Newsletter 568 – Should You Care About Biographies and Novels?

Vernon Grounds BookHave you ever heard of Vernon Grounds? He was a theologian, dynamic speaker and (Denver) seminary president. Born in 1914, he died four years ago but only last month did I read Bruce Shelley’s biography subtitled The Vernon Grounds Story. Vernon wrote a PhD dissertation on Freud’s view of love, spent much of his life counseling and mentoring younger leaders and professionals, and was a leader in the early debates about theology vs. psychology. It seems that everyone he met admired him and he profoundly influenced countless lives and careers, including mine.

12 years a SlaveI rarely read biographies and probably have only read eight or ten novels in my whole life. But should mental health professionals, pastors, leaders and others be learning from stories, real and imaginary? Surely these can teach us about life, leadership and helping in ways that no formal journal article or bullet point presentation can do. All except one of last week’s Academy Awards best picture nominees were stories of real people’s lives. Last month Relevant Magazine published a list of eight recommended biographies (for the list, click here) and I have committed to reading all eight. This includes Solomon Northup’s autobiography 12 Years a Slave, which was made into this year’s best picture Oscar winner. I’m reading Northrup’s book now. The March 2014  APA Monitor published an article on psychologists and novelists. Titled “Fascinated by People, On and Off the Page,” the article interviews four psychologist-novelists including one who has done research showing that reading fiction can impact readers’ personalities, increasing their empathy and social skills.

In addition to this is the recent fascination with narrative therapy in its various forms. This can include helping counseling and coaching clients, among others, imagine and seek to live out their hoped-for new life stories. Much older is the use of bibliotherapy in which appropriate books and other written materials, fiction and biographies included, can supplement leadership and care-giving.

Are any of you writers, users of narrative therapy or recommenders of biographies and fiction? Please comment. Also, what is the best biography that you would recommend? Click on Comment to let us know.



  1. I believe a variety of reading; novels, biographies, fiction, history as well as industry focus gives us more stories to tell and opens our mind (and hearts) to things we would otherwise skip over.
    Storytelling & testimonies are one of the most powerful teaching techniques. Stories help information be remembered longer and in more vivid detail.
    Expanding our reading should help us relate to more people as well.
    Of course we have limited time, and never get to read all we would like to, but including a variety of styles and genre of books and magazines should help us connect to others.


  2. Reading is a marvelous way of learning about our world and the people who have lived or do live here. We can gain much wisdom by reflecting on their successes and follies. Favorites? The biblical biographies of people like Abraham and Joseph are powerful and too often neglected. Some other true accounts of worlds different to our daily lives include: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, and When the Spirit Catches You, You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. Also, Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron about the Rwandan genocide, or a very unusual and powerful biography, Thresholds, by Lawrence Pray. All these books have enriched my life in new dimensions.


  3. While study Theology I was reading John Omans book ‘Grace and Personality’ and my wife told me to read ‘Love Comes Softly’ by Janette Oke. Reading the two books in sync was a wonderful experience for me and my love life.


  4. HERE IS A COMMENT FROM GARY: I accidentally pushed the “publish” button and sent out this post a few days early and without activating the link to the biography list. You can get the full report if you press the comment icon on the newsletter and go to the web page where the link is active.

    But here are the titles of the recommended biographies nod autobiographies:

    Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

    Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis by George Sayer

    The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

    John Adams by David McCullough

    The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten

    12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

    Chronicles of Wasted Time by Malcolm Muggeridge

    Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows by Jay Bakker



  5. I got a private message from a friend who wrote this: “I had Vernon come speak at the church I was pastoring around 1990. He was a kind and gracious man – but I remember one time he was long winded and the children’s church workers let the kids up to sit with their parents because they had exhausted everything they could think of – chaos followed.”

    I guess every speaker (me included) is guilty of talking too long at times. Even Paul talked all night, stopped to revive Eutycus who fell asleep and out of a window, and then Paul talked more. I have concluded that one of the marks of a great speaker is keeping to the allotted time. That may be one reason why TED talks are so effective and popular. Speakers have 18 to 20 minutes to make their points, based on the assumption that if you can’t get your message across that efficiently you need to rework your talk.


  6. I am about 2/3 of the way through a reading of Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. My wife has had it for some time, but I was hesitant to read it. What I found was incredible depth in the characters and their psychological responses to the events of their lives. Themes of culture and ecology are interwoven.

    A biograpical story I read a couple years ago, suggested to me by our reference librarian, is Mountains Beyond Mountains. It is the story of Paul Farmer, a Harvard-trained physician and medical anthropologist.

    The story is about his work in the mountains of rural Haiti to bring health related interventions to this deeply impoverished area. He began work there prior to medical school and continued it throughout. I was especially impressed with the way to showed cultural sensitivity and respect to a poor Haitian woman he met several hours into the mountains on foot from his base of operations. Without disputing her animist worldview, he was able to invite her to make health-related changes that greatly benefitted her.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s