My title is tongue-in-cheek because I hardly think my previous reading habits were sinful, though very limited in scope. Unless you imagine missing out on many great works of literature is sinful. If so, I was definitely living a life of bookish sin.
A theology major once amused me by saying he couldn’t imagine reading fiction when there were theology books to read.
Bless his heart.
Yet, I could relate to his sentiments.
If you go back to my post-high school days, you will find a very earnest, and very serious soul. At least, in regard to my reading life. I limited myself to rich books on theology, devotional books, books on the Christian life, biographies mainly of Christian heroes, and, for “fun,” classic novels such as those written by Fyodor Dostoevsky and some history books too.
I don’t have regrets about those years of reading because I learned much, and read excellent books while bypassing potentially fluffy books. (I take that back, some of the books I read on Christian living were drivel, but that’s a story for another day.) What I did learn was that I was only reading a tiny fraction of good books by so limiting myself. I also learned that I was going to turn into a book snob that wasn’t even well-read. An unfortunate combination in my opinion.
So what changed?
At 21, I was newly married, pregnant with our first, and gloriously happy when we then found out our firstborn had a life-threatening heart defect. I don’t remember being able to concentrate on many books during the rest of her pregnancy. After she was born, my husband and I ended up bringing books to read in the NICU. It was then I really relearned to value the beautiful books – many from my childhood – that weren’t necessarily considered deep or soul changing. But they were nevertheless valuable not only because they entertained, but because they gave a little sliver of beauty that was true to life. I’m thinking of books such as Little Women by Alcott, or the Anne of Green Gables series.
These were soothing, hope-filled books that gave me some comfort and peace during a very stressful time. I learned then that my reading life didn’t always have to be grappling with the hardest questions through fiction (such as Dostoevsky’s amazing works), or be expanding my theological knowledge. I discovered that I could read some books simply because I liked them. Later I would find other series that fed my soul with the lovely things in life. One that comes to mind is the Miss Read series. They are thoughtful works and are certainly not mindless. But they aren’t stressful or hard to read when life is already stressful and hard. More recently, I was introduced to Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. It addresses hard topics while still being a soothing and peaceful read.
So through my own sorrow and suffering, I learned to delight in books that didn’t center themselves on grief and pain.
Eventually, in a hard swing to the other side, I learned to value books that didn’t have easy endings, simplistic wrap-ups, and apparent good guys/bad guys characters. As I continued to grapple with the brokenness of this world, I took a deep breath and plunged into reading some of the fiction I would never have picked up before. Flannery O’Connor is one example. Her work is disturbing, her characters are completely unlikeable, and they give only the worst impression of humankind. And yet, her stories are firmly centered on God’s redemptive power. She overwhelms you with the debasement of human nature, and then, sometimes so subtly it’s hard to see, she plants a glimmer of God’s grace in even the worst of circumstances and in the worst of people.
To tell you the truth, her fiction changed my world because I read them when I was deeply discouraged about the problems – big and petty – that haunted our communities. I didn’t want someone to tell me pretty stories. I wanted to really chew on what it meant for humans to be so often disappointing and even horrifying. Her works break open human depravity with relish, yet show God’s grace despite it all. It was an important message – a message I would have missed if I kept to my strict reading restrictions.
During that same time period, I got over my more puritanical views on what was appropriate to read. I was finally willing to give some excellent, but non-Christian writers, the chance they deserved. I did find books where I had to skip large sections or stop reading because I found them offensive or unhelpful to read. But I also discovered rich works that gave valuable insight into human nature with a fearlessness that many Christian writers have a hard time achieving. Side note: Not every book has to have a Hallmark ending.
To my delight, I also discovered an unexpected richness in middle-grade books. My husband read the entire Harry Potter Series to me since neither of us had read them when younger (did I mention my strict reading habits from the past?). We not only enjoyed them immensely but found the deeper themes of the work satisfying to our souls. Wonder by R. J. Palacio, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson are other books that come to mind from this genre.
If there is a theme to the changes in my reading life, it is this: I became more well-read, and my reading life was richer and more valuable because of it.
I limited my reading because I wanted to be a faithful Christian in my reading life. But to my surprise, I’ve found that reading widely has helped me be a better Christian because it has helped me understand others better.
I will always read theological works, biographies, and beloved classic works from the past (Jane Austen remains one of my favorites). But my life is all the richer for adding other books in as well.