology is more neat and tidy than my life at times. Sometimes it is easier to give people platitudes or “memorable quotes” to fix their problems than simply listening and entering into their stories. Reading only non-fiction, I have no experience in listening to stories – I just know how to answer systematic questions, or spout out clever phrases and quotes. Sometimes I am not able to recognize the dragons that people are facing. Sometimes I try to explain to them that there really are no dragons. Sometimes I don’t even realize that I have become the dragon I don’t believe exists.

And, perhaps like Eustace, I do this all because I have been reading all the wrong books.*


So I have started to read more fiction, and I have found it both immensely enjoyable and immensely valuable (perhaps, even: useful). In the future I want to start writing more posts on fiction and stories as I read and grow as a reader – so be on the lookout for some continuation of the content of this post in the future. Two resources that have been very helpful for me in this recent development are C.S. Lewis’ collection of essays On Stories and Flannery O’Connor’s collection of essays on stories and fiction in Mystery and Manners (both of which I would suggest to anyone interested in understanding fiction and stories).

* Note: I am not trying to communicate that I have turned a full 180 degrees and now think that all non-fiction books are the “wrong” books, and all fiction books are the “right” books. This is clearly a false dichotomy. There is plenty of bad fiction, just as there is plenty of bad non-fiction. I simply mean to point out my former misconception that reading only non-fiction makes one a reader of the “right type of books” and those who read only non-fiction are reading all the “wrong types of books.” And, perhaps, as I will point out in future posts, there is more benefit for pastors to read fiction than is often assumed in seminaries and churches today. More on that in the future…  

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  • Reply J.T. Edelblut March 4, 2014 at 9:50 am

    Great post, Jason! One thing I would add: poetry. Fiction is a type of poetry, of course, but good poetry packs the ideas of fiction even tighter than a short story. It too develops the imagination too, I believe.

  • Reply Jason Custer March 4, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Yes – I fully agree. I am learning to enjoy poetry as well (when, and if I understand it).

  • Reply Ashellen March 4, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    Jason, I really like your thinking. I, too, have been very influenced by Mr. Lewis and Flannery. I would also throw Tolkien into the mix (among many others). Stories are powerful because they bypass our defenses and reveal truth without an agenda. When we tell stories, the truth reveals itself and our heart is engaged. Platitudes may engage our intellect but rarely our heart.

    Jesus was a master storyteller, THE master storyteller. And His grand story (that yet plays on) still awes us and leaves us speechless.

  • Reply Travis Lacy March 4, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    As a fellow Hillsdale grad, this post actually made me really sad, because it leads me to believe that you didn't have the magical, semi-earth-shattering Great Books experience that I (and lots of others) had freshman year…Who did you have for Great Books and upper level English? I feel like you got ripped off 🙁

  • Reply Jason Custer March 22, 2014 at 12:29 am

    Sorry for the delayed response, Travis. I forget who I had for GB1 (nobody I would recommend), but I had Dr. Smith for GB2 and later took him for a Shakespeare class. He made me love Dostoevsky and Russian literature, and began a seed of love for fiction in me. I actually read lots of classic literary fiction in high school as well as at Hillsdale – and while I think both encouraged me towards enjoying fiction, I still think I approached fiction and the classics in a utilitarian manner (i.e. to get great quotes from, to begin discussions on great ideas, etc.) rather than simply to enjoy the stories. So even if I saw the benefit of it in high school and at Hillsdale, I still considered it second to non-fiction and theology, since I had to "extract" the principles and utility out of it.

    Perhaps if I wasn't already so engrained in the idea that reason ruled everything and prejudiced towards emotions or imagination, Hillsdale might have given me a similar experience to you. I just think I already had high walls erected against enjoying fiction for itself, and Hillsdale and high school started breaking them down. But I'm a pretty stubborn person, so it takes a while for me to learn some things – especially when I'm biased against the opposite conclusion.

    All that said – I am very thankful for Hillsdale and the seeds it planted. It just took a while for them to sprout for me. I think I would enjoy the Great Books classes much more now if I took them again.

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