Good Books can be a Path to Virtue

January 14, 2021Year of the Sister

As part of the annual New York Encounter cultural event several years ago, Well-Read Mom arranged a reading of selected letters from C. S. Lewis’s book, The Screwtape Letters. This book is made up of a series of fictional advice letters from a senior demon to his young nephew, who has been assigned to tempt a human “patient.” 

After this reading, a young man approached me. I thanked him for attending, but he said, “No—thank you. You don’t understand. I needed to hear this. I see myself in the patient. I’ve been away from the church, and I’ve believed these tricks of the Devil. I need to come back to church.”I later learned that he followed through on that decision. The Screwtape Letters helped him to see the choices he was making in his own life. The book awakened his imagination and helped him to change course.

C.S. Lewis was an atheist in his youth, but he was a reader with a superbly well-trained mind and imagination. Books were an important part of his conversion to Christianity. When he happened to pick up the book Phantastes, by George MacDonald, on the sales rack in a railway station, it introduced him to a vision of true goodness. It captivated him. He later said that MacDonald’s novel “baptized [his] imagination.” It awakened him to the reality that virtue is beautiful and desirable.  This insight was a key step in his journey to faith.

Great books serve as milestones along the path to faith and maturity for many of us. Some books have had such a profound impact on people that they’ve altered the course of history.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, helped to awaken the moral imagination of the American people before the Civil War. For decades, abolitionists had tried to bring an end to the evils of slavery by quoting statistics and holding rallies. But it was Stowe’s novel that made Americans fall in love with Uncle Tom, Eliza, and little Harry. Readers agonized when Uncle Tom was torn from his family. The book helped them realize that slavery is an injustice against real human beings—with moms and dads and children just like their own. Something must be done! When Harriet Beecher Stowe eventually met Abraham Lincoln, he addressed her as “the little lady who started this war.” He recognized the impact of her novel on changing the minds and hearts of many who read it.

 “Until very recent years, men took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness—that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity and their place in the scheme of things. . .the end of great books is ethical—to teach us what it means to be genuinely human,” said political theorist Russell Kirk. 

Good literature helps to form our consciences by working through our imaginations. It shows us what it looks like to flourish (or not) as individuals and also to live well (or not) with our neighbors. In a novel, not only do we follow the events in a story; we are also privileged to get a glimpse into the inner thought-life of the characters as they make decisions.

Marcie Stokman is the founder and president of the international movement and book club the Well-Read Mom (WRM). With a passion for reading and motherhood, she writes and speaks to encourage women in a world of rising isolation, loneliness, and mental health issues. Through the power of reading together and reading well, Well-Read Moms across the country are finding friendships, meaning, and true leisure. Connecting on a deeper level and serving others in their search for purpose is Marcie’s passion. 

*This blog post was taken (with permission) from Marcie Stokman’s book: The Well-Read Mom. © 2019 by Marcie Stokman All rights reserved. For more information about Marcie’s book, click here. 

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