by Gary L. Greene –

What happens when we read a story? In many ways, the same thing that happens as we live, as we go places, as we meet people. Attentive reading is much like attentive living. As we encounter people, places, events, observations, we try to take them as they are, for what they are.

The first thing we do is receive, accept. When we meet people with whom we are not familiar, we do not immediately assume things about them. We listen. We observe. We inquire. And over time—through thoughtful listening, observation, and inquiry—we come to know them in some measure. We do the same with texts, with fictional texts in particular. As Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren have explained, “Expository books try to convey knowledge—knowledge about experiences that the reader has had or could have. Imaginative ones try to communicate an experience itself—one that the reader can have or share only by reading—and if they succeed, they give the reader something to be enjoyed.”1 The question “What does this story mean?” is therefore a dubious question. It seems to imply that a satisfactory answer may be given in a statement or two—a clearly articulated principle or apothegm about the nature of life or how we should live it.

Flannery O’Connor was once asked if she would explain the meaning of one of her stories. She replied, “I most certainly will not. If I could do that, I would not have had to write the story.” As her answer implies, a story accomplishes something quite different than any explanation of the story can accomplish. A summary of a story or a statement of its theme will necessarily be reductive. A story—like any other life experience— “means” more than can be stated in a proposition.

Suppose you pick up the newspaper and read that a man and his son set out on a fishing trip early yesterday morning; they stopped on the side of the road to get some sandwiches out of the cooler in the back of the truck; a passing car swerved off the road, struck the father, and killed him as the son watched from the passenger seat. Now, suppose someone asks you, “What does this mean?” How do you answer such a question? The story means many things. It means that life is precious—and sometimes violent. It means that our time on this earth may be very short, and we are not promised tomorrow. It means that you should pull your car far off the road before stopping. It means that some drivers are very dangerous. It means that unexpected things happen. It means that not everything we plan will be fulfilled. It means that a son has lost his father, that a wife (still asleep at home) has lost her husband and closest friend. It means that their lives, in an unforeseen instant, have been radically changed—and so can ours. It means. . . lots of things. Not one of these statements of meaning—nor even all of them put together—can capture what the story means, and they cannot even begin to accomplish what the story accomplishes.

Does this mean that we should not ask such a question? Is there nothing we can learn from reading a story? On the contrary, much value inheres in a good story, and asking good questions can help us to share in that value.2 First, however, we must enter the world created by the story, see what is there, and accept it on its own terms. J. R. R. Tolkien provides a helpful explanation:

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from the outside.3

A good storyteller creates a world that may be more or less like our everyday world, and before we begin to evaluate the story, we must enter into that world. We must reserve judgment of the author’s perspective and avoid confusing the author with the narrator or other characters within the story.

Some stories do, in fact, help us to face propositions that we may be prone to ignore, overlook, or avoid. For example, Nathan’s story helped King David to face the fact that he had sinned and needed to repent. Critics and theorists through the ages—from Horace to Chaucer’s Harry Bailey to Sir Philip Sidney and many others since—have suggested that stories serve two primary functions: to teach and to entertain, to instruct and to delight. Stories delight us while they show us something worth seeing. Indeed, like King David, if we are not being entertained or in some way captivated, we may not be attentive to what the story would have us see.

Some stories may be more concerned with entertaining, while others are more concerned with instructing. But a good story will in some measure include both something to enjoy and something to see. Perhaps the first and best question we should ask as we read a story is the same question we should ask as we encounter other people: What does it feel like to be this person, to live through these circumstances, to suffer these difficulties and exult in these triumphs?

Contemplating such questions will make our reading and our living more enjoyable and more meaningful. In time, we may discover that we have become better readers, better listeners, better communicators, better followers of Christ. AJ

Gary L. Greene (Ed.D., University of Alabama) is Chair of the Department of Arts and Sciences at Southeastern Bible College in Birmingham, Alabama where he has taught writing and literature for 24 years..


1 Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 205.

2 For detailed treatment of what questions to ask and how to get the most out of reading, not only fiction but other kinds of texts as well, I recommend the following books: Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book; James W. Sire, How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1978); and Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990).

3 J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966), 37.