It seems to me that some people have an aversion to reading any secular literature. Yet to me reading books by non-Catholic authors is not a bad thing. Literature is one of the ways that helps us to understand who we are and how we fit into the world. Any great book can teach us something about ourselves or about God. It does not have to be written by a Catholic in order to do that.
I, for one, am an avid reader of the writings of Philip Roth. Roth is a renowned Jewish American author, who has been on the short list for the Nobel Prize. His writings are essentially about finding one’s self and understanding one’s place in the world. While some may consider his writings to be crude and explicity, which they are, I find that they speak very well about the predicaments in which we find ourselves. As some authors have said, we are living in a post-modernist age and Roth’s novels and short stories are filled with this angst and worry.
Another author that I have read repeatedly over the years is Bernard Malamud. Like Roth, he was a Jewish American author. Yet while Roth chose to write realistic fiction in which he depicted ordinary people going through the motions of every day life, Malamud chose to show the world as a magical place filled with spirits. His stories deal with universal themes such as belief and unbelief, charity, and so on. There are even stories about guardian angels living in Brooklyn. Even when he is criticizing his own people for their failings, Malamud seems to see our modern world as a place that is very much alive and living spiritually. It is not dead nor is it something that is dying.
Of course, one would be remiss without mentioning the contributions of Flannery O’Connor. She was a good friend of Malamud’s and she was also a devout Catholic. Her short stories are violent mostly and discuss the predicament in which we find ourselves when we are forced to deal with other people. Her characters are not always the most endearing, but O’Connor allows us to see that our neighbor really could be anybody. Whether it be someone living in the same apartment complex or the person that we ride the bus with every single day, those people have just as much right to be treated with charity as do others.
Reading novels is an easy way for me to understand our world. Novels need not be realistic or even true to life, but one can easily learn by reading them. Even the most crass of novels can teach us something about life and howe are to live. For example, Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a scathing indictment against everything that his parents’ generation stood for. At the same time, however, it allows us to see why the counterculture emerged in such a profound way during the 1960s. It’s easy to devil in the details, so to speak.
Contemporary fiction, of course, can offer us a great deal of insight into our world. Yet it is also important for us to remember that the novels of Dickens, the plays of Shakespeare, and other classics are also pedagogical tools. Even monks in isolated monasteries have recommended that their novices reading Dickens in order to understand themselves better. Indeed, we can harness the secular culture and understand it through the eyes of faith. If we are to be not of this world, are we not supposed to understand what this world is?
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!