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When, last year, the Modern Library announced its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century, the resulting controversy centered on issues of representation: why so few books by women and racial minorities—and why was the panel of judges composed almost entirely of Old, Nearly Dead White Males? Naturally this would be the burning issue; first things first.
More or less ignored in the brouhaha was a much more fundamental question, one that in many circles would be considered too gauche to ask: Why read novels at all?
In the Christian tradition, that question has been asked repeatedly over the centuries, going all the way back to the early church and the heyday of the Hellenistic romances that scholars describe as the earliest novels. Often, the church's answer has been Don't! Don't read novels. Novels, after all, are elaborate lies, blurring the distinction between reality and make-believe. Instead of the plain and simple truth, fiction offers lessons that are indirect and often deeply ambiguous. Novels are often brazenly immoral besides, encouraging sexual license. And even the less reprehensible stories distract us from what really matters. Today many Christians are embarrassed by such responses. But they shouldn't be embarrassed by the question, which remains an important one. Why should we read novels?
To begin sketching an answer, I turned not to the notorious Modern Library list but to the product of another, more modest promotional scheme. Two or three years before the Modern Library episode, the revived Everyman Library—which leaned heavily toward the classics—announced its first contemporary titles, nine books said to represent the best of world fiction in the postwar period: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe; The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow; One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Catch-22, by Joseph Heller; Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison; A House for Mr. Biswas, by V. S. Naipaul; ...