When did a story last change you?

Kate Winslet and David Kross in The Reader

I'd never heard of William P Young's US-chart-topping novel The Shack until I got it free on the front of a magazine (I know, I know. I was tired and cold and in need of the sort of magazine that comes with a free paperback attached. I'm not proud.) Unsurprised that such a tooth-achingly mawkish bit of cut-rate Christian propaganda could amass such popularity – Angels and Demons has just raked in millions, after all – I was however a little taken aback by the postscript exhorting me to help disseminate The Shack "in the wider culture" in the belief that, in the words of Eugene Peterson, professor emeritus of spiritual theology at Regents College, Vancouver, "this book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his".

Gosh. Leaving aside the suspicion that John Bunyan would baulk at being compared to a writer whose style can be summarised as "wow, God, I'd never seen the world that way before! Gimme a hug, big guy!", the very idea of a novel changing hearts and minds on a massive scale is rather shocking. Stories are no longer the sacred cultural treasuries they once were. Books have become unholy, cheap and familiar. You've read the seven plots again and again; you've ploughed through Proust with the same blasé greed with which you ploughed through the trash on the front of the mag. You may have cried, and laughed, and shaken your head at the terrible ways of men, but when did a novel last actually change what you think and what you do?

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