Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

December 11, 2004

Saturday Book Notes

I've begun reading a YA novel Called The Flame Tree, by Richard Lewis. This is a book I first read about at Brandywine Books, then also at Collected Miscellany. You can read an interview with the author here. So far, The Flame Tree is a very engaging find.

My reading list these days is dominated by distinctly Christian writing of course, but I don't want to limit myself to that. I try to sprinkle in some fiction from time to time, but it must be fiction that challenges. Certainly I've read my share of ephemeral stuff (this year, one may note, for example, the incredibly trivial, but nevertheless amusing, Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs). But, for me, reading is not not just another form of entertainment, not just an alternative to TV, nor is it primarily educational. While it can of course be entertaining and is often at some level educational, it's greatest value for me is that it affords an opportunity to cross the borders of the self and interact with the mind (indeed, with the spirit) of another.

Precisely for this reason reading, like art, like all forms of communication, is an open-ended process. A book is an act of communication. Even something as "big" as, say, War and Peace is nothing more than Tolstoy's "remarks" in a conversation that began long before his time and has continued since. It is a response only, however refined and thoughtful, and one to which the reader in turn responds in a way that is at least as complex, though probably not so literary. So the book is by no means an end in itself; it is not a monument, but a voice. In fact: "the voice of one calling in the wilderness." As are all the voices of men, always.

Now, I am happy to speak of the "greatness" of writers like Tolstoy, but their greatness has entirely to do with their effectiveness in calling forth the reader from the lonely cave of the self. A good book is truly an invitation. The writer speaks the "come forth" that is the sub-text of every true act of communication. The reader's part is not only to listen, then, but also to respond. That, after all, is the nature of communication, and that is also why we consider the refusal to respond a deeply wounding act. To ignore, to "blow off," the words of another is the deepest cut. It is not surprising to me that God chose to communicate with His children by means of the written word, and that everything should hinge on our response. Reading is not only, as they say, "fundamental," but it is also (potentially) "spiritual" in the most literal sense of that over-used word.


Blogger Phil W said...

Yes, good post.

6:01 PM  
Blogger Phil W said...

I just blogged on your post, and I'm sorry I didn't think to ask this earlier. How do you respond to what you read?

10:36 PM  
Blogger Dan Edelen said...

In the last several years there have been few works of fiction that have grabbed me (Ishiguro's _The Unconsoled_ is an exception.) I've wondered if fiction, in general, is experiencing the same burnout that film is.

The one thing that strikes me again and again is that secular fiction has become largely valueless and hero-less, while Christian fiction--having moved beyond the 'schoolteacher finds love in 1850s Kansas'--has adopted the stance that edginess is all you need in the market today. That and a little bit of postmodernism.

Though I am a writer, I fear that I will not be able to sell any of my works into either market considering the direction each is headed. Secular fiction is now awash in relativism and self-importance, with too many good authors seemingly in search of a Pulitzer rather than a story. Christian fiction has many of its writers saying, "Hey, we can be just as dark and pointless as those secular guys," becoming almost "pulp" in its execution.

Fans of fiction have little to cheer about. And if you are a Christian, these are very lean days. In fact, I wonder if we will see great Christian fiction in my lifetime.

2:42 AM  

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