I’ve always been a fan of the fiction section of bookstores. I’m particularly fond of mysteries, and have that soft spot for young adult (although who doesn’t? Hungergames, amiright?). In adulthood, I have run across those people who explain to me that they prefer nonfiction, because why read something that isn’t true, if they can boost their knowledge by spending that same time learning about the real world?
I want to be clear; no one can turn their nose up at good nonfiction, and I’m not knocking anyone’s nightstand escape. Real life offers a rich narrative and unexpected twists. Stranger than fiction, indeed. Nonetheless, it is impossible to create the same experience that you get within a novel or a short story.
With fiction, you are seeing the world through another person’s eyes. It may be a world populated by purple flying gorillas, but that doesn’t detract from the remarkable exercise in empathy that fiction affords. No nonfiction novel could capture every impression and conversation with perfect accuracy, it’s fairly established that the more authoritative the text, the dryer it tends to be.
Because to get that color, that stream of consciousness, you have to delve into the realms of making shit up. And what fantastic depths they are – because increasingly, research indicates that reading fiction might boost empathy, reduce anxiety, and help with decision making.
I was a voracious reader as a child, not necessarily of highbrow classics (although they’re generally famous for a reason) but of a mess of things. I fully believe that many of the adults traits I’m proud of were coaxed into being during the hours that I spent awake, after my bedtime, pouring over James and the Giant Peach.
There’s a fantastic talk by David Foster Wallace (confession: I’ve still never read Infinite Jest) in which he describes how you have the power to make your mundane tasks into less frustrating experiences by seeing the richness of possibility within the people around you. Wallace once said that good fiction should make readers “become less alone inside”. He was on to something, both with his talk and with his belief. And while I enjoyed his talk, it wasn’t a revelation to me. Not because I have any sort of genius that he possessed, but because I already learned that secret in the fiction section of my local library.
The secret that every person is the protagonist in their own story.
Everyone has love interests and betrayals and moments of doubt, they have side characters and dramatic irony and villains and comic relief. In someone’s story you are the unrequited love. In another person’s story, you might be the foil to their loneliness, or an oppressive representation of the patriarchy, or merely an extra, setting the background in their bustling shopping scene.
This remains one of the most important realizations I’ve ever had. It is boosted and ripened, not by my intellectual understanding that everyone has a consciousness, but rather by years of practice through literature. Rude baristas and slow drivers and impatient coworkers don’t have the disrupting effect that they could – not because I’m immune to them, but because I have years of training my brain to explore perspectives not my own. In life, you don’t often get to form the deep connections with people outside your social orbit that would allow you to feel their experiences in a way that narrative allows. It gives you permission to try on a different time, social class, perspective, race, gender, sexuality, body. You don’t have to worry about mirroring back their feelings or being respectful. You can merely slip in, undetected, and explore another person’s mind. It’s doesn’t matter if it’s not realistic – that’s not the point. The point is that you are giving your brain a remarkable chance that it doesn’t get nearly often enough in real life.
If there is one piece of advice that I could bestow upon new parents, it is, unequivocally, to encourage their children into little librarians, cultivators of their own personal castle of stories. I know that mine is, undoubtedly, responsible for much of the person I am today.