“History’s third dimension is always fiction.”
-Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game
With only a few hours a day (at best) for reading, and an infinite number of “practical” books to absorb, one might suspect that reading fiction is a waste of time. Couldn’t the time spent buried in “Demian” have been used to learn more about neuroscience or cooking or search engine optimization?
To some extent this is true. The benefits of reading fiction are often outweighed by the benefits of reading non-fiction – especially if the fiction is of the lower grade popular sort: vampire porn, murder mysteries, spy thrillers, space opera, etc. But even this sort of thing is not read solely by losers.
Most people require a certain amount of recreation to remain functional, and there is nothing wrong with this. Few people regard money and success as ends in themselves; they are a means of indulging in various leisures in the future. Not all gratification need be delayed indefinitely, nor is it necessarily good to do so. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The danger here is not an occasional waste of time, but an addiction to escapism which can lead to a loss of effective engagement with reality.
Recreation, however, is not the highest benefit of reading fiction, nor is it the subject of this article. Good fiction can provide an experience of learning and personal growth, sometimes moreso than whatever non-fiction might be available in its place. The marginal utility of “Wuthering Heights” may exceed the marginal utility of a volume of Serbian history or of yet another collection of free enterprise folklore.
How can fiction, which is by definition untrue, be more valuable than acquiring factual knowledge? Consider: the most salient fact about fiction, in general, is that it is always about people. There are no exceptions. Sometimes people may masquerade as animals or machines, as in much children’s literature, but neither animals nor machines are ever the real subject. “Watership Down” is not about rabbits. From the earliest age of comprehension, human beings are interested only in stories about human beings; most people care about things like science (if at all) only insofar as those things affect human beings. For this reason mass media news generally ignores the substantive facts of every important event, instead rendering trivial but moving descriptions of individuals and how they are affected. Only higher intellects are drawn to abstract knowledge, even when it has potential implications for humanity. How many people study forensic pathology, compared to how many study the life and character of Adolf Hitler? Homo Sapiens is fascinated by mirrors.
Fiction is one of the ways that people learn about people. The characters and situations are imaginary and sometimes unrealistic, but they are nonetheless real – they portray something that is or could be part of human reality, expanding our awareness of the nature and potential of our world and especially our fellow inmates thereof. The (largely fictional) “Chanson de Roland” is not a biography. It is a lesson about courage, loyalty, and the bonds between men. It shows, in a way that mere facts never could, how and why a hero – that is, a man – may face death.
By reading fiction, one may learn things about other people, and about oneself, that may not be readily accessible in the real world. One may experience, vicariously but vividly enough, feelings and situations that one may not yet have encountered personally. One may even imagine, and thus experience, situations which are impossible or unsurvivable in reality. This is not only a powerful exercise of the imagination, a very useful faculty in itself, it helps one to learn how people – including oneself! – may or should react under conditions of stress that cannot otherwise be prepared for, and to have confidence when those conditions arise. How will you meet your own death, if you have never imagined it? Mere information about death will not help; it cannot provide an experience.
Fiction can simulate that experience. Good fiction is not escapist; it may even be traumatic to read. It does not make the reader comfortable; it makes him stronger and wiser.
Reading good fiction (and even, to some extent, popular fiction) is a way of preparing for life – testing and rehearsing emotional responses to crises that could, or will, confront the individual in “real” life. Academic knowledge alone cannot create the necessary emotional intensity; the closest thing to firsthand experience is a convincing story.
According to sociologists, the three great socializing influences on children are family, school, and church. I would add a fourth (or a third, church is of much less importance than it was during the formative era of sociology): fiction, predominately movies and television. The audiovisual media are far more compelling, especially to the young, than the written. They also provide much less scope for the individual activity of the audience. A book requires the exercise of the reader’s imagination to recreate appropriate emotions; it thus gives the reader some scope in interpreting the feelings of the characters. Movies typically demand little of the viewer in this regard: a good actor portrays emotion clearly and the viewer is a passive recipient. Some movies are still good fiction, and many are good entertainment, but on average movies are on a level somewhat below comic books, and television is lower still. In terms of teaching how to react and how to experience emotion, video is inferior to print. This is unfortunate because it is primarily fiction (and for this purpose I include songs, i.e. modern poetry) that teaches young people how to deal with the stressful and important things that family, school, and church tend to skirt around: that is, love and sex.
Science teaches the behavior of chemicals, fruit flies, and galaxies. History teaches the behavior of humankind in bulk, and how it relates to great men. Fiction teaches the individual how to fit into the world; it teaches us who we are and who we could be, and how to live with tragedy and triumph. Fiction opens new perspectives and inspires us to create ourselves.