Why Read Fiction?

I was at a conference a couple of years ago, and I sat through a session where the presenter ran through a series of ideas about how to accomplish more.  Or be more productive.  Or maybe it was about APIs?  Something.  Honestly, I don’t remember – but one bit of it actually stuck with me (not so much that I can remember the conference, topic, or speaker.  Sorry, mystery person who helped shape my thoughts).  He said something to this effect (believe it or not, I’ll have to paraphrase):

Read fiction.  Nonfiction is great, and it’s important, and worth spending time reading.  But so is fiction.  Fiction gives you new perspectives – it helps give you the fuel to power your imagination.

Some guy | At some conference | Talking about something.  Probably < 2015.

What was so notable to me about this was that I had never heard anyone actually defend reading fiction before.  I mean, nobody is attacking here, so defend might not be the right word – but I’d never heard anyone sing the praises of fiction, outside of the context of either Art/Culture, which were terribly uninteresting to me at the time, or Entertainment, which was the only reason I could understand that anyone would read fiction.

But then I started reading more.

I’m not sure exactly why (maybe it was this guy!), but I felt compelled to start reading more.  So read more I did. And mostly these days, I read fiction.

It started, like I said, purely out of a desire for entertainment.  Reading fiction felt to me like really classy television:  You’re just in it for the entertainment, for the distraction, but the fact that you’re reading puts you in a different class than those mouth-breathing TV watchers (note: I’m a mouth breathing TV watcher, and my description of both the activity and myself probably deserve to be brought up with a therapist).  Reading fiction is compelling enough that I’ve stuck with it pretty regularly over the past few years, but my opinion of it has changed.

I no longer believe that reading fiction is entertainment; a distraction.

Why is the author writing?

The first book that really made me stop and question an author’s motives was Anathem, By Neal Stephenson.  Anathem may be my favorite book of all time – certainly top 5.  What made me stop and question was the feeling, relatively early on, that the author was not just trying to entertain me – he was trying to get at something himself.   He built an entire world around a few specific ideas, in a way that felt like the entire goal was simply to explore them.  “What would happen if the perception and role of religion and science were reversed?” felt like the first question in Anathem – and it could only be answered through real, thorough exploration.  I won’t spoil the book by asking the other questions he digs into in that book, but there are many, and they’re all interesting.

After Anathem, I dug into everything else from Stephenson I could find, and each time I found the same pattern:  An interesting question or idea, and an entire scenario, environment, world built simply in order to explore it.

Soon after, I started noticing the same pattern, if not quite so overt, in other authors’ work.  Slowly, it began to dawn on me:  It seems some questions can only be answered – or maybe it’s that they can only be shared – through stories.

What does it mean to me?

There’s an idea I mentioned yesterday, that is played on heavily in Siddhartha: Siddhartha is unwilling to accept the teachings of others.  I get this, I feel it, I relate to it.  But that’s exactly the point: By hearing the story of Siddhartha, which is, of course, fiction, I put myself in his shoes.  I figure out the ways in which we relate, and suddenly I can feel what is happening to him as though it were happening to me. I understand better his point of view, why he behaves the way he does – it’s as close as I can come to living his experiences without actually living them.

And, again, to reference the actual story in Siddhartha:  Sometimes in life we actually have to live things to understand them. I think there’s no way to get closer to that experience than to read well-written fiction (or, to be fair, nonfiction, told as a narrative).

So go read a trashy romance novel, and call it personal development.  If anybody questions you, just have them talk to me.

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