On the benefits of reading fiction

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe or take for granted; nor find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

Francis Bacon, The Essays

One of the upsides to having to spend several months largely confined to my home and without the normal distractions (read: baseball) is that I’ve been able to devote some attention to pastimes that for many years (decades?) have been largely pushed aside, only dabbled in when I’ve had nothing else to do.

When I was a kid, reading books was one of my main ways of entertainment. I didn’t have the Internet or cable TV to fill up my free time, so most summer vacations were primarily spent playing baseball or reading. We would head to the library at least every couple of weeks, participating in the summer reading program, and once school was back in session I would use the school library and the Bookmobile (essentially a bus with books from the local library in it) to get my fill of books.

But as time went on and technology entered our house less and less time was spent reading. First came cable TV when I was about 10 years old, then a couple years later dial-up Internet, and then when I went away to college, high-speed Internet. I still would haunt the shelves of whatever library I was near, but more and more time was spent in the digital world. And after a while I practically stopped reading fiction, or anything that wasn’t posted on a website.

That was fine at first, given that in the early days of the Internet most content was written in the style of print articles at the time, but as people adapted to the medium so did the style of article as well as the mechanism for reading them. Because users could and often did quickly click away or scroll past an article once they read the headline, it became more and more important to grab your attention. It was no longer profitable to cover an issue in a nuanced way, leaving it up to the reader to make his or her mind up. Instead, the average article not only told me who was right or wrong in stark moral terms, but told you how to feel about it. I was outsourcing not only my thinking, but also my emotions.

So when I first committed to reading fiction again, it was difficult to not fall back into “Internet reading mode” in which I was just skimming the words and not trying to understanding the content. I didn’t even know I was doing this until I sat down with a book; I had to force myself into reading each word aloud to follow the story, and then it slowly sunk in how screwed up my reading habits had become. I kept looking for the phrase or sentence that would tell me how to feel about a topic or a character, looking for that hit of emotion. But no, the novels I read didn’t reward in you that way. There would be heroes and villains, but the heroes would have their flaws and the villains their rationales. I had to supply the conclusions, the reasons why the decisions made were good or bad. I had to determine which characters I liked or loathed, and the reasons why. And it wasn’t as if I was reading some stuffy literary fiction that concentrated purely on character, but bog standard science fiction and fantasy. One of the novels was about a group of settlers on an alien planet taking on what essentially were intelligent giant gila monsters. Another one was about the travels of a young sorcerer who carries a chaos demon (and the memories of its 12 previous hosts) inside him. These were plot-centered novels in strange and interesting settings, but all of them, even those I ultimately didn’t enjoy, had far more subtle characterization than the typical online article.

As the weeks passed, I began to get used to this different mindset, and suddenly the online articles that used to appeal to me seemed simplistic, and in some cases, fraudulent and pandering. It was like drinking a pop after months of abstention. Before, I limited my social media exposure because I knew it was bad for me; now I limit it because I just don’t like it.

Reading fiction is an active form of entertainment, meaning that your mind needs to construct a picture of the action, the characters, and setting, things that spark creativity in ways that more passive forms of entertainment (TV, movies, etc) won’t do because entire picture is already there for you to see.

Reading fiction has also been a way to get my mind into a different place, at least for a couple of hours a day. Escapism seems to have become a dirty word in some circles, but I maintain it is a helpful way to reset your mental state; it isn’t healthy to constantly immerse yourself in whatever conflict is raging online or in the real world. Besides, by inserting yourself into another world, seeing it through a fictional character’s eyes, you can gain a new perspective on fundamental questions. Perhaps seeing how a fictional character deals with a similar situation in a different time and place may at least help you to understand another point of view better.

From a practical standpoint, reading for pleasure is one of the cheaper (and accessible) sources of entertainment out there if you know where to look. Sure, if you only buy new hardcovers at the bookstore you’ll exhaust your budget quickly, but there are many ways to get many hours’ worth of great reading material for much less than the equivalent of other forms of media. The obvious example would be your local library (meatspace or cyberspace versions), but there are many other ways to get your fix, such as used book sales, buying e-books instead of paper books, utilizing public domain sites like Project Gutenberg, or buying bundles of books. I’ll go into more detail on this in a separate post.

I’d like to end with a callback to the epigraph at the top. Many problems, whether they be of the moment or inherent in the human condition, have no easy answers. Fiction, while ostensibly taking place in far-off places and populated by beings that may have little relation to us, can still address these fundamental questions in subtle yet profound ways. By taking the time and space to carefully and honestly examine a character or situation, a book can not only entertain you, but (done right) can gently reveal new avenues of thought. To weigh and consider, not to contradict or confute.

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