Fiction is important…and here’s why

It’s been a while since I contributed to my blog. I’ve been reading a lot lately and I felt a bit intimidated and uninspired. The holidays were a bit busy and at the beginning of January I started a new job (huzzah!). But I’m back now and I have some things to say.

I recently stumbled (by way of my mom-in-law Lynn) on a Facebook post that I just haven’t been able to shake. The post is a typical FB challenge:

“Of all your friends and family, identify (to yourself) twelve of them that read books on a regular basis. I’m not talking about the latest romance, mystery, or thriller novels on the best-sellers lists, but rather books about people, history, art, science, technology, philosophy, economics, etc.”

And for the most part I can get behind that. I’m a big reader and I’m a proponent of others reading. I don’t love the aggressiveness and judgement inherent in the post but I get where its coming from. And for the record, I can list 12 people that I know that read books of a wide variety. But, I don’t agree that to be a contributing member of society, to be a well-read person, and to be informed, articulate, etc you absolutely have to read about technology or you can’t read the latest romance or thriller. Reading isn’t the exclusive purview of the intellectual. All reading, any reading, is beneficial and counts as reading and I can’t believe I had to say that.

But again, I’m not 100% sure that’s what he’s saying, until this comment by the poster:

“However, fictional novels don’t do much to inform or affect one’s worldview.”

Here, our paths diverge. This blanket statement is inaccurate, discouraging, and originates, frankly, from someone who practices what he preaches (i.e. he does not read fiction). Or maybe he does and he feels insecure about his library? I’ll admit I proudly display my Man-Booker International Prize Listed books upfront on my bookshelf and relegate my fluffier books to the back rows. But come on, that is a personal choice; there is no need to disparage the reading habits of your friends (your FB friends).

Firstly, not all fiction is exclusively romance novels or bodice-rippers. But if they are, so what? Sometimes they’re fun and if they get people reading, which, frankly, is the point. For example, I’ve always truly enjoy reading historical fiction. My grandmother gave me a copy of Anya Seton’s Katherine about Katherine Swynford when I was in my early teens. Afterwards, I conducted my own independent additional research, which others (ahem) may find “legitimate.” Katherine sparked a lifelong love of history and research, that eventually led to an undergraduate degree in art history and archaeology, a graduate degree in museum studies (which is basically an art history degree) and a six month tenure as a PhD candidate in art history. Today, I can recite the history of the War of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty. All because of a somewhat raunchy novel.

Beyond that, fiction exposes readers to experimental writing styles and grammar, as well as new words, and more besides. Fiction is also capable of teaching readers about different cultures, human experiences and even periods of history that is not otherwise accessible (see The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James or A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk).

It’s also important to keep in mind that not all readers are capable of sitting down to read the latest tome dedicated to the Russian Revolution or Shakespeare; a history or memoir that leans too far towards the academic can be utterly defeating. Other work of nonfiction are likewise too “fluffy” and draw from the narrator’s opinion rather than hard fact if evidence is lacking.

Fiction contributes too to arming its readers with the ways and means to express themselves. Where would we be without satire, for example? In my experience readers of fictions are the best kind of friends, empathetic, articulate, witty and possessed of a moral compass that points true north.

So here is my challenge. To find the most important works of fiction out there today, the ones that will change your perceptions, go beyond the  best-seller lists and actively seek out the books that are making a difference in the world today. Check out the Man Booker Prize website (for example), pick a year, and read all the books on the shortlist. Focus on the books that were not written by an American or not originally published in English, with a narrator of the opposite sex (this is for the men, really), one that doesn’t immediately spark your interest, and dive in.

For the record, I’ve set myself a new challenge. I plan on reading and writing a review for The Gene: An Intimate History Siddhartha Mukherjee. Although I proudly read a fair amount of nonfiction, admittedly its mainly memoirs and histories so I figure I should try to broaden my horizons per the FB rant above. Like I said, I agree with him to some extent.

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