Reading fiction — a non-fiction reader’s education

I may be the only person in the world who needs to read what I’m about to write. And in a way, I hope so.

I don’t often read fiction. And lately I’m wondering if that’s the right approach to life. Because the made-up world we find in books is quite often a better place than the “real” world in which we find ourselves these days. If you’re not reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, that is. And traveling to a better world may be the best case for reading fiction anyone can make right now.

I used to read fiction—I read The Handmaid’s Tale in hardcover, purchased from a neighborhood bookstore in Brooklyn that recently hung a “going out of business” sign on its window. I maintained my sanity during a post-collegiate stint as a receptionist by buying cheap paperbacks from the Barnes & Noble flagship store next door to my office. That, too, has closed. As has the office.

When I was younger and we went away for the summer, my parents would pack a cardboard box full of books—my school reading list and more. My mother’s librarian friend denuded her shelves for my entertainment and never charged us a late fee. In a house that had no television, I read constantly.

But somewhere in my adulthood, I switched over to nonfiction. Okay, I’ll read a novel or some short stories when a) I’m on vacation and b) I know the author. But (a) doesn’t happen nearly enough and all the fiction writers I know would fit very comfortably around my dining room table. Filmed entertainment flips the script for me: I much prefer fictional TV shows and movies to documentaries. Who knows why? (Who cares?)

Reading fiction builds empathy

Neil Gaiman promotes reading fiction
Neil Gaiman in a “Get Caught Reading” poster from the Association of American Publishers

Neil Gaiman cares:

“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes.”

That’s from his lecture “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming,” one of the pieces collected in The View from the Cheap Seats.

Gaiman calls fiction “a gateway drug to reading” and suggests that

“…it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key.”

Because reading fiction forces you to construct a world “from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks,” it creates empathy. And empathy is an essential component of civilization:

“Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”

Did that sentence strike a chord for anyone besides me?

Reading hones essential critical skills

Gaiman cites a “recent” British study—he delivered this lecture in 2013—that the younger generation is, on the whole, less literate and numerate than older generations. This means:

“They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable.”

We are forging the chains of our own bondage when we fail to educate our young people. If we cannot think our way out of this mess, if we cannot communicate our way out of this mess, how do we get out of this mess?

“Individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.”

Imagining that things can be different. As Gaiman says, we have an obligation

“…to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.”

Empathy, humanity, longing for a better world—all begin with reading fiction. With the “twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks” that arrange themselves into new ideas and open our minds. Reading fiction, we are free to imagine a better world. And when we close the book, we’re better equipped to create one. Please.


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