Why do you read that?
I am fortunate to have published a book, Compelled by Love. First, because few become published authors and second because it opens the door for additional opportunities. After co-authoring the book with Stetzer, I was able to develop a video-based group study on the same subject and then also write the Bible study Live in the Word with LifeWay. Writing is a skill and an art I hope to one day say that I have mastered. However, like any skill or art, one never truly becomes a master.
When working on my initial book, I did something that felt a bit odd. While writing a book about the Christian life, I stopped reading Christian books. All of the books I had stacked in my “to get to” pile regarding doctrine, spiritual disciplines, and Christian living – they all went back onto the bookshelves. Odd since I was writing a book about these subjects and I would want everyone to run right out to purchase my book, read it, and recommend to friends.
But I did not stop reading altogether.
I chose instead to return to some of the “classics” of literature. And I’ll share my reasons why – along with a book recommendation for each:
Rich story-telling. The writers of centuries gone-by did not have the visual mediums of today. Every scene of a story was unfolded by the word of the writer and the imagination of the reader. They felt it a duty to cause characters and scenes to enliven the mind of the reader. Today, we wait for the movie based on the book. Or even worse, we read the book based on the movie. And even worse, we read the book based on a movie that was based on a video game. Give me the rich story-telling of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Somehow, Wells is able to convince me that the science in 1897 is able to turn a man invisible and then allow me to enter the torturous adventure he sets out upon. He is able to cause my imagination to travel farther than any movie could take me. All by vocabulary.
Brevity with power. When reading the classics, I am still shocked at times at short length. Now I realize that many titles in classic literature are lengthy, but authors of yesteryear seemed to possess a greater ability to write with a brevity that still held power over the reader. Within just a few paragraphs, a journey is taken and a depth of concept is conveyed which causes an emotive response from the reader. Last evening, I finished reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader contained in The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. The book is just over one hundred pages but feels as if you are truly traveling to the end of the earth with Lucy and Edmund. The final meal hosted by a Lamb who speaks with the voice of Aslan the lion rushes over the reader suddenly and with a violent grace that astounds. I found myself wanting to read more but satisfied with the lack of extraneous verbage. The draw of wit within brevity far outweighs literary meandering.
Character development. Perhaps my favorite story in all of English literature is its most ancient poem – Beowulf. It is a difficult book to read, laborious at times. But, the work involved is worth the effort simply to come to grips with characters such as Beowulf, Hrothgar, and Grendel’s mother. By the tale’s end, the reader is enthralled by the life, adventure and death of Beowulf. The fascination could come from the horror of the monsters or the landscape of the country or even the cadence of the heroic poem. But, in the end, we are drawn in by the characters with their elation, woes, egos, and faults. It is the story of a man who feels no boundary insurmountable and no valorous deed is to be left undone. The heart of the man Beowulf is the heart of the story.
Learn to tell a long story. Though I hold a fascination with the power of many stories to be told briefly, I need to be challenged to dig in to a long tome. The convergence of Twitter, Facebook, lifestreams and the like are aiding the situation-comedy in shortening our attention spans. To counteract the need to always be brief (which is fine but not always helpful), I have picked up the practice of reading those books which are long and take effort. I suggest that you take up Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. It is long, you will likely find disagreements with her philosophy of Objectivism, but you will be better for plowing through such a lengthy work. Learning to tell a long story is not for the sake of word count but to learn how to lead readers through the slow burn of ideas. Rand’s work is methodical in its telling (taking from 1936-1943 to write) but is a wonderful study of communicating the importance of the minuscule in the midst of the larger narrative.
Communicate stern warnings. I grow weary of books with no connection to the metanarrative of our existence. Communication of every sort is a moment of intervention. Certainly much of modern writing does this very thing. However, there is a certain clarity of perspective gained when listening to the warnings given by those of a different era to the issues we face today. Take for instance The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells (late 19th century) and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (late 20th century). The modern tale by Crichton essentially gives the same warning as does Wells: unfettered science holds an inherent danger to humanity. I am of the opinion that Wells does not advocate the abolition of scientific study (neither does Crichton). Quite the opposite, he wishes for mankind to advance in our understanding of the natural world but not at the cost of our humanity. It is a warning from a bygone era that highlights the consistency of humanity’s inhumanity. The poignant language and nearly lurid details offered by Wells would be an appropriate shock to the system for everyone of the 21st century venturing into the fields of science, medicine, and the like.
To become a better writer. Working for a publisher, I’m often asked about how to get a book published. The counsel I offer is to become a better writer by becoming a better reader. If you have only read those books counted as the lowest common denominator of literature, do not expect your work to exceed their standard. I read that which is challenging so I might write that which will challenge. In fact, for any one who wishes to become a better communicator, read the greatest literature. Studying, not just reading, the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, or Jane Austin will convince you that writing can be excellent. I would commit you to begin with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Stevenson. It engages you from the beginning and delivers you to a predetermined ending with a challenge to both mind and spirit.
I’ve returned to reading modern Christian literature. But I read differently now. I actively choose an eclectic mix of history, fiction, doctrine, poetry, biography, and modern living material. I read books, blogs, Twitter feeds, magazines, and more books. I read so that I might write long and pithy and challenging and poignant works. And, I read because I love to understand God’s work among us. So the next time your cursor hovers over the “Purchase” button, make sure you have chosen well.