Who Has Time For Fiction?
Monday, June 24th 2019
So, there’s this guy; we’ll call him “Bo.” Bo works with my husband.
My husband never considered himself a reader, claiming that he just couldn’t “get into” books. I bought him an Audible subscription for his birthday, determined to help him overcome this handicap. He downloaded The Dark Tower series by Steven King. By the end of The Gunslinger, the first of the Dark Tower books, he was hooked.
One day he’s at the office, raving about this epic story, when Bo turns to him and says:
“I don’t believe in fiction.”
I laughed when my husband told me about this exchange over dinner that night.
“What does that even mean?” I asked.
Apparently, this guy, this “Bo,” will only pick up a book if it’s educational. If it’s not a manual, text book, or instructional brochure, it is a waste of time.
If you are reading this, I assume literature has a special place in your heart. Like me, you might be hard pressed to imagine the person you would be today without those dog-eared pages that kept you up at night, stretching your mind and pulling on your heart strings. If so, you might feel, as I did, a mixture of pity and disbelief hearing a fellow human roundly dismissing everything from Homer to Tolkien as frivolity.
After dinner, with the dishes washed and the children in bed, I found my mind dwelling on Bo and his disdain for fiction. I consider myself an avid reader but when I tried to recall the books I had read over the last year, I was surprised by the lack the fantasy. I had been spending the majority of my scant free time studying neuroscience, the lives of octopuses, and the heart-wrenching history of Henrietta Lacks.
I am ashamed to admit to you, dear reader, that I had a moment of doubt.
Was it possible? Did I not have the time for fiction?
It makes sense, with the world making increasingly harsher demands for our time, bullying our interest into cold, dark corners of our lives, that we should seek a bigger bang for our buck. If you can only read one or two books a month, it sounds reasonable to seek out works that can simultaneously entertain and educate. Maybe “Bo” had it right, after all. Maybe life is too short for stories.
Not just “no,” hell no. Stories aren’t just things we lazily wander through when we ought to be doing more important things. Stories are in our DNA.
The ability to imagine scenarios that don’t yet exist, to mentally navigate terrain we’ve never seen with our own eyes, this is one of the defining characteristics of humanity. Every time we set a goal, make a plan, or weigh decisions, our minds explore multiple possibilities. We make predictions and this kind of mental time travel has enabled us to build cities, move rivers and launch rockets into space. It’s not idle daydreaming; it is a vital skill, a skill that evolved over the course of millennia.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my non-fiction reading, it’s that evolution is never frivolous.
Reading a novel is never a passive experience. During the journey, the reader is constantly building scenes and characters in their mind. We even attribute body language and speech patterns to these imaginary people, all based on subtle, contextual clues from the author. We make predictions and adjust our expectations as the plot unwinds.
Fiction is not a waste of time; it’s a mental workout. And I’m not talking a brisk walk through the park. It is some P90X, CrossFit, Billy Blanks Tae Bo level shit.
With this revelation, I relaxed. I felt that all was right with the world again and said a silent, agnostic prayer for Bo, that he might realize how wrong he was and get in touch with this neglected aspect of his soul.
I sank into the couch and watched my husband’s game of Red Dead Redemption 2. You might be familiar with it; it’s the RPG with the aging outlaw trying to help his gang survive the taming of the once Wild West…
Then it hit me. “Bo” wasn’t living a fiction-free life, he was just getting his fix from other sources. Movies, video games, song lyrics, Fox News…fiction is everywhere. The question isn’t whether or not we have time for it, but whether it’s even possible to avoid it.
I suppose there is more than one way to exercise your imagination, but I’m a firm believer that anyone who claims to not enjoy reading fiction just hasn’t found the right book. Storytelling takes many forms, but there is something about the novel that is unique and irreplaceable—the opportunity to suspend your own experience and see countless worlds through the eyes of another. These journeys fuel our capacity for empathy, force us to confront our biases, and by the end we, as people, are changed. Even if it’s just a teeny, tiny change.
Here I’ll raise my glass/tip my hat to the readers who make the time to visit alien lands and walk a novel in a stranger’s shoes, to those who build entire worlds out of nothing but consonants and vowels.