Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Case for Reading Fiction

You might think, given how much real stuff there is to KNOW in the world—about history, science, current events, politics—that I, Teacher Woman, would be an advocate for a reading diet that consists primarily of nonfiction. You might think that on the food pyramid of reading, I would put nonfiction as the base, followed by fiction, and at the tippy top, I little dabby triangle of poetry.

Because what I think is so fucking important.

            So what do I think? I used the novel Of Mice and Men in my example of a typical instructional week in an English class because I love and value fiction more than any other written form. I aspire to write fiction in the form of plays, and yet find myself gravitating to write essay after essay, essays the goal of which is to make you stop reading my essays and other nonfiction, at least for a while, and move to a diet of fiction and poetry when you aren’t out dancing, and we all really need to be out dancing more.

            So why does reading fiction make people better people?

            Because it really does.

Not enough of a reason? Good for you! Here’s a reason: With a novel or story, folk tale, fairy tale, epic play or farce, you enter a world that is not yours. You go inside the heads of people who are not you, saying words you don’t say, going to places you don’t go, and thereby partaking of a life that is not yours. (Fiction is preferable to movies for this, at least for entering a world deeply, because in absorbing language your brain isn’t taking in only images, but complex thinking. You, and not Robert Downey, Jr.’s gorgeous, expressive eyes, are doing the thinking. Mmmm. Robert Downey, Jr.)

            When you feast on a steady diet of fiction—and I mean a variety of fiction, not only one kind (such as science fiction or romance or murder mystery), your brain forms the habit of entering into lives and perspectives and landscapes not your own, thereby making you more empathetic and aware. I’m convinced of it.

            The author of Of Mice and Men (and other classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, and the first book my dad finished (at that age of 30 (he dropped out of high school at 16 to join the Air Force), at the prodding of my English BA mom), Travels with Charley), John Steinbeck is an ideal writer to read when you are in high school. His language is accessible, his themes down and dirty, his point of view expansive. And he’s such a good writer, you can carry him into your middle years.

My favorite writer is Virginia Woolf, who is the opposite of Steinbeck. Woolf writes the way I think, which is to say in streams and rivulets, tangentially, wildly, humorously, but not easily. She cares not about plot, but about character, about the mind and how it works.  She was odd. (I can relate.) She was writing at her best in middle age, and her work goes deepest when the reader is in middle age, too. You can’t just hand a novice reader To the Lighthouse and say, “Have a good time,” whereas you can hand any reader, almost any age, over to Steinbeck and he can meet you where you are.

There is room for both. For loads more. Writers for every taste.

            The more liberally you read fiction, the more emotional access you have to the world around you. The more single-mindedly you stick to nonfiction (or even genre fiction), the more narrowly your brain is likely to focus. This is profound because of the way it encourages the reader to act, and by act, I mean vote, lean, list, and behave politically.

            Let me give you an example. Recently, New York congressman and personal hero Anthony Weiner said something that Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachman did not want to hear. This is a transcript from The Huffington Post:
After Weiner attempted to explain his belief that a large chunk of the current deficit problem came as a function of wars, lost jobs and tax cuts for the rich, Bachmann chimed in.
"I had no idea Rep. Weiner was such a reader of fiction," she said. "He's a huge fiction reader because that's all of his numbers."
Weiner quickly shot back, seemingly making reference to Bachmann's propensity to make misstatements.
"Bachmann, I don't think you want to go there. I don't think you want to go there Bachmann," Weiner said, grinning. "And by the way, for her to make fun of me not knowing fact from fiction is a bit ironic to say the least."
The congresswoman's latest gaffe came in New Hampshire over the weekend, when she implied incorrectly that the state had provided the stage for the first battles of the Revolutionary War.

The way I read this, Rep. Bachman equates “fiction reading” with “telling the truth” (which is very often what literary fiction does), and yet she equates factual “truth” with “lies,” because the truth hurts her political story, which is very often fictional. This is what the well-read, fact-filled Rep. Anthony Weiner meant by “ironic.”

            And now to poetry: Poetry is probably the most important reading of all, but it’s hardest of all, too. It’s hard because poetry needs to be read aloud, it needs time, and (unless you really just have a brain for it) very often it needs a guide. One good poetry teacher, such as Miss Covington at Rippon Middle School in seventh grade, can open the door. Hearing poet Nikki Giovanni read her work aloud, and having her read directly into your eyes, can kick the door wide open and make all poetry accessible. Try though I might, I did not really understand what poetry could do until I was 23 years old, and Ms. Giovanni gave that to me.

            In an earlier post I advocated for the gathering place: Spoken word, singing, live bands, plays, musicals—getting together to experience live performance is important in order to build and nurture the collective US. Reading fiction is ideal for quiet, personal reflection. Poetry is even better.

            I also read a great deal of nonfiction—loved the book Chaos by James Gleick, about chaos theory in science, for example; and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror about the Middle Ages in Europe; and Robert Richardson’s wonderful biography of American philosopher and father of modern psychology, William James. Great rides all. Then I took that reading and applied it to, respectively, Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia; The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer; and everything modern.

            Here’s the thing with nonfiction, though: You always have ask yourself, “Did that really happen? Is that true?” When reading fiction, you know 1) this did not really happen, because it’s fiction; and 2) this is all somehow true, because the author says so. In other words, by reading fiction, you can have it both ways.

If Michelle Bachman read more nonfiction, she would know that when one represents a constituency and must make important decisions for them, one must know about actual events, and that one should use facts to make decisions. If Rep. Bachmann read more fiction, she would gain empathy and also be able to tell the difference between fact and fancy. (If Rep. Bachmann read, period, she might not be the lunatic the networks love and pay so handsomely, and so would have no career. I’ve also heard she could be our next president. So what the hell do I know?)

            It occurs to me I am setting myself up as some kind of reading role model, and this is arrogant and stupid. What I mean is this: Read. Read a variety of things, make it fun, keep doing it, and care about it. Reading fiction gets people’s heads out of their asses, I think, and offers real relief from the pressures of current crises around the globe. However inadvertently, it offers you another view, a view you may experience deeply and quietly.

            Because damned if this planet isn’t a noisy place to be right now.

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