Saved by Fiction: Reading as a Christian Practice

By Douglas, Deborah Smith | The Christian Century, October 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

Saved by Fiction: Reading as a Christian Practice


Douglas, Deborah Smith, The Christian Century


OVER THE COURSE of my life, I have taken on all manner of spiritual practices, from now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep to centering prayer. I have prayed with the Psalms, with the rosary, with icons. I have picked up practices and put them down. Some still discipline and nourish my praying life.

But of all the spiritual disciplines I have ever attempted, the habit of steady reading has helped me most and carried me farthest. Of course, reading scripture has been indispensable. But reading fiction--classics of world literature, fairy tales and Greek myths, science fiction and detective novels--has done more to baptize my imagination, inform my faith and strengthen my courage than all the prayer techniques in the world.

For as long as I can remember, even before I could read, I have loved books. The heft and smell of them, their implicit promise. The magical way they hold riches beyond measure, like chests of pirate gold. The way they open doors to other worlds. The house I grew up in had floor-to-ceiling bookcases in nearly every room, books piled on tables, books stacked in the hall and lining the stairs.

I still remember the shock of amazement and delight when I first learned to read by myself: the alchemical moment when random hieroglyphics on the page leapt into meaning, forming pictures in my mind. From that magic moment, I took off like a rocket. I read fairy tales from Germany, France, Russia, Denmark, Scandinavia; I read Arthurian legends and Golden Books, Andrew Lang and George MacDonald. I went steadily through everything the home shelves and the public library's children's room had to offer.

My passion for reading alarmed my father; by the time I was in the third grade, he was worrying aloud about bluestockings and bookworms, mournfully predicting myopia and spinsterhood. But my mother, amused and pleased, encouraged me.

In fact, I realize now that my mother carefully crafted my love of books from my earliest childhood. Like an Argonauta, the mysterious many-tentacled deep-sea cephalopod known since ancient times for the beauty of its fragile egg cases, my mother launched me on a paper nautilus of her own creation. As though she knew that she could not stay with me, and that I would not survive in the dark depths for which she was bound, she carried me up to the sunlit surface of the open sea and left me there, in a life raft made of books.

By the time I was ten, I needed that life raft. That year, my mother suffered major head injury in a catastrophic car wreck. Despite surgery and extensive rehabilitation, the irreversible brain trauma caused radical changes in her personality and led to what is called (with no apparent irony) "progressive" dementia.

From that day forward, I had lost her--and would continue inexorably to lose her for the next 40 years that she survived. My father, unable to acknowledge or cope with his own tremendous loss, retreated into work and alcohol. Our lives began to unravel.

Reading became not just a pleasure but a way to survive--and not only a means of escaping a painful reality, but a way to find meaning in it. The paper nautilus my mother built, in which she carried me to the light, was for me a means of grace.

All those fairy tales came to my assistance: I knew that children could be thrown without warning into dark forests or dungeons, that they would have to be brave and clever to find their way out. Mothers disappeared. Chasms opened unexpectedly. Somehow the children I had met in fairy tales kept me company in those bewildering days. Their stories enabled me to hope, kept me from despair when my own mother seemed to be replaced by a sharp-tongued stranger, when all familiar landmarks seemed gone forever. Like those other children I might feel alone in the dark, but like them I came to trust that I would somehow be led to the right path. I had learned what child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment believed that all children will learn from fairy tales if we let them: terrible things may happen, but help and guidance will be given when needed. …

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