As we round to the end of our consideration of fiction, a quick recap is in order. In the first and second articles, we asked, Is fiction worth our time? We concluded that it is, for God gave us creativity, Christ taught using fictitious stories, and we must cultivate a moral imagination. In the third and fourth articles, we asked, What sort of fiction should we read? We saw that secular fiction and Christian fiction are both on the table, so long as we carefully discern content and themes in the stories we read. We should not read things that are a stumbling block to us. One of the tools we have for discernment is the cover of a book – look at the title, author, picture, and write-up on the back. At the end of all that, we saw a small list of some good classic works of fiction that are edifying.
Well, now, we ask, How often should we read fiction? Granted, it’s good. Granted, we must be discerning. But let’s say we have a pile of good books and an appetite to read them. Should we just devour them all at once? How do we pace ourselves?
Balanced diet. That is the key. If you had 100 plates of delicious fruits and vegetables in front of you, would you eat them all at once? Probably not. Even though fruits and vegetables are good for you, you can’t gorge on them. You also can’t live the rest of your life eating, exclusively, apples, oranges, broccoli, and carrots. You need a balanced diet. The same is true of reading. Let’s read a balanced diet of fiction.
If we read too little fiction, I suggest our moral imaginations will not be cultivated enough. We have already discussed this sort of thing, so I don’t want to linger long here. But it deserves reiteration. Our moral imaginations help us live righteously in this world. The more we know good stories, the better equipped we are to make difficult decisions in this life. Can we make upright decisions without fiction? Yes. But does fiction help us make upright decisions? Yes.
But you can have too much of a good thing. Remember the fruits and vegetables? Too much fruit in too short a time is not good for you. Something so healthy can become unhealthy. So it is with fiction. For the fiction-lovers out there, be sure fiction is not consuming. One of the great dangers with fiction is escapism – that is, the pull to “escape” the real world and its problems and be absorbed into a fake world. You may be able to tell that this should be exactly opposite to the purpose of fiction! Fiction is no escape; it is a tool to help you live in the real world with its real problems. Yet, many treat fiction as an escape from reality. This is simply ungodly. It is a desire to run away, a fear of facing reality, a lack of diligence to stand firm in the face of difficulty. Don’t read fiction to escape! Read it to be encouraged and equipped.
Balance your reading. Do a lot of reading, yes, but balance it. Be sure to read good fiction. Be sure to read good non-fiction, as well! Read good works of theology. Not all theology books are hard to understand; some, like Knowing God (Packer) or The Holiness of God (Sproul) or Holiness (Ryle) are essential and accessible! Read biographies. Read histories. Read classic works. Read political works. Read plays. Read poetry. Read tastes and tests and samples of all sorts of various types of books. They all, in their own way, can help us live better in this world! It doesn’t mean you need an exact figure. “I formally announce that I will read 5 fiction books, 5 theology books, 4 history books, 4 classic books, 3 political books, 10 poems, and a biography this year. The total page count is 3,455, and when divided by…” That’s overkill. I think you get the picture. Just make sure it’s balanced and you sample various bits and pieces of books.
This doesn’t mean we all have to read the same concoction. Some people eat a lot of meat and hardly any grains. Others eat almost all plant-based foods and next to no animal products. Different diets are healthy for different people. In the same way, we are all different. Some of us gravitate to fiction; others of us gravitate to non-fiction. Some love theology. Some love history. Others love biographies. And that’s good! Read what you love. Just be sure to read other stuff as well. If you love fiction, read it heartily – but not at the expense of theology. If you love biographies, read them! But not at the expense of fiction.
And this is not to say that, in 1 year, you need to balance your books. Reading is not done in exact 1-year increments. You read over a lifetime! You may spend a year reading all biography, history, and theology. Perhaps the year following, you mix in a couple works of fiction and continue reading history and theology. The year following, you try a play and a political work. Maybe one year, you tackle a really long book that takes you, literally, the whole year to read. Mix it up. Each year can be different. So long as, over a reasonable period of time, you are getting a good mix of inputs – you will be more edified because of it!
We have only a couple small things left to tidy up regarding fiction – these will be tackled in our next and final article on the subject. It would be good to think about how families can read fiction together as well as the doxological value of reading fiction.