Is Reading a Waste of Time?
The Dreamer awakens,
The shadow goes by,
The tale I have told you,
That tale is a lie.
But listen to me,
Bright maiden, proud youth,
The tale is a lie,
What it tells is the truth.
— Traditional folktale ending
Many story-lovers wrestle with questions about their time spent reading.
There are so many more important things I could be doing. Reading doesn’t have any immediate effect. . . am I being lazy by reading? Is it wrong to read just for pleasure?
These questions are fueled by not only their own thoughts, but the voices around them. Friends. Acquaintances. Parents. Teachers. They all lead story-lovers to the same question: Is reading a waste of time?
I don’t believe that for a minute.
And here’s why.
Cultures are ever-changing. Laws are passed, revivals sparked, wars fought. . . and books read.
Take a look at the following:
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
- Oliver Twist.
- The Chronicles of Narnia.
All of these examples are of fictional novels, and yet they have majorly shifted entire cultures.
Whether that be Harriet Beecher Stowe stoking the embers of resentment against slavery. . .
Or Charles Dickens pointing to the reality hidden behind poor houses and abandoned alleys. . .
Or C. S. Lewis equipping generations with a love of fairy tales and a subtle understanding of how to defend their faith. . .
These books changed literal cultures through fiction.
And not only does reading these works give us an appreciation for how they did this, but it pulls back the curtain of history. They let us see what man was and why he changed.
There’s a reason these books changed cultures - and they can change us, too.
They are not a waste of time.
At some point, every person is convicted, challenged, and changed by a story.
Maybe it’s a story that forces you to take a look at what you believe, or a character who struggles with the same things you do and yet overcomes them, or a whisper of hope in the darkest time that rings true with your own world.
Whatever the case, stories can change people like little else. Writer and author Jerry Jenkins says that “There is nothing like receiving a letter from a reader that says that your book changed their life.”
Stories have so much effect on our minds and our hearts. A few months ago, a friend asked a group of us—all of whom loved reading—what book, besides the Bible, had most changed our lives.
We talked for what felt like hours.
One of the ones I mentioned was Rilla of Ingleside, by L. M. Montgomery. The beautiful strength in the face of brokenness and Rilla’s resolve to “keep faith” inspired me and continue to do so every time I pick it up.
There have been times, over and over and over, when my world seems to splinter beneath me. Moving continents is never easy. Having siblings stay in the hospital for weeks is never easy. Realizing that the friends I left behind won’t be there when I return is never easy.
But, like Rilla, I will “keep faith”.
As a friend of a friend once said, talking to a young writer, “Sometimes a story is better than a sermon. . . that’s why we need people like you.”
"Sometimes a story is better than a sermon. . . that's why we need people like you."
Pleasure is not in and of itself bad. Enjoyment is not bad. Rest is not bad.
And reading for pleasure or enjoyment or rest is not bad.
Think about it for a moment. When we cram our days full of business and getting as much done as we can, going here, checking on that, hurrying off to do this, it wears on us. It can make us more fragile, more easily rocked by the highs and lows of our days.
Putting more work in in a day actually results in less productivity. In a study from Sanford University, an economics professor found that “productivity per hour decline sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week.”
In other words, working crazy hours does not result in crazy productivity. It results in crazy burnout - looks like God knew what he was doing when he created a day specifically for rest after all.
There needs to be a balance, of course. I’m not saying to read from dawn to dusk and never stepping out of bed (though it’s tempting some days—all right, most days).
But reading books that take on darkness in its full and yet counter it with light, that rejoice in the healing and don’t glorify evil. . . this is not bad.
This is rejuvenating and refreshing and lets our mental energy seep up again, permitting us to really rest.
At its core, this is good. This is so very good.
Tales with heroes who strive to do good, of brokenness being healed, can inspire us to do likewise. They can take our hurts, our pains, and our worries, whisper “I understand; it’s all right”, and then show us how to move on. How to learn and grow and heal.
And even those stories with flawed characters, negative character arcs, and sin can show us that we are not alone. That we are not the only ones struggling - and yet they can warn us in subtle ways. They can show us what happens when we let our anger control us, when pride becomes our master, or any manner of things.
I can attest to this personally.
I have cried with Jess Aarons (Bridge to Terabithia) and felt his fear twist in my stomach yet learned that I don’t need to be controlled by those fears.
I have crowed with Peter Pan (Dust and Shadow) and realized, bit by bit, that growing up doesn’t mean loosing who I am.
I have had my world rocked with Sara Crewe (A Little Princess), yet have resolved that, though I be a princess in rags and tatters, I will be a princess on the inside.
These books and countless others have taught me things I’ll never forget.
So how can I call them a waste of time?
From the Beginning
Our Lord Jesus Himself told stories.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan? A tale told over and over and over that has convicted an untold number of people—yet, in its essence, it’s fiction.
The same goes for the Prodigal Son, for the Lost Sheep, for dozens of stories told that have changed lives—have changed the world—and, yet, never actually happened.
The Messiah urged the people to come. He gathered them to himself to listen, and they did.
So why shouldn’t we?
As the traditional folktale ending I quoted at the beginning discussed, fiction is more than true.
Truth is not only facts, statistics, and how-to’s—truth is love, sacrifice, honor, courage, and all the wonderful things good fiction can show us.
And, so, story-lovers, here you have it.
Next time, after you complete your tasks for the day and live in reality for a bit, when the voices hiss in your ear and ask “Isn’t reading a waste of time?”. . .
Close your eyes.
And whisper, “No.”
What do you think about my points? I'd love to hear your thoughts, so leave me a comment below!