The Importance of Reading Fiction

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A definition of fiction:

A made-up story told in prose with words alone. Words alone. That’s the unique challenge and wonder of written fiction. There’s no actor or storyteller using gesture and inflection. No painter or filmmaker showing settings or close-ups. Everything is done with those little symbols we call letters, which are melded into words, which multiply to form sentences and paragraphs (from: the Gotham Writer’s Workshop, Bloomsbury: New York 2003).

Many people from all kinds of walks of life regularly visit creative writing schools. Their individual motives might differ in detail, but what seems to underlie all is a drive to write stories; not report or document, but to transform thoughts and experiences into written narratives. Why is this, where does this aspiration come from? Who are these people and haven’t they heard that younger generations don’t read any more; those with their thumbs and index fingers attached to little devices with screens….

And the text goes on:
For us humans this process is strangely important. We seem to have a primal need for fiction, or really any kind of story, that is as deeply rooted as our need for food, shelter, and companionship. I see two reasons for this.
The first reason: entertainment. We crave entertainment, and stories are one of the key ways we satisfy this desire. The second reason. Meaning. Our curiosity, and perhaps insecurity, compels us to explore continually the who, what, where, and why of our existence. Some call this lofty goal a search for truth.

Maybe seeking truth is an underlying motive, but I agree with the assessment that this is indeed a ‘lofty goal’, and wonder if it’s is not too abstract for truely capturing what might move e.g. an intellectually alert and open teenager to seek works of fiction in a library, or nowadays: whereever.

If they do. I too have heard that kids don’t read any more, but I wonder if that is true. Maybe it is for a majority of kids. But then I believe it was always true for the majority of kids. There was a time, when the majority couldn’t even read. There was a time, when nobody could read, period. Nevertheless storytelling was an integrated part of life, as can be witnessed in some cultures even today that have a vivid oral tradition. Storytelling in cultures that live closer to nature and have a pre-scientific world view create stories to explain the world, reality and experience – thus create ‘truth’.  Not truth in an absolute sense – there is reason to believe that such kind of truth does not exist outside the world of religion.

So maybe on some deeper epistomological or psychological level, truth is behind our need for stories, a need our brains have developed through evolution in order to find orientation. But then you could argue, in our modern world where scientists and engineers are the creators of knowledge and truth, the need for stories is obsolete.
This brings me back to the first paragraph of the quotation above:

And by some alchemical process those words interact with the reader’s imagination in such a way that readers are taken inside the reality of the story – like Alice stepping through the looking-glass – once there they can experience and feel and care about this alternate reality as deeply as they do for the meandering and heartbreaks of their own lives.  (emphasis mine)

This I believe to be one of the most important aspects of a written or orally told story: to pull the reader inside in such a way that they feel for one or the other protagonist; something a story told as a movie cannot achieve as intensively as our minds’ imagination.

Where does the ability to be able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes come from? The ‘Golden Rule’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule) – One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself (or in the ‘negative’ version: don’t treat others in ways you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself – a principle I strongly believe in) can only be followed if I am able to imagine that the pain I might inflict upon someone else could be my own to bare. We call this empathy, and it seems to be a feeling or ability not everybody possesses, otherwise human beings would generally and everywhere treat each other with more sensitivity and respect.

In general, I believe most people would rather live a painless life, as far as possible. I do believe we need and seek comfort and trust in our fellow humans, be they parents, siblings, friends and strangers (who are just friends you haven’t met yet according to the Irish, right?). So how do we learn empathy if it is not one of our inbuilt traits? Certainly from the example of caring and sensitive others; and maybe also from story tellers.
When I was a kid, my mother left my father. Actually, she didn’t really leave him, she just didn’t let him return. He was at war for a longer period of time, she was back in her home country for that period of time, and when the time was up, we would resume our life as a family. Or so was the plan.

It came differently: she met somebody new, sent my father a ‘Dear John’ letter and I didn’t see him again for many years. Needless to say what this does to a child’s heart. However, I survived, my soul survived because, besides a caring grandmother and a strong community of friends in my school, I read a lot (I also had imaginary brothers and sisters, but their role in my mental well-being I cannot assess).

And later, when things got worse, I still read avidly. We had moved to a ‘foreign’ country I didn’t like (it was in the north of West Germany, but in those days, when West-Berlin was an island, West Germany was a different foreign country for me). My mother’s new husband had found work in Hanover, Lower Saxony, and I missed the two places I considered home (Berlin and New Jersey).

Reading gave me solace. Reading allowed me to escape into worlds other than my own. ‘Escapism’ is connotated negatively, but I can only say, for me as a child it was a blessing to be able to go to different places in my mind. If I couldn’t be where I would have wanted to be in real life, at least in my mind I could go wherever I wanted to. Only later, when teenage rebellion kicked in and I lost interest or rather the ability to sit down to a book and read, did depression take its full toll. Or so I believe. My remedy of reading was lost, even if only temporarily – I did regain it later, though it took some years – and I was fully exposed to realities I could not cope with.

When I read today, for example in situations when I feel a little down or exhausted, I sometimes find those stories most appealing and comforting which feature close-nit communities of relations. Communities I enter for a brief time via my imagination and that give me a break from the isolation I feel otherwise in a basically individualistic society. There might be an element of escapism involved here, and maybe there is the potential danger of getting lost in a fictional world instead of improving one’s real life, but for me it is more like taking a vacation. It is the next best thing to being with real friends.

I believe in the power of written fiction for providing ways of helping to cope with our lives, be they filled with temporary hardship or not.  I  strongly believe that depriving children of reading, i.e. not teaching them to read and enjoy fiction, is to deprive them not only of intellectual developments and experiences not otherwise achievable, but of psychological relief. Reading about others going through similar experiences as oneself for example.

Not introducing children to the rich culture of literature, beginning with children’s fiction, means depriving them of understanding what it can be like to feel differently from oneself through the  identification with a character – an experience that is much more intense than when watching fiction in form of a movie. In this respect, fiction can teach children empathy, in my opinion the essential prerequisite for a peaceful, civilized society.

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