Reading fiction could be seen as even further from “spiritual reading” but I believe in its own way the practice of reading novels as a spiritual discipline or core practice can bear rich fruit. One of the things that confirms this for me has been the growing awareness that my life has been transformed many times through the reading of good fiction (Watership Down, The Brothers Karamazov, The Clowns of God, Winnie the Pooh and several books by Chaim Potok are just a few examples).
A key difference in the reading of novels is that the first focus of attention in a novel is empathy with the protagonist. I actually think that reading novels has been my most important training as a therapist. If you’re not learning empathy when reading fiction, you’re not reading well. This is one reason I am greatly frustrated with newer novels that don’t stick to a central focus on one person’s experience (novels that alternate chapters focused on two or more central characters are alright with me too, but I can’t stand when the perspective just shifts at will within a chapter). We’re meant to dive in and feel the life the main character is living.
Good novels, however, are also about ideas. As a result, even though it may happen less frequently, the same kind of transcendent moments described in my previous post on spiritual reading can happen to me as I read a key passage of a novel. This happened at least two or three times for me while recently reading Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom. One time was when I was struck by how the son’s obsession (against both his rational and social judgment) with the girlfriend from his teens, seems to provide a sense of grounding and commitment that nothing else seems to provide in his free(?) life. This is so skilfully done, that you feel the pull inside of you between the head and the heart. You open yourself to wondering whether an unhealthy (by contemporary psychological standards) commitment to a neurotic girl might actually save him in spite of what the self-help books would say.
These kinds of moments connect my empathy with the characters with a slightly removed intellectual engagement with the author. I consider this to be like a secondary channel in my mind as I read a novel – like intuitive music playing in the background to which I might stop from time to time to give attention. With a really good author, this “background music” might become more important as I explore more of his works and come to appreciate the character of the author herself almost as a friend. The author then becomes not just the source of ideas behind the novel but another character that becomes part of the novel-reading experience – like learning to appreciate the conductor on stage and not just the musicians, seeing how her interpretation and way of being transforms the music.
I was slower coming to appreciate this kind of reading as spiritual reading because I experience it much more indirectly as prayer. I wonder if we need to mature into a posture of “prayer without ceasing” before this somewhat consciously becomes spiritual reading. The more we make all of our engagement with life into walking with God, the more this can become natural. Perhaps one of the conscious steps in this process, specific to the practice of reading fiction, is choosing to respect fiction and the characters within in a way not unlike our respect for actual people. I take my reading of novels as a spiritually serious (not sombre – perhaps significant is a better word) activity. I want God with me as I read just as much as I need him with me when I counsel someone in my office. And in both cases, I expect to grow spiritually as this happens.