The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.
– Elizabeth Drew
In my recent article, How to Read a Book, I offered some ideas for extracting value from dead trees. I focussed primarily on non-fiction in that article. Now I want to offer you an approach for fiction.
Fiction differs from non-fiction in only one necessary way: it’s made up. But that small variation in its linguistic DNA produces an entirely different organism. While the primary goal of fact-driven content is to extract the information you need, the primary goal of reading a story could be anything. A work of fiction is, essentially, an artifact of self-expression. There are as many motivations for writing a story as there are reasons for us to communicate with one another. Many authors write stories to explore issues they’re experiencing in their own lives. Others attempt to get us thinking about the good, bad, and ugly things in our world.
But if works of fiction are made up, why bother reading them? What value can we possibly derive from the people, places, and things that exist purely in our imagination? And how can those fictitious forces inspire us to push our own boundaries and do things we’ve never done before?
Why Read Fiction?
Obviously a question like, “Why read fiction?”, has many answers: for entertainment value, to improve your vocabulary, to be inspired, etc. For me the primary value of fiction, the one that is most beneficial from a growth perspective, is that it offers an experience.
What kind of experience? Whatever one I choose. The literary landscape is as diverse as a very diverse thing. If I want to live in a world full of robots, I’ll read Asimov. If I’m in more of an anarchist mood, I’ll reach for Orwell. When I wanted a taste of life in Soviet Russia, I read Ayn Rand’s We the Living. I immersed myself so completely in the story that I began to feel the agonizing boredom of waiting for hours in line for rations of stale bread and rancid butter. I came to understand the paranoia that people felt, how careful they had to be with their words towards the Party, fearing that one of their listeners might be a member, knowing the fate that came to those who begged to differ.
Several weeks after reading that book I found myself in conversation with a couple friends from eastern Europe, who’d lived under the Soviet regime. It was fascinating to discover how much their real-world experiences paralleled my not-real-world ones. A lot of what they said refreshed the mental images of what I’d read, almost as if they were things I’d lived through myself.
This episode is explained by more than just my overactive imagination. Even science has something to say about the ability our creative powers have to shape our reality. In an article entitled “Experiencing the Future”, in the June 2008 issue of Le Monde de l’intelligence, Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, talks about how our thoughts are processed in ways similar to real sensory experiences. Here’s a quote:
The pleasure that we feel when we imagine future events comes from the same parts of the brain as the pleasure we feel when we live events in the present.
The visual imagination activates the visual cortex, in the same way as our visual sense; the auditory imagination activates the auditory cortex, in the same way as our hearing, and the affective imagination activates the affective centers of the brain, exactly like affective experience.
So while we know that fiction is–obviously–quite fictional, diving deeply into a great story can be an almost visceral adventure. A decent novel can entertain you. A good novel can make you feel stuff. A great novel can change your life.
Read Only What Interests You
That a novel offers an experience is of no inherent value. Getting the most value out of a novel requires asking yourself: What kind of experience do you want to have?
My answer to that question is usually a reflection of where I’m headed with my life. I often use my intentions as a compass to point me to the right section in the bookstore. Since my primary relationship to a story is through its characters, I look for books populated with intriguing personalities: people I’d want to know in real life, or at least have a conversation with through a bullet-proof glass window. I used to choose books to read because they were “classics”, or recommended by so-and-so. I’ve since become wise to the folly of that approach.
There are so many words to choose from that knowing where to begin your search for a good book can be overwhelming. Here are my preferred sources, all of which can also apply to non-fiction:
- Bloggers. A great deal of what I read is stuff recommended by bloggers I respect.
- Online forums. Shared interests are a great source of reading ideas, particularly for novels, since their titles rarely give a clear hint at what they’re about.
- Other books. Not only those mentioned in the main text, but also those in the bibliography.
- Wikipedia → Influences. Many Wikipedia pages for authors include a list of authors that influenced them. You may also prefer to read stuff by authors they influenced.
- Bookstores. When all else fails, nothing beats spending an hour or two just wandering around a big bookstore, picking things off shelves and examining them.
Fiction as Vehicle for Growth
Great fiction expands your emotional repertoire and deepens your self-understanding. This makes it a particularly useful tool in the conscious pursuit of happiness. I prefer to choose a reading path that floods my imagination with images and ideas that are aligned with my present goals.
For example, reading Atlas Shrugged taught me a lot about self-reliance. I was so inspired by the characters in Ayn Rand’s epic novel that I decided to devour her other well-known works of fiction: The Fountainhead, We the Living, and Anthem.
This kind of tunnel vision is a healthy thing, for short periods. It gives the ideas a chance to soak in, for the mindset to really rub off on you. Unlike most non-fiction, a novel takes an idea and wraps it in context so you can see how it might play out in the real world. By focussing your reading around a particular theme, you build up a database of reference “experiences” related to that subject. Of course, fiction is no replacement for real life, but like the example I gave earlier about We the Living, it can still offer profound insights.
Invite the Characters Into Your Life
Every so often, you’ll meet someone who changes your perception of the world. You might work alongside a brilliant computer geek who redefines your notion of competence, or you might connect with someone in your social life whose ability to deal with a rough situation inspires you.
This same reservoir of human potential is available in paperback form. It requires only the force of your imagination to be extracted. So when you read a novel, really read it. Invite the characters into your life. Think about them even when you’re not reading. Weigh the events in your life against the events in theirs. What might they be doing right now? How would they handle the situation that you currently find most challenging? How is your personality different from theirs and in what ways do those differences shape your lives differently? Experiment with all the ways you can think of to weave the story and characters into your own existence–without getting arrested.
Only fiction can provide such a broad context in which to think about life, the universe, and everything. Use this to your advantage. Just like we exercise caution in who we choose to associate with in real life, so we should be picky about what we read. Read deliberately, with your mind wide open. Use fiction to live; not as a replacement for the real world, but as an extension of it.
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