How To Balance Your Literary Diet - a guest post by Suzannah Rowntree

via Pinterest board "Literary"
Today, I am so glad to have a sweet new friend on Fullness of Joy. I fell across Suzannah Rowentree's blog through Schuyler's blog, My Lady Bibliophile when she linked her to an analytic "Lord of the Rings" review that I found really inspirational, and was delighted to see the stuff she shared!  Suzannah writes amazingly insightful reviews of literature (new, old and obscure) on her blog and is a wonderful writer in her own right too :). In this post, she shares with us about literature, and balancing one's diet of reading. Enjoy! 
- Joy

Goodreads is one of my favourite social networks. It doesn’t gobble up a lot of my time, it’s a very useful tool for keeping track of my reading, and it’s a great way to find out about books I might want to read if I could get the chance. While I often stumble across wonderful recommendations on Goodreads, there are also times when I wind up scratching my head over the rather narrow reading habits some shelves display.

There are the readers who spend all their time reading feminist chick lit about sassy heroines who defy their stodgy parents to study chemistry or explore Asia. Peculiarly, these readers never seem to read anything that’s actually about chemistry or Asian exploration.

Then there are the readers who spend all their time reading inspirational romances set during the War Between the States, or the Crusades, or in little Amish farming communities. Just as oddly, these readers have apparently never read a history book on the War Between the States, or a medieval chronicle, or actual books by Amish people. (Even some John Howard Yoder would do. Anyone? Anyone?)

I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a bad thing to read some romance here or there, or that novels about female chemists or explorers are necessarily dishonest (although I would stay away from the trashy chick lit if I were you). However, a limited bookshelf is evidence of a limited mind.

We all know that it’s important to get a varied physical diet. Too much of the same thing, and we start to develop deficiencies and health problems. It’s the same with reading habits. You may read a lot of books, sure. But are you developing deficiencies anywhere? Here are just a few categories which should be a regular part of every literary diet.

Old Books
“The past is a different country,” as the man said. We may visit the past in historical fiction or history textbooks, but the only way to truly understand the past is to read what people in the past actually wrote. Because we grow up breathing the spirit of the age like air, it’s actually impossible for us to imagine things being done differently or believed differently to nowadays. For that reason, we need to read old books. And we need to read books from all over history, not just from the 1800s. Homer’s worldview was sharply different to Edmund Spenser’s. The church historian Eusebius was a bit shaky on the morality of suicide, and so was H Rider Haggard, but St Augustine got it right. To paraphrase that giant of the faith, world history is a book, and those who’ve never read anyone older than Jane Austen have barely read the last footnote.

New Books
The Lord is always doing something in the world. Right now, books are being written which will influence the history of the world. Some of them will be remembered 200 years from now...and some of them won’t be. Nevertheless, authors can write, but it takes readers to make a difference. What if the next City of God for the next Christendom was published forty years ago, but you never stumbled across it?

New books are our own legacy to future generations. Let’s be diligent in seeking out and preserving the good ones.

Stories are soul food. Stories come at us sideways, unexpectedly, hitting us with an old truth we might have begun to overlook. Stories take principles and apply them to everyday life. Stories run war games for the Christian life, showing right and wrong behaviour in a host of different scenarios. If sermons tell us what to believe, stories teach us to love what we believe. Stories bind our hearts closer to the truth. Stories matter.

But nonfiction matters too. The best nonfiction anchors us to God’s reality. Memoirs give us eyewitness accounts of real history. Biographies introduce us to men and women we will not get to meet on this earth. Theology teaches us to distinguish truth from error. Books on music and the arts help us to appreciate good art and produce it ourselves where necessary. Philosophy, logic, and rhetoric train us in the forgotten arts of thinking and writing well. Science teaches us to make the most of the physical world and return thanks to our Creator. And history shows us God’s sovereign hand at work in the greatest story of all time. Nonfiction is all about reading the book of God’s general revelation. Should we focus on our own voices in fiction, and ignore the voice of God in history and creation?

Girly Books
As women, we were created with a specific role in mind: to help and encourage our men, and to act as nurturers, mothers, and wives. For this reason it’s necessary for us to read books, old and new, fiction and nonfiction, that encourage us and prepare us for these specific roles. Also, certain things are important to us as women, and we tend to write about what’s most important to us. For this reason I believe it’s also good for men to read books by and for women.

Manly Books
However, the specific role to which most of us, Lord willing, will be called in marriage, is that of a helpmeet to a man. We need to know what’s important to men, and we need to cultivate a fearless and capable attitude that will help us to fulfill this role. We need to have realistic expectations of the men in our lives, and one of the best ways we can do this is by reading the books they’ve written.

Books You Agree With
Non-fiction: You know what you believe. But do you know why you believe it? It’s easy for us to simply accept the pronouncements of our parents, or of the charismatic parachurch ministry leader with the perfect family, but we need to actually test what we believe and make sure we know what the reasoning is behind it. We need to be sure that we’re actually living Scripturally, and not just on a bandwagon, following after our friends. Often, it’s this that makes all the difference between a deep-rooted faith that endures, versus a shallow-rooted faith that withers the moment it comes across difficulty.

Fiction: Remember what I said about soul food? What happens if we’re constantly absorbing poison? I actually don’t believe that anyone can read and love the enemy’s fiction without eventually coming to behave like their enemy. Our heads may remain unconvinced, but our hearts have surrendered. Fiction trains the affections, and we need to make sure we’re always training our affections in the right direction.

Books You Disagree With
This is not to say that we should avoid books we disagree with. These are actually really important as well. Reading non-fiction we disagree with is a vital part of testing our own beliefs. Do you really have a better argument than your opponents? Have they pointed out real problems with the things you believe, or are their objections hollow and unconvincing? Do you really believe what you say you believe--or are you just ignorant? Just is it’s easy to be led astray if you never define your own beliefs, so it’s easy to go astray if you only hear one side of an argument.

Not only this, but fiction written from a different worldview is an extremely helpful tool in training us to recognise hostile worldviews in practice in the world around us. Just as we should read books from different times and places in order to come to understand those other people, so we should read books from different perspectives in order to understand what those worldviews look like in practice. In short, don’t read Terry Pratchett just because he’s such an entertaining writer (and he is): read him because you need to know what postmodernism looks like.

Clean Books
Because we live in a world of deranged appetites, it’s possible to become so desensitized to decadence that it ceases to shock us when it should. In CS Lewis’s Perelandra there’s a passage where the main character reflects upon the rarity of experiencing an shatteringly intense and yet perfectly innocent pleasure. But this needs to be our ideal: to experience clean things cleanly. Too jaded a palate, too great a liking for the forbidden for no other reason than that it is forbidden, and we render ourselves numb to simpler pleasures. Read a lot of clean and bright stuff, because otherwise you may lose your taste for it.

Icky Books
All the same, I’m going to come out and say it: There are lots of books out there that you need to read, which are going to turn your stomach and make you want to fetch the brain bleach. Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, Otto Scott’s James I: The Fool as King, and similar books are not for the fainthearted or for the immature. However, they are for readers who are serious about facing and killing the Dragon. We simply cannot fight evil with our eyes shut, or avoid maturity because we are afraid that it will be uncomfortable. One of my recent favourite non-fiction books is James Gaines’s Evening in the Palace of Reason, a double biography of JS Bach and Frederick the Great of Prussia. Part of the book’s extraordinary power is the juxtaposition of Bach’s faithfulness and goodness against the depravity and despair that characterised Frederick’s life. Just as we need to learn to love the goodness, truth, and beauty of Christendom, we also need to see the bitter end of the ugliness, evil, and lies offered by the Enemy.

As Christians, we are not called to mediocrity. Christ is Lord of everything, including our reading. We are exhorted to do whatever we do with all our might, as unto Christ. We are called to redeem the time, for the days are evil. So, to those of you reading this, here’s my challenge: Get serious about your reading habits. Don’t just coast: push out of your comfort zone. Take dominion. And when you do, may you find it just the kind of thrilling adventure that I’ve found it.

--About Suzannah Rowntree of Vintage Novels:

I love words--and the Word by Whom all came to be. I am a freelance writer and editor with a particular interest in theology, literature, law, history, and languages. Home educated, with a bachelor's degree in law, I now live at home with my parents and employ my time in volunteer and freelance work in my family, church, and community. I have always been fascinated by the art of writing, which embodies the author's most deeply held beliefs and hopes in a concrete, narrative form. When reading, I love to spot the deeper meaning behind an author's imagery and plot. I am a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. My article "Home Schooling: Education Outside the Box" was published in the June 2012 edition of Quadrant, Australia's leading general intellectual journal, as a result of which I was interviewed on national radio. In May 2013 I self-published a short ebook, The Epic of Reformation: A Guide to the Faerie Queene, which collects a series of blog posts written in January 2013 on Edmund Spenser's classic epic poem. I also occasionally copywrite for the Home Education Foundation of New ZealandIn early 2014, I became a regular contributor to Ladies Against Feminism/Beautiful Womanhood. Find my articles hereAnd, I am currently working on the fourth draft of a young adult fantasy novel.


  1. Dear Suzannah,
    It has taken me several days to get through this article, but I enjoyed every word of it. You stated everything simply and clearly, and I loved the way you flipped back and forth. So much so that I don't have much to add but a hearty second!

    I was looking through my stack of books to read by the end of the year, and they are rather unbalanced, so I may have to do some switching. :)


  2. Schuyler, I'm so glad you enjoyed it :). I can't say my reading stack is perfectly balanced either--especially these days as I'm scrambling to read a bunch of urgent books of the same general flavour--but I always have an eye on my Goodreads log and try to mix some diversity into things based on what I haven't been getting much of lately :)


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