food for thought

A case for reading fiction

April 21, 2017

“Look, mom!”

I pull the new book Miri gave me out of my handbag with all the excitement of a five-year old.

“I now own The Little Prince in six languages!”

My mother laughs. “Why do you love that book so much?”

“Because you can read it at any age you like, and you can read it as many times as you like, and you’re always going to discover something new in it.”

“The Little Prince” is among my three favorite books in the world. A long time ago, I recommended it to someone and was given a rather sardonic answer. “I don’t have time for these things.”

The statement stuck with me, probably because of the rather contemptuous way it referred to literary fiction, which is one of my favorite things in the world. It always comes to mind when I look through someone’s bookshelves (which is one of the first things I do in any home). I always check whether someone has works of fiction in their shelf, and I’m not going to lie, I judge people a little bit depending on the answer.

I don’t think anyone has time not to read fiction.

The best works of fiction inspire new thoughts and ideas even during the fifteenth read. Non-fiction isn’t as multifaceted. It can be inspiring, it can spark ideas too, and there are very valuable non-fiction books, but I find them to be rather one-dimensional. Non-fiction works convey information. Good non-fiction writers do this very effectively, sometimes even in an entertaining or enriching manner. Non-fiction is great.

But fiction.

Fiction is a plethora of human experience at your fingertips. Anything that anyone, real or imagined, has ever felt, can be found in fiction. You develop emotional intelligence from reading fiction, even if you are a rather lonely little girl without any real-life friends. You develop empathy. It is impossible to feel like you are alone in the world when you read enough fiction, because I guarantee you that somewhere, on a mahogany shelf, tucked between pages and pages of ink, is a character who feels like your soulmate, even if you can’t find someone like that in real life. Somewhere, maybe in a brand-new book that smells like excitement and that still feels warm from printing, or maybe on a yellowed page with a coffee stain in a book that has already been loved and cherished by generations before you, is exactly the thought, or the idea, or the life lesson that you need right now. But it is not pushy or meddlesome, like ideas often are in non-fictional books. It might even be hidden, behind a metaphor or some other clever kind of symbolism. It is waiting, patiently, for you to find it. It is waiting for you to make it your own.

And, at the same time, incidentally, when you read fiction, you will fall in love with language. You will stop seeing it as a mere means of communication, you will see how it is different from the 0’s and 1’s that machines use to communicate. You will hear its music. And when you see the contents of your heart in black and white, brought to paper more eloquently than you could ever have done, by someone you have never met, you will feel a small twinge in your chest that I, for one, have never felt while reading non-fiction.

However much you experience in your lifetime, by reading fiction, you will experience more.

 

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2 Comments

  • Reply J.A. April 21, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    Nicely written and oh so very true!

    Though, one could argue books like Little Prince became canon and are rarely referred to as “fiction”. They are immediately recognized as metaphorical. Would you extend the claim to fantasy-fiction books where the constructed world is constructed in a more thorough manner, and where it does not serve as a framework for establishing a metaphor? E.g. the recently popularized “A Song of Ice and Fire” by G.R.R. Martin, or Tolkien’s works?

    • Reply damita May 5, 2017 at 3:14 pm

      Yes, I would. Fantasy fiction is full of life lessons, if less obvious metaphors. Also in general I think the more elaborate the characters, the higher the benefit in terms of emotional intelligence. And of course such books help people develop their imagination, which I can only assume spurs creative thought. (I also don’t think that The Little Prince is immediately recognized as metaphorical by children, who I believe were the primary target audience.)

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