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Why I read fiction | Just Reflections - Issue #9
I’m absolutely blown away by the response from the last issue about having kids. It seems it’s a subject that many people relate to. That was the 8th issue, and it had 300+ unique readers🤯. I spent a good amount of time reading and responding to your responses from parents and non-parents alike on WhatsApp, Twitter and email. It was a fantastic week!
The downer is that most of the 300+ readers aren’t subscribers, but maybe they’re still making up their minds and they’ll join us soon. Please keep sharing.
My initial draft of this issue had a bunch of scientific studies that talk about the benefits of reading fiction, but I realised it didn’t have the tone I wanted, so I took them out. If anyone is interested, I included a list of them at the end.
Why I read fiction
In January 2020, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more — yes, I make New Year’s resolutions and achieve some of them … sometimes. Anyway, I challenged myself to read fiction books as well, at least one for every couple of non-fiction ones. By the end of the year, I had read 18 books and only 2 of them were non-fiction. I got hooked on fiction.
I’ve always thought the real meat when reading is in non-fiction. Whether it be science, history, finance or self-help, you finish the book immediately knowing that you’ve learnt something or with explicit instructions of what you need to do. I viewed fiction as just elaborate stories meant only for entertainment, with little intention of teaching anything. I used to say, ‘Why should I read the book when I can watch the compressed version in a two-hour movie and get the gist?’ I understand now that I was so wrong.
Fiction is not just entertaining stories. The novels are representations of complex relationships, universal struggles that all people face every day, and insight into the inner workings of our deepest thoughts, both moral and wicked. Fiction is entertaining and it can be incredibly enjoyable. For those few hours, you’re just lost in this world and caught in the intensity of a gripping battle or the flood of emotions of a budding romantic affair. At that moment, you’re unplugged from anything else, and just going along with the thrill. But today, I don’t want to talk about how entertaining fiction is. I want to talk about all the other stuff. I want to make a case for reading fiction from my one and half years of experience.
Stepping out of yourself
“Reading fiction helps us feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin.” — Ann Patchett
Reading fiction makes us better people. To use the words of David Foster Wallace, reading fiction is “morally instructive”. It makes us more wholesome human beings who are not just bound by our own worldview. It teaches us to reason and to think critically about many things in life.
Reading fiction can allow us to suspend our identities and dive deep into the lives of the characters. Most of us can’t easily do this because we’re so caught up in our own lives and we don’t want to share in someone else’s problems. We struggle to empathise with the experiences of others without the filter of our own identity. So reading fiction can be a kind of training wheel for empathy, for living life in someone else’s shoes. As we suspend our own little identities and our own little egos, we open ourselves up to this whole web of experiences.
Personal growth and growing out of your own selfish bubble is a fundamental part of being a more holistic person. And fiction, if you read it correctly, can provide you with characters that can break you out of your bubble to give you perspectives you’ve never seen and might never see otherwise. To think, “Oh so that’s what it’s like to lose a son”, “That’s what it’s like to experience numbing grieve”, “that’s what it’s like to have your ambitions crushed”, “that’s what it’s like to feel fully loved by another person”. You’re likely never going to be a prince or a president or a chief, you’re (hopefully) not a drug dealer but you can live these lives vicariously through the characters in fiction and you get the opportunity to relate your own life experiences with them. That has the power to break you out of your bubble and make you a more empathetic person if you allow it.
When I was reading the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson and following Vin’s — one of the main protagonists — life, I could feel how difficult her life was. I understood why she was so untrusting. Although I didn’t have the lived experience of growing up poor on the streets, for a moment I had a glimpse into what it’s like to grow up in really tough circumstances and have to make the best of your situation and rise from it. It made me contemplate the challenges that people living in oppressive societies have to deal with.
Reading fiction has helped me paint elaborate pictures in my mind of worlds I’ve never seen before. Understand the nature of relationships I’ve never had and likely never will in real life. And changed the way I think about people around me and my real day-to-day life. I don’t think we should limit the breadth of the experiences we have to just what we’re able to do in real life. I also don’t think that we will find people who share all our interests within the set of our acquaintances. Fiction allows us to transcend the limitations of our physical capabilities and means. It allows us to meet people from across cultures, religions, geographies and time. To see the world through the eyes of people we will never meet, to be kings and priests and widows and soldiers.
Defining your identity
It’s a pretty remarkable thing that we can read words from a page and then construct the lives of the characters in our imagination. We open up a book and gain immediate access to the intricacies of someone else’s mind. Not only does it open up a window to the minds of the fictional characters. It also opens up a window into our own minds as we reflect on our own decisions and issues facing our real social world.
Characters in fiction can teach us a lot about how to interact with the world. Reading fiction calms you down and gears you up to face life with all its messiness and complexity. It opens up a new realm for how to deal with situations. How to respond wisely in conflict and chart your own course for your life. In a way, good fiction books are self-help books that help you define your identity and your sense of self.
A significant part of our sense of identity is often a reaction to something. This could be a yearning to be something or a push against something. And widening your scope of experiences gives a wider net from which to weave the person you want to be. Naturally, there’s a limit to the number of people you will meet in your life and most of them will be like you in several ways. But through reading fiction, you can meet thousands of people, each with experiences you’d have never dreamed of. This exposes you immensely and allows you to have multiple models of what you want to be and what you don’t want to be.
Sure, movies and TV shows can expose you to many characters as well. But a movie has such limited time. It cannot fully flesh out characters like a book can and TV shows, while they can be long, aren’t able to spend as much time inside a character’s head as a book can. In a book, we can spend entire chapters engaged in the character’s internal dialogue and be fully immersed, however, that wouldn’t make for great TV, so it’s often skipped by filmmakers.
Reading the experiences of Kaladin and Bridge Four in the Stormlight Archive made me reflect on all the times I’ve survived some gruelling experiences because I had supportive friends and family around me, knowing that these people have my back no matter what. Witnessing characters’ struggles with trauma and mental health opened my mind to the realities that people struggling with these have to face every day. The segregation based on something as arbitrary as eye colour where light-eyed people were noble and dark-eyed people were at the bottom of society made me reflect on my blackness and the reality of racism despite its irrationality. It gave me a different vantage from which to observe my reality.
The words of the Knights Radiant have become a personal mantra of mine. Every time I get fixated on achievement and lose sight of the joy of the process, I remind myself, ‘Life before death, strength before weakness, journey before destination.’ Now, if you haven’t read the stories, these words probably have little meaning to you. This is how one of my friends responded when I posted this quote on Facebook;
Despite this, for me, every time I hear these words all the emotions I felt as I walked in Kaladin’s shoes come rushing back and I am flushed with so much meaning. Because I have walked in his shoes, it’s as though I also had the experience myself. Here’s a quote from one of the other characters explaining part of the meaning in case anyone is interested.
“And so, does the destination matter? Or is it the path we take? I declare that no accomplishment has substance nearly as great as the road used to achieve it. We are not creatures of destinations. It is the journey that shapes us. Our callused feet, our backs strong from carrying the weight of our travels, our eyes open with the fresh delight of experiences lived. In the end, I must proclaim that no good can be achieved by false means. For the substance of our existence is not in the achievement, but in the method.” ― Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings
Exposing yourself to all these things shows you life in ways that you wouldn’t dare attempt with your own life. You get an opportunity to experiment with different decisions in life risk-free and see where the ride ends. You get multiple templates against which to mould your identity.
Understanding ourselves better
Fiction books have unlocked parts of me I didn’t have access to. I’ve had many times where I feel a particular way, but I don’t quite have the words to describe exactly what I’m feeling. All I know is I’m feeling low, for example. And I think if I don’t have a very specific way to describe what I’m feeling, I don’t have a strong enough hold on it to address it. Subconsciously, I know that I’m feeling something, but consciously I don’t know what exactly it is or how to describe it. I just know that there’s something brewing there. Then I read a book where the author has this ability to describe — in very intricate detail — exactly what I’m feeling and then something clicks in my mind and I realise that is exactly what was going on with me, or that is why I did that thing. Because fiction authors are very talented in articulating things in words and spend a lot of time developing their characters, they can equip you with the vocabulary to describe your own thoughts and feelings so that you can understand yourself better and better communicate your inner world with those around you.
I have discovered that every time I read a new story; I approach it with my unique background, baggage, judgements and perceptions. This means that someone else can read the same story and come out of it with a completely distinct thing. And those interpretations that I give to books have taught me a lot about myself, especially when I compare them with what other people got from the same books. This is much more possible in fiction and philosophy because it gives you the scenario whilst extracting no interpretations or morals for you and you have to decide for yourself what you make of it. Whereas often in non-fiction, the author is guiding you through their interpretation of the scenarios they’ve encountered.
“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” ― Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kinds
This is one way that fiction differs from non-fiction. Nonfiction is an attempt by someone to condense the things they’ve learnt from their experience or those of others into specific ideas their perspectives deem valuable. Many of them actually are quite valuable, no doubt. However, fiction allows you to look at the experiences yourself and form your own opinions and derive your own lessons.
I think children should read fiction first before nonfiction. They should not be told, ‘This is what you learn from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro’, but they should climb the mountain themselves or vicariously through reading fiction and learn their own lessons from it. Then later, when they have developed the capability to draw up their own ideas, they can find out what other people’s ideas of things are and how those compare to their own. If they hear the opinions of others too soon, they may never develop their own. And consequently cannot discover themselves.
Fiction isn’t just fancy stories, it’s a way we can discover more about ourselves, empathise with others, and think more deeply about why we value the things that we do.
Co-creating with the author
Fiction allows you to be a co-creator with the author. You build the world together; they provide the narrative and you are the architect. Your Chromaria and mine won’t look the same even though we both read the same Lightbringer series. Reading fiction is creating, it’s a workout for the imagination.
Fiction can refresh your experience of the world. If I’m reading a story where the author is describing the trees in a lot of detail; the way they move, the way they look, the way their branches are shaped and grow. The next time I go outside and look at a tree I will appreciate it in a way that I have never done before. Different authors focus on different aspects of reality, some of which rarely catch my notice. Many of these impressions last and this adds vibrancy to how I experience the world and I can usually tell that I am now experiencing the aftermath of reading the book or I am more understanding of this situation or this person because of an experience I had in a book.
It’s what Tolkien called recovery. When we’ve interacted with the fictional world, we’re like little kids, rediscovering the things we already knew. Recovering our curiosity about everyday things that have become mundane.
Finally, let me close with this fantastic video from TedEd on how fiction can change our reality:
How fiction can change reality - Jessica Wise
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think about the issue.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
Studies on reading fiction
Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29481102/
Changing Race Boundary Perception by Reading Narrative Fiction - https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01973533.2013.856791?amp%3BneedAccess=true&scroll=top&journalCode=hbas20&
Reading habits - http://testyourvocab.com/blog/2013-05-09-Reading-habits
Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain - https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/brain.2013.0166
Reading cinnamon activates olfactory brain regions - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16651007/
Engagement in reading and hobbies and risk of incident dementia: The MoVIES Project - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2911991/
Impactful ideas that challenged my thinking.
I have a lot of interests so I'm always learning all kinds of things, some of which really challenge my thinking. In the Just Reflections newsletter, I'll be sharing with you a summary of the ideas that challenged my thinking recently and hopefully they will challenge yours too and we grow together.