How Reading Forms Us

How Reading Forms Us

woman reading in cityWhenever someone asks for my favorite quote I do not hesitate. Most other ice-breaker-type questions perplex me—my favorite food, favorite color, what animal I would be if I got to choose. For the most part, I’m indifferent to those things. I’m fickle. It varies with the years, even the days.

Of one thing—one thing only among all others—am I clearly convinced. That one thing is my favorite quote, attributed to writer John Rogers:

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

It’s perfect. And better, it’s true.

Atlas ShruggedI once considered applying for a college scholarship that required an essay on one of Ayn Rand’s novels—Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged , I forget. The thought of having extra money to help pay for my education was sorely tempting, especially to my parents.

In the end, however, I decided that it would take more money than was on offer to read and reflect on one of Rand’s books. There was something not quite right about her work. Despite being a committed reader I couldn’t get into it. I couldn’t put a finger on it then, but I can now.

Anyone convinced—as Rand was—that C. S. Lewis’s writing is “cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-metaphysical mediocrity” is unlikely to be a person whose writing I could enjoy.

While I may be ambivalent about the stuff of ice-breakers, I can’t be ambivalent about words. Words draw forth meaning from what often seems like an incomprehensible haze. We’re told that into the void God spoke a word and the world came into being. We mirror that creative act every time we speak or put pen to paper.

Words are powerful. They shape us in ways we’ll never fully comprehend.  The right words shape us for good and the wrong ones carry with them corruption.

The Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the RingI found then—and have found again and again—that The Lord of the Rings contains words that are shaping me for good. That’s because their topography aligns with the topography of the gospel. Not so with Ayn Rand.

The tale of the undoing of the One Ring offers a story that is both happy and tragic even as also found in the gospel accounts.

In the words of J. R. R. Tolkien it is eucatastrophe—the good catastrophe that brings into grave darkness the bright light of grace. When the story is its darkest, a new morning breaks forth. The cross gives way to the empty tomb as darkness gives way to the morning light.

We need reminding of this truth. Not once. Not twice. Repeatedly.

We are acted upon by the force of many stories, many words.

“We the People…”

“We hold these truths to be self evident…”

“In the beginning was the Word…”

“I have a dream…”

There is a story woven in these words and phrases. Words that frame the aspirations of a young nation. Words that claim that there are things—rights derived from God—that we cannot not know and that we cannot ignore in others despite doing so regularly. Words that reveal that before there was earth or sky, Jesus existed in the communion of the Holy Trinity.

The claims that all of these words make and the visions they reveal are not all equal in weight and some may be truer than others—clearly the nature of the Godhead is more significant than the birth of a nation.

As we heed words, we must make sure that they flow from the truest story. Mix them up and we stray into what the Bible calls “idolatry.”

The best books shape our imaginations so that we can envision a faithful life and then walk in its path. Without books we are slaves to our own limited perspective. Books allow to see through another’s eyes, hear with another’s ears. They let us enter into the soul of another—feel their pain, participate in their joy.

I’m grateful for writers like J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Flannery O’Connor for the ways their work aligns with the topography of grace and helps me see more clearly by seeing through eyes of others often in a world other than my own.

3 Replies to “How Reading Forms Us”

  1. One of the better books on this topic that I have found is Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction.