From an early age, the youth of this country are taught that reading is important – that it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you do it. The education system and broader society alike have done an extremely poor job in communicating why exactly reading, and more specifically, reading fiction, is necessary.
Academia has also done a subpar job of communicating the importance for the general public to read fiction – usually the response hides behind clichÃ©s about the value of a liberal arts understanding or there is a lack of concern with the average person’s fiction habits or preferences.
This deficiency carries into adulthood and has serious effects for the general population. The average person would generally reduce the purpose of reading to improve vocabulary or to educate oneself on a given subject, the latter of which clearly favors reading nonfiction and this is partly why over a quarter of the American adults have not read a novel in the past year.
Most well-reasoned arguments for reading fiction posit that it encourages critical thinking or to expand one’s mind, but while important, these reasons are abstract. There are more concrete, real-world implications for reading fiction. Let’s get specific.
It has been said before that the role of fiction is to disturb the comforted and to comfort the disturbed.
This simple, concise idea is one of the most accurate and important arguments for why everyone should read fiction. In fact, these two ideas are very closely related.
The first part, “disturbing the comforted,” has an enormous role in shaping societal discourse. Fiction influences the way the citizenry thinks about the important issues of the day as well as cultural and social narratives people have been taught and passively accept. Fiction, better than any other medium, challenges the status quo and holds those who establish and benefit from it accountable.
American novelist Don DeLillo writes: “Being called a ‘bad citizen’ is a compliment to a novelist, at least to my mind…We ought to, in the sense that we’re writing against what power represents, and often what government represents, and what the corporation dictates and what consumer consciousness has come to mean. In that sense, if we’re bad citizens, we’re doing our job.”
The other part, “comforting the disturbed,” is equally, if not more important. Fiction lets the reader know that he or she is not alone in the world – it communicates the universality of loneliness, anxiety and fear that are inherent to any living, breathing human being. The Information Age and the advent of digital technology that creates an increasing sense of loneliness makes reading fiction and defending its importance more necessary and urgent than ever.
Reading fiction makes us better human beings. Empirical evidence shows that readers of fiction better empathize with others, are more aware of social perception and have greater emotional intelligence than those who do not read fiction.
Fiction also helps the reader understand different points of view that are completely foreign to one’s perception of the world. When so much of the world tries to separate people on the basis of race, gender, social class and geography, fiction presents an antidote to such divisiveness and establishes a oneness – a kind of whole – of being a person.
It helps show readers, in however a small a way, a glimpse into the lives of people from other backgrounds to which we would not otherwise be privy.
Fiction helps us be less self-absorbed and introduces high stakes to the outcomes of characters and settings. It allows the opportunity to become more focused and concerned with things other than ourselves.
Fiction should not be about having read the great works or being impressed with oneself, but rather the opposite. It encourages humility and though a solitary act, increases community.
Lastly, with events like the war in Syria, violence in Ukraine and the daily suffering and hardship in the world, fiction offers redemption that no other form can match.
As David Foster Wallace said: “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”
– By Ross Fogg