You’ve met them, I’ve met them, people who simply don’t read novels. They “don’t have time,” they say. Or, “Reading fiction is a waste of time," or “There are enough real problems in the world without having to concentrate something that’s not true.”
This kind of thinking shows a real misunderstanding of what fiction is and even who we are as human beings. It is precisely because there are so many problems in the real world that we need fiction now more than ever.
Imagine, if you will, a world without fiction, a world with no stories. The vast shelves of novels in bookstores and libraries would sit there empty. When you sat down to read your child a book at bedtime, it would be a science book, or a self-help book about why we shouldn’t bully, or how to get better grades, for example. The only movies we would watch would be documentaries or science movies, and maybe the odd cooking or reality show.
There would be no Dr. Seuss, no Harry Potter, no Narnia, no Handmaid’s Tale, no IT, no Hercule Poirot, no James Bond. In other words, if we rid our world of fiction, we would rid ourselves of one of the very thing that makes us human—our love of story.
What makes us who we are is our ability to create and make things beautiful. We have the ability to make beauty out of ashes. Art out of nothing. We do that through art and design and story—made-up fiction stories.
If you google “the importance of reading fiction,” you will be rewarded with many, many links. Reading fiction is not a waste of time. It’s never a waste of time. It can turn us into healthier and better people according to many scientific studies.
If you are interested in scientific studies about what fiction reading does to the brain, here are a few important links to click on:
- Why You Should Read Every Day.
- The Benefits of Reading Fiction
- The Benefits of Reading Novels
Here are several of the points I gleaned:
• I was surprised to learn that reading fiction reduces stress. I had to read this several times. Really? But, apparently sitting back in your easy chair with a good novel reduces stress more than even going outside for a walk.
• Fiction gives us an understanding of others.
CS Lewis who wrote prolifically on the subject of creativity and fiction said:
We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own…We demand windows…
And boy, don’t we need this today! As I write this seven people have died in NYC in a Halloween terrorist attack. This comes on the heels of the recent terrorist attack in Las Vegas in which 58 people died, and many more are still in hospital, which comes on the heels of 500 in a bomb attack in Somali. It goes on and on.
So, yes, “seeing through other eyes” would be of great benefit! One way of doing that is through fiction. Currently I’m reading Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Through that novel I am gaining a new understanding of what it’s like to be an illegal immigrant from Limbe, Cameroon in the city of New York during the fall of the stock market in 2009. Walking in another's shoes—even through the pages of a novel—can turn us into more understanding people.
• Reading novels before bed improves sleep. Sleep is important to me. It’s something I crave, and yet so often it eludes me. Some studies say that immersing yourself in a bit of fiction for 15 minutes before you nod off can help.
• It improves memory. Several studies suggest that novel reading has been proved to decline Alzeimers and memory problems. Novel readers have less mental decline as they age.
• It improves our understanding of difficult concepts—scientific and otherwise. Yes, fiction does this. Ten non-fiction books on the subject of hell, have not had the impression on me as CS Lewis’s short novel, The Great Divorce has had. It caused me to rethink just about everything I ever thought or believed or was taught about the subject of hell. It sent me on a faith journey that I still am on to this day.
What about television?
I need to mention here that I’m talking about reading novels and not “watching” novels on TV. No, I’m not one of those avid anti-TV watchers. I enjoy Netflix binging with the best of them, but I also know in my heart that better things happen to me when I’m reading a novel as opposed to watching one on television. It looks like scientific studies bear me out.
Here’s a fascinating link on the difference. It turns out that long hours in front of the television can decrease verbal IQ whereas reading a novel can increase brain activity and function. in other words, watching television is a passive activity and reading novels is an active activity. (Maybe it even burns more calories. Someone should do a study on that!)
And about fiction not being the truth?
I’ve learned in my 25 years as a fiction author that fiction often has to be more truthful than nonfiction.
One example: when I wrote Sadie’s Song, about a woman who was physically and emotionally abused by her up-standing, church-going Christian husband, my editors wanted the two to work out their differences, get counselling and get together at the end in a happily ever after. I said no. Yes, that sometimes happens. But more often than not, wives leave, and must leave, and should leave. I needed to write that story, the real story. I needed to make it truthful.
Should you read just any old novel?
No. Not really. Not unless you want to be bored out of your head. Yes, there are some pretty crappy novels out there. Picking up a novel that is boring or not well-written, or doesn't capture you from beginning to end, isn't going to provide all of those benefits. More than two years ago I started this blog because I was sick of crappy books. I wanted to make a list of all the good books I could recommend. Scroll back through more than two years of book recommends here to find a novel you might enjoy. And, how to tell if a novel is going to do you any good? It's the one you can't put down. If the novel isn't "grabbing" you after three chapters, put it down.
Author Densi Donaghue in The Practice of Reading writes:
The purpose of reading literature is to exercise or incite ones imagination: specifically one’s ability to imagine being different.
Oh man, would that we could have a day where everyone in the entire world would stay home from work and read a novel.
Next time: a look at deaf culture in Train Go Sorry by Leah Hager Cohen