Do you read much?  A recent survey showed that everybody spends about 35 minutes each day reading – that is, 11 minutes reading fiction, 17 in newspapers, and 7 on the internet.  But Christians are avid readers.  We are the people of the Book.  We all treasure this library of 66 books of adventure, history, sex, drama, poetry, war, romance – we read it, and it affects us like no other book, that’s because it is like no other book, for, ‘Your word is truth’, He said in John 17:17.

Libraries, readers and authors
But there are other books – do you read them too?  Some people obviously do.  In the UK, there are 4,630 public libraries and in 2000, they cost us taxpayers £770 million and dealt with 430 millions loans.  That works out at about seven books at a cost of £13 for each of us.  Some people, somewhere are reading a lot of books.

And above all they are reading adult fiction, which accounts for about 52%, or almost 223 million library loans.  The greatest proportion of this is general fiction (23%), followed by mystery and detection (12.8%), light romance (10.1%), and historical fiction (2.3%).  The other types were war (1.3%), and short stories (0.9%), with, perhaps surprisingly, westerns and science fiction at only 0.7% each.

But public library usage is in decline.  Contrary to this wane of book borrowing, book publishing shows no sign of abating.  In 1995, there were 8,610 titles published in the UK adult fiction market, whereas in 2000, the figure was 10,860, with over 60% as paperbacks.  And we are buying them – book sales are up by 25% – because the UK publisher’s annual revenue totalled £3,176 million, with the UK consumer’s market accounting for £1,530 million, or about £25 for each one of us.

And what is being read?  The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, plus books by Wilbur Smith, Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman – it’s like a roll call of fantasy and paganism.  As others have said, when true religion is removed from a society, some primitive belief system will come and fill the hole.

So despite the distractions of television, shopping, drinking, sport and all the other pastimes, the British public have not given up on reading.  The decline in book borrowing from libraries has more than been balanced by book buying from the more user-friendly bookshops.

Christians and Christian books
Mind you, there is one sector of the population that appears to have almost quit reading books – the Christian.  At least, Christians do not seem to be reading Christian books.  The startling statistic is that the average UK Christian visits a Christian bookshop only once a year, and even then, may not actually buy a book.  Compare this measly datum with the US situation.  The US public has always bought religious books – 34% of US adults shop in a Christian store in any six-month period and 32% will buy books there.

But what Christian books do Christians actually manage to read?  Of course, the Bible is still the best-selling book, throughout the world.  But what else?  This is impossible to answer – there is no independent measure, no publisher’s Christian Top Ten.  Nevertheless, some generalisations can be made.  For example, all Billy Graham’s books are always big sellers.  Currently, Christian fiction is the big genre.  The nine (so far) titles in the end times novels of the Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye are huge, with sales in excess of 30 million.  The other current bestseller is Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez.  Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that much of this Christian pulp will still be read in forty, let alone four hundred, years.

Christian publishing and bookselling has changed and both have now become extremely competitive.  What passes for Christian literature has broadened – publishers, who in days gone by could be relied on, are now producing unreliable material.  Christian bookshops are struggling, and many are becoming retailers of Christian products, music CDs, and so on.

Yet, despite these trends, Christian hardbacks do still sell.  For example, The Banner of Truth’s current top three are Evangelicalism Divided by Iain Murray, Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof, and Christian Conduct - an Exposition of Romans 12 by D Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Perhaps the fault is ours - we are often guilty of undervaluing good Christian literature.  When we hear of the ways in which books have led to conversions and transformed individuals and churches alike, why is £20 (the cost of a Chinese takeaway) considered too much to pay for a good book?

Christians and fiction
Christians are by definition non-fiction enthusiasts.  We are primarily interested in truth.  But our God-given minds and creativity allow us to invent and dream.  Fiction is legitimate, but many of us have little time for make-believe stories.  Nevertheless, earlier this year, I did something I’ve not done for about twenty years.  I bought a fiction book.

I had two reasons.  First, I needed one in order to write this piece.  But second, having written two non-fiction books within the last couple of years, I fancied having a bash at writing fiction.  No facts to worry about, no concerns about truth, and these days, no grammar to bother with (see, it’s easy to slip into the sloppy fictional mode – I’ve already ended a sentence with a preposition).  Why, it must be a doddle to rattle off 100,000 words of free-flowing narrative.  Besides, it’s where the big money is, especially if you can get the film rights!

So, with this in mind I went into my local branch of Ottakars and checked out their Top Ten and picked number 8, my lucky number (no, not really!).  To be honest, I selected the thinnest of the Top Ten – some of them are real door stoppers, 600 plus pages.  My choice was, The Best A Man Can Get by John O’Farrell (2001, Black Swan, 301 pp., £6.99. ISBN 0-552-99844-3).

The Best A Man Can Get
The week I bought it, it had sold about 2,000 copies nationally.  At a royalty rate of 10%, that’s a cool £1400 for Mr O’Farrell.  Mind you, this is peanuts compared with JK Rowling’s income.  In the same week, her books occupied the top five slots of the paperback fiction list and she sold a colossal 306,237 copies of her Harry Potter stuff.  And to think that years ago, one publishers turned down her manuscripts.

Anyway, back to The Best A Man Can Get.  I wanted to see what sort of book Joe Public reads, or at least, buys, by the thousand.  And I wanted to understand what makes for this supposedly ‘good read’.  I thought I might also pick up some hints and tips for my future debut novel.

The Best A Man Can Get is undoubtedly an absorbing book – it is well-crafted and well-written and therefore an easy read.  Unaccustomed as I am to reading fiction, I zipped through this in just a few sittings.  It is also a funny novel - on many occasions it had me chuckling to myself.

First, the plot.  The ‘hero’ is Michael Adams.  He is married to Catherine and they have two children, Millie and Alfie, and they all live comfortably in north London.  It’s all so very cosy and middle-class.  But Michael is leading a double life.  While his wife is exhaustedly looking after babies, he is escaping to south London, supposedly working, to live in a flat with three other student-types, doing what most men with small children (apparently) dream about doing, namely, listening to loud music and engaging in trivial, smart-aleck conversation.  This, ‘… the love of a family and the liberty of a single man …’ is, according to O’Farrell, The Best A Man Can Get.  Michael’s wife and children have no idea about his double life, until ….  But I won’t spoil it.

Second, the style.  It is a cunning plot, convincingly rolled out.  O’Farrell’s observation of everyday incidents is sharp, and he writes with a twist and a smile.  Who could fail to identify with the silliness of, for instance Michael’s thought, ‘I resolved to make economies.  I’d try to put less toothpaste on my brush and I’d start buying peanuts instead of cashew nuts.’?  Or, ‘In babyland she [Catherine] was queen; I was Prince Philip, hovering awkwardly in the background making stupid comments.’  Or the more profound, ‘I had spent my childhood doing what my parents wanted me to do and now my adulthood seemed doomed to be spent doing what my children wanted me to do.  I was back in the jug again; my home had turned into a prison.  This baby that had arrived was part warder and part prison bully.  Any prisoner dreams of escape.’  Which, of course, is exactly what Michael does.  This sort of writing seems to be so simple, until you have a go yourself.

Third, the author.  But no Christian can ever read a book without Christian eyes.  We are always on the lookout for the spiritual dimension, and to my surprise, it was here in this book.  My surprise was somewhat abated when I later learned that John O’Farrell writes for the National Secular Society, so he would never miss the chance for a pointed dig at Christians, would he?  In the book, Michael’s mother-in-law is a Christian.  ‘Catherine’s mother was a Church of England fundamentalist, fighting her own holy jihad against anyone who would not take Jesus into their life …’  She is a minor character in the novel and her main task is to try to stop Michael swearing and blaspheming.  Is that really what the world thinks we are about?  How do we as evangelicals appear to the world?  Often it can be an uncomfortable answer.  We can learn something from the expressed views of the non-Christian author.

It became clear to me that John O’Farrell must have sometime had a bad brush with evangelicals.  At first, he makes the childless Michael think that, ‘These new parents reminded me of born-again Christians.  They had a smugness and a superior air that suggested my life was somehow incomplete because I hadn’t heard the Good News about babies.’  Then, when Michael’s third child is born, he says, ‘He was so perfect and miniature, with every detail lovingly handcrafted, that it made me want to believe in God.’  Perhaps it is just smug and sentimental guff, I’m not sure – I’d like to have a cup of coffee and a chat with the author!

Fourth, the insights.  Yet the book does contain some fascinating insights into the hedonist’s head.  There is the self-justification of the modern man, ‘I didn’t generally lie.  I just deceive by omission.’  And when the chips are down, Michael admits, ‘It wasn’t Catherine or the children that were the problem.  It was me.’  And as his family life begins to disintegrate, he asks realistically, ‘Why was it that so many men really cared about how good they were at their jobs … but gave less consideration to being better fathers …?’  And finally, he is forced to admit that, ‘The man who had tried to have it all had ended up with nothing.’  We will all recognise that what Michael needed was an encounter with the living God, but it does not happen.

As already stated, Christians can never reads books without Christian eyes, nor can they without Christian ears.  At times the language of this book is appalling.  There are oodles of examples of gratuitous swearing and blasphemy - but then if you work in the world, that is the background noise of most offices and shop floors.

The Best A Man Can Get is not a great book – it will never be a classic.  But then it is not drivel either.  It is like a window on our sad world.  It is a view of human life through the eyes of pagan man.  And that perhaps is one of our great weaknesses – we think we understand popular culture – at least we condemn most of it, but can we communicate effectively with modern men and women?  Do we know how they think?  Or, have we forgotten?  Ah, these are the big questions, and the prickly lessons I learned from reading this book.

By the way, I will now probably not be writing that novel.  The competition appears to be far too hot!