Monday, September 27, 2010
Me: Oh, you're a reader - cool! What do you like to read?
Non-Literary Nerd: Non-fiction, almost exclusively.
Me: You don't like fiction?
NLN: Nope. There's too much to learn about the real world to read stuff that's made up.
Me: Sure, dude.
Hey, to each his/her own, I suppose. But to dismiss fiction for that reason, to me, is silly. Good fiction can teach us as much about the world — and more about what's important about the world — as any non-fiction. David Foster Wallace said that "fiction is about what it means to be a f#!@ing human being," and though fiction-haters would argue that that is counter-intuitive, my belief is that no truer words have ever been uttered.
I think it's pretty clear there is definite and demonstrable value to reading fiction. Of course, there are the obvious reasons: It's fun. It can relieve stress. It can lead to better spelling skills. It can make you sound smarter than that annoying acquaintance who knows everything about everything.
But, as DFW suggested, the real value of fiction is that it can help you learn to empathize with people who are different than you. You often hear writers say that when they finish a book, they "miss the characters." I've only begun really understanding what that means in the last several years, as my favorite novels of the last decade or so are realistic enough that they provide the opportunity for an actual relationship with the characters. And with that relationship comes an understanding of an alternate view of the world than my own. I love that. I love seeing the world through another set of eyes — even though they're fictional.
And so reading fiction also makes you more tolerant. It helps you see, in a non-contentious setting, different ways of thinking, world-views, philosophies, political theories than your own. You may disagree, but at least you understand. And understanding is ultimately the foundation for tolerance. Wouldn't things be much better with more tolerance, more moderateness? So, not only is fiction about what it means to be human, fiction can save the world!
So, there you have it: A short, but fairly impassioned defense of fiction. But I'm hoping you can help me expand on this idea. How does reading fiction help you interface with the world? Is this just a pie-in-the-sky idea, or do you think DFW was right?
Posted by Greg Zimmerman at 1:04 PM