Reading Fiction and the Lessons of History

Sometimes it seems that reading a novel is an unnecessary luxury, a frivolous waste of time. The antidote to that questionable conclusion is a good novel you can’t put down, continue reading late into the night, even find yourself structuring your day so that you can get back to reading. It happened to me recently when I picked up Donna Tartt’s, The Goldfinch. Several reviewers have called it Dickensonian. Frances Prose, writing in the New York Review of books, said that The Goldfinch, with “its large cast of vividly drawn characters..a plucky orphan who overcomes a childhood blighted by humiliating poverty, numerous interconnected sub plots, a narrative that makes the reader finish each chapter eager to begin the next”  is Dickensonian at Dickens’ best. It is a big book, satisfying for those of us who still prefer the heft of 700 plus pages in our hands. In his New York Times review Stephen King wrote: “Prospective buyers have every right  to ask, ‘Do I really want to give two weeks of my life reading this novel?'” King answered by calling The Goldfinch “a rarity”, one of a very few books that come along, smartly written, that connect to both head and heart. The Goldfinch is not fastidious and not for the faint of heart. There is plenty of profanity, underage drug use and drinking. There is a bit of violence and there is also a recurrent theme of the redemptive potential in human relationships and human love. The compelling story is narrated by Theo who grows from adolescence to adulthood and whose name itself hints at the presence of God. Theo keeps being rescued from one tragedy after another by friendship and love of parents, and protectors, a wild and untamed friend, a mysterious girl and a patient, kind older man. The story touches on big theological themes without naming them: evil and the suffering of innocents as well as occasional almost Christ-like self giving.

Fiction arouses dormant imagination, transports us to other places and situations and delights us as we go. I know I’m reading a great novel when, near the end, I start to slow down to savor the deliciousness of each page. I was actually sorry to come to the surprising and satisfying conclusion of The Goldfinch.

Another fine doorstop of a book is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, all 741 pages of it – 910 including Notes and Index. Theodore Roosevelt is an endlessly fascinating figure in American history. Born into Manhattan high society with an adventurous, privileged youth, he attended Harvard, became a national hero after he led his Rough Riders up Cuba’s San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War. He entered politics as a New York Republican, became Governor of New York and ended up as Vice President under President William McKinley. Roosevelt became president when McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and subsequently won another full term in the next election. Roosevelt was known for his boundless physical vigor, intellectual curiosity and optimism about the future of the United States. He was succeeded by William Howard Taft, an Ohioan with a similar privileged background and Harvard degree. The two of them were respectful, trusting and affectionate friends and colleagues until a parting of the ways politically ended their friendship and ruptured the Republican Party in the process. I was grateful for the reminder of just how strongly progressive Roosevelt was. He was responsible for the federal government taking seriously, for the first time, stewardship of the nation’s natural beauty and resources. He also recognized the threat of the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few individuals and corporations. He is known as a “Trust Buster” for taking on the unparalleled power of the oil industry, particularly John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s unregulated railroad empire.

The third intriguing character in the book is S.S. McClure who founded McClure’s Magazine, assembled a remarkable group of highly skilled journalists including Ida Turbell and Lincoln Steffens. McClure’s, at one time, had 400,000 subscribers and was enormously influential in its investigative reporting on the corporations that had become unregulated monopolies and the oversized political power and corruption that inevitably followed. McClure’s became the eloquent voice and advocate for the new progressivism that Teddy Roosevelt had begun to embrace.

In the midst of reading about Roosevelt’s battle with the financial elite of the nation I came across a Paul Krugman, New York Times editorial. “No true American would say this”, Krugman wrote. “The absence of effective State and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.” What left winger said those words? Krugman asked. It was Theodore Roosevelt, in his famous 1910 New Nationalism speech.

Economic inequality has returned as a critical national issue. The concentration of wealth and the unprecedented ratio gap between heads of corporations and their workers poses the same threat to the nation as it did in the day of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Roosevelt. The threat is exacerbated by the Supreme Court decision allowing individuals to donate enormous amounts of money to political parties and individual candidates. The similarity to the situation Roosevelt encountered is uncanny. The court said that regulations on the amount of money an individual can contribute to a party or candidate is an infringement on freedom of speech. The alternative position is that unregulated political contributions give enormous influence and power to those contributors. A case in point is the 7 million dollars the Koch brothers have already given to the Republican party in North Carolina to support its senatorial candidate who has not yet even been chosen, and attack the current Democratic incumbent. 7 million dollars! The Koch bothers and others with that kind of wealth just became a lot more powerful and influential. I think Theodore Roosevelt was right. That is not a good thing for a democratic society.


  1. Susan Schaefer says:

    Back when I was attending Fourth Pres, my favorite parts of your sermons, John, were when you referenced books you were reading to illuminate your points. I am always nurtured by seeing Truth in stories. Thanks for the continued recommendations.

  2. Annette Bacon says:

    Dear John,

    Thank you for this. It is such a joy to read your blog!

    Annette Bacon

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