We’ve all met them, those furrow browed grumps who claim fiction is a waste of time. They insist, with all the finality in the world, that there is no knowledge to be found in a novel that can’t be found elsewhere. And of course you nod, better that than try to argue with the bore. However, sometimes we must defend not only that which is dear, but that which is important.
Reading, while being a splendid abandonment of reality, also serves to alter humanity in a fundamental way. It is fiction, unlike any other artistic medium, that allows the reader to crawl into someone else’s skin. This in itself is the very foundation of empathy. And the more able we are to empathise with another, the less able we are to harm them.
And there you have it, the literary secret behind all novels – they subversively make us better people. Slyly they mould us by showing us how other people think, feel, and live. And while we don’t necessarily have to agree with the character views, we can, at the very least grow to understand them.
Reading, while being a splendid abandonment of reality, also serves to alter humanity in a fundamental way
When reading Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong, the reader soon discovers that WWI wasn’t just two armies of men, sat in opposite ditches, firing bullets intermittently at one another. It was, rather, a group of terrified people, doing what they felt was right, freezing, wet-footed humans suffering immeasurable woes.
Or, upon reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, the reader discovers the complexity of gender identity. No longer are those with neither female/male gender an unknown oddity. Suddenly, as you finish the novel, you realise that they are, after all, human, and they too have their hopes and fears just like the rest of us.
Fiction serves to build greater understanding both externally and internally. Novels about pain, and novels about great suffering, allow the reader to know, also, that they are not alone. That the pain they feel is to an equal or perhaps even greater extent by another. Works such as The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath offer readers a glimpse into a woman’s world that is spiralling into a black fog.
Fiction serves to build greater understanding both externally and internally
David Foster Wallace, in an interview with Larry McCaffery, explains that ‘a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside’.
Is this what literature offers beyond escapism? This ability to know there is somebody, somewhere, thinking and feeling the same things as what you too feel, only you felt too odd to mention them.
When we read we transcend our own interior monologue and step into another’s. It is here we learn about resolving both internal and external conflicts. We learn, or at the very least, think about what it means to love, and what it means to be alive. Literature offers comfort for the suffering and insight into those who are not.
Perhaps we should all be turning to those books that are dying to be read
Clearly it is in the wake of our travels through the pages that we learn about ourselves and others and this, while possibly seems somewhat interesting, might also be what humanity needs now more than ever. The world hardly needs more people with great capacity to hold information. What is more important is our capacity to think, feel and relate to one another. So, instead of turning to politicians, religious leaders or celebrities for answers, perhaps we should all be turning to those books that are dying to be read.
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