I’m guessing that most people who read this blog don’t need reasons for reading fiction. You probably already do and enjoy it without thinking too much about it. That’s how I am most of the time. However, every now and then I run into someone that needs me to explain to them why I read “fake stuff.”
I’m always surprised when I meet someone like this. We live in such a story driven culture (even our TV ads are based on short narratives) that I wonder how anyone could question the validity of reading fiction. Yet I even once worked with a brilliant non-fiction author at Zondervan who said to me: “I don’t read fiction. I only read stories that are true.” (That comment alone warrants a response of its own, but I won’t get into it now…)
So here’s a quick list of reasons for reading fiction. Next time you meet someone who needs you to justify the hours you spend thumbing through novels, perhaps you’ll find one of these useful.
- I read fiction because it’s fun. – This is the most obvious reason, so I thought I’d get it out of the way first. Fiction allows us to be in times, locations, and among people that we would never get to otherwise. I’ve read piles and piles of comic books, stacks of novels, and enough short stories to fill a hundred volumes. I wouldn’t have done all of that if it wasn’t fun.
- I read fiction for cultural value. – This is the reason I decided to read “Moby Dick.” I wanted to get the cultural references I kept hearing to Ahab and the white whale. I wanted to understand what “the great American novel” was all about. I slogged my way through it and now I’m glad I did. I understand a larger part of our cultural conversation because of what I’ve read.
- I read fiction to learn new things. – If someone had given me a book on the lifestyle of Russia’s upper class during the 1800’s I most likely wouldn’t have read it. I did, however, read “Anna Karenina” and learned an awful lot about Russia’s upper class along the way. This is why so many English teachers assign “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Ellie Wiesel’s “Night” to their middle school classes. Fiction can be a great way to teach people new things.I’ve been content with these three reasons for reading fiction for years. But just this week I realized that I read fiction for another reason:
- I read fiction to relax my mind. – Lately I’ve been extremely busy. Most of it is “good” busy. My time is filled with positive things that I have chosen: writers group, giving drum lessons, playing in the church band, seeing friends, spending quality time with my wife and son, etc. But add work, commuting, and project deadlines on top of all of that and my mental gears are on the verge of burning out. I have trouble sleeping when I’m this busy. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work projects. It’s miserable. I’ve found, however, that if I read just one chapter of a long book before bed I’m likely to get sucked into the story and go to sleep more relaxed.
Obviously, this won’t work if you’re reading a thriller or some other suspenseful book. Right now I’m reading “Great Expectations” (for fun and cultural value) and I’ve discovered that it is like a mental sedative for me. Half the time I don’t even make it through a full chapter and I’m ready to sleep.
How about you? Why do you read fiction? (Or why don’t you?)