Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Never Alone 3

These sorts of questions and authors have kept me from reading much fiction. It is not that I don’t appreciate the authors – I often read biographies of fiction writers – or that I don’t think they have had their day. You’ve got me cornered if you say Homer, Virgil, and Dante are fiction writers. I change the definition of “fiction” when it hits modern times. Old fiction is non-fiction for me; call it philosophy or theology, but not fiction. What ancients are for me is iconic – they usher me into another (higher) world. My problem is that I don’t like authors to think they can just plain make things up, and do what my mother called “telling a story.” Professional golfer John Daly, who rarely does or says anything intelligent, accidentally stumbled from a fairway onto a stage of reporters and commented ever so accurately that he didn’t like fiction because, “after all, none of it is true”. Depending, I guess, on what you mean by “true”, but the floppy-haired, droopy-faced golfer was onto something. Why, I have asked myself for nearly 30 years of serious reading, why read those who play pretend when I can read those who tell the truth? Fiction, to quote the words of one who did write a bit of fiction (Frank O’Connor), “covers every reality with a sort of syrup of legend.” I feel uneasy about my lack of reading fiction, but like political opinions, it quickly passes.


I confess to having read some fiction (but not much) – I read, annually, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I like both of them; I am sentimental at Christmas and I am always in need of a good search-and-find-but-then-lose story. I don’t like Dickens’ style, but I find Hemingway’s tasty and zesty. If I don’t read any other fiction during the year, my chair remains quite comfortable. At a colleagues’ request, I read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (an overcooked blasting away at the Catholic Church and its power over truth, Ecco’s edges have [to use Thurber again] “lost their certainty”), and some Russians – I got half way through both Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (I’ve read much better presentations of theodicy in non-fiction; I liked Zosima a bit, but he was not real and I got bored with him) and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. For some reason, the Russians (even if they can spell) have more endings and changings of personal names than a Greek verb, and I seem to fall asleep on the Russian fictionalists every time they take me on a train ride across their desolate, snowy, gloomy, frigid landscape. Nabakov, in his high-style (almost rococco) autobiography, Speak, Memory, does tell of summer in Russia, and makes me want to go there, but I’d rather go other places in the summer – like to golf courses or to baseball fields or to Ireland or to Scotland. If the list gets any longer, I may wipe Nabakov from my memory.


Again at the request of a colleague, I altered my (otherwise enjoyable) desultory “plan” to read that southern lady’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It was not as good as Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, but neither was Butler as good as Matthew 23 or Micah 5. Novelists are not prophets, though they think they are. Sometimes they are prophet-like, but they just don’t have the moral grounding to give a full-blown answer, and neither do they have the thunder of Zeus. Take Mark Twain, that boyhood idol of mine whose home in Hannibal, Muzera (as they say it) is one of my favorite haunts. Twain takes on slavery and racism, but he is so interested in entertaining and selling books (he managed his own money like an addicted gambler at a casino) that he has no answer and sinks the argument with a farcical vaudeville act on Huck’s raft. He’s best in telling stories, like Tom Sawyer. And Tom Sawyer, like the Calvinism he resented, “ain’t all that great”.


It is greatness that I seek in books, so it is to those bookstore shelves where no one gawks that I return time and time again. Perhaps the writer who best points me to reading greats, while making me think he just might be great himself, is Joseph Epstein. My friend, Sonia Bodi, put me on to him one day in her librarians’ office, and I’ve not been the same since. Let me introduce you to Joseph Epstein if I may. “Joseph, tell us about yourself,” which is what writing is all about – even when people hide themselves deeply into fictional characters or when they go on and on in some scientific historical description. He says to us, with the sort of punch we’ve learned to expect from him: scribo ergo sum. Or (I query), is it not “I am” through my writing – something like sum via scribendi? He states further that he writes in three genres – the familiar essay (of which he is first without equals – primus sine paris), the literary critical essay (which, like a great graduate assistant, leads the reader to the authors themselves), and fiction (about which, as you have already observed, I know nothing).


Sonia pointed me to Epstein’s Narcissus Leaves the Pool. After about two chapters (or essays), I thought, this guy (like his title) is a bit self-addressed. After four essays, I thought, this guy has a lot to say. After five essays, I thought, this is my kind of guy. Epstein’s is not self-indulgence so much as exposure of personhood, the personhood of all of us. Not self-indulgence, but human-indulgence. Remember, facing ourselves is not as easy as we pretend: to quote Dorothy L. Sayers, who did have some things to face squarely, “we are very much afraid of ourselves.” No one has put this any better than the 19th Century Anglican philosopher-theologian, F.D. Maurice, and what he said in his essay “On the Friendship of Books” of Shakespeare is true of Epstein: “Instead of being a big, imaginary We, he is so much a man himself that he can enter into the manhood of people who are the farthest off from him, and with whom he has the least to do.” And, like the bard whose life is no more known than Melchizedek’s, his quest is “to help us in knowing ourselves.” Therefore, “any book that does this is surely a friend.” Epstein’s image of Narcissus is the image of humans, everywhere and always, world without end. One of Epstein’s favorites is William Hazlitt, and surely this line by Hazlitt connects the minds of the two authors: “The interest we take in our own lives, in our successes or disappointments, and the home feelings that arise out of these, when well described, are the clearest and truest mirror in which we can see the image of human nature. For in this sense each man is a microcosm. What he is, the rest are … no more, no less.” Bingo!

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Bob Brague

posted July 17, 2009 at 5:11 pm

I wondered about your first two posts about reading fiction as I distinctly remembered your saying that you don’t read fiction. Finally, here in the third installment, it all comes out.
I am the opposite of your golfer friend. “It’s based on a true story” is the best reason I can think of to avoid a film altogether. If I want true stories I’ll look at documentaries or read the newspaper. Wordsworth said “The world is too much with us” and I agree. A little escape from reality can be a good thing occasionally. And since our Creator created things, we are able to, or get to, create things too. In that regard, a good piece of fiction is no different from a good piece of furniture. Unless you’re reading Flannery O’Connor. She’s always much better than a piece of furniture.
I just know you’re going to disagree.

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posted July 17, 2009 at 5:56 pm

The reason to read good fiction is because truths can come through better when our guard is down. It is one thing to read some of the ramifications of birth control, as in Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man; it is another to read Lewis’ ‘This Hideous Strength” and imagine the consequences of birth control with names and faces and settings.
In the end one still may not agree, but one understands in a better way.

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Terry Dischinger

posted July 17, 2009 at 11:43 pm

I think that personality and how we approach life often determines whether we gravitate towards fiction or non-fiction. I don’t have any firm conclusions, but I tend to see differences in people who read more of one than the other. I see great benefit in reading fiction not so much to get a truthful story as much to feel with others. As we talk about the affective side of teaching, fiction can bring you fully into the story and world of the characters and deal with the affective side of our being. Rather than just gaining facts and knowledge about what happens and how and why, we learn about people and places that we may never be able to see or experience. Fiction can give that type of experience. For example, I can read Anne Applebaum’s great book “Gulag” and learn much about what happened. Since she tells stories about real people, I do come closer to feeling what it must have been like. But when I read Nabakov’s “Children of the Arbat,” I am drawn down into the story and begin to feel and experience more deeply than just reading accounts of history. I really believe that we Americans would fully benefit from taking time to read literature set in cultures around the world to help us learn and see what it is like in other places. Granted, it will be the perspective of one person, but it will still give a window into that culture that we can experience as we allow ourselves to be swept up into the story, characters and setting of the novel. Reading fiction has helped me greatly in my understanding of a number of cultures in which I serve in my role as a mission executive. I don’t make conclusive opinions from reading these books, but they at least give me a great start on understanding that i then follow up with by asking local people about what I learned.

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posted July 18, 2009 at 7:33 am

Most comments will be about novels, but can we talk about
content just a bit. The thrust(or perhaps trajectory is
a better word) of the author captures me when you know
that what they have experienced culturally transcends to
all in the future. For example, Umberto Eco’s “The Name Of The
Rose” novel certainly translates the 13th century into useful
stuff in our time, and consider his opinions on Ur-Fascism,
it’s with us and he can show you because he lived it.
What I’m saying is that in 2000 generations we humans have
spun a beautiful coat of many colors. The content of the best
reading, is not to to see and learn what it’s like in other
cultures, or stripes as it were, but a glimpse of the coat,
and even that some of its details aren’t that pretty.
Personally I love “The Brothers Karamazov”. You could be Freudian
or Eastern Orthodox, but if you read it you can’t deny that
these misfits are Christian.

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Julie Clawson

posted July 18, 2009 at 9:54 am

I understand how this is mostly a matter of preference. And I, as a avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction, agree with Terry that fiction opens up the relational aspect of ideas – it makes them accessible to real life. Two questions come to mind though, which you may have answered elsewhere. Do you also not watch movies? And how does this perspective on fiction figure into your reading of say the parables of Jesus?

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Bob Smallman

posted July 18, 2009 at 12:14 pm

As another lifelong non-fiction reader who has lately begun reading some fiction, I can only say that what draws me to fiction is the enjoyment of words and a good story.

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Mike M

posted July 18, 2009 at 1:30 pm

Nothing of play is true either but I wouldn’t stop my kids from playing. How ironic too, coming from a golfer, since nothing about golf is really true, either. It’s just a game!
“The power of reading a great book is that you start thinking like the author… You start to think as they think, feel las they feel, and use imagination as they would. Their references become your own and you carry these with you long after you’ve turned the last page.”

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