Why Fiction is Just as Important as Nonfiction
The anatomy of my bookshelf is quite simple: it consists of rows and rows of fantasy novels, children’s storybooks, and mystery thrillers. At the very ends of my bookshelf, however, lay the pitiful remains of my parents’ attempts to make me read more useful things: dusty finance books, crumpled science texts, and abandoned political journals. It wasn’t that I hadn’t read them at all— I’d read them and even understood them; I knew the importance of having worldly knowledge. But what makes people’s eyebrows shoot into their hairlines is when I tell them that I prefer reading fiction over non-fiction.
The perception that reading fiction after a certain age is useless and serves no value is common–and, frankly, quite rampant. Sure, as we grow up, it’s important to diversify our reading (and in a way, going to college already does so), but it doesn’t mean that we have to completely dissociate from reading fiction.
For many people (myself included), stories provide a way to process their own emotions and understand what’s going on in the world around them. The characters in these stories go through life almost exactly like we do, and how they grapple with their own problems can serve as inspiration– or even guidance– for how to deal with our own. Like French film direction Jean-Luc Godard once said, “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form,” fiction provides an anchor to help us ground ourselves instead of getting too overwhelmed by the world around us.
Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”Jean-Luc Godard
Fiction has also been known to increase empathy, reduce stress, and increase one’s attention span and vocabulary. Putting yourself in a character’s shoes and feeling their emotions as if they were your own not only makes you more understanding of other people, but also lets you escape reality for a brief period of time. When you go through a character’s journey together, you’re also exercising your problem solving skills, jumping ahead of the narrative to come up with different explanations to cliffhangers and plot twists. Although in the age of scrolling through feeds and craving instant gratification, paying attention to something for longer than two minutes seems bizarre, this is exactly what books require you to do.
Fiction stimulates your imagination like nothing else can. Take a moment to read this sentence:
The young boy shoved his hands into his coat, shivering as cars hurtled past him.
What did you imagine? Was the boy tall or short? Was his coat black or grey? What kind of cars did he see? Did the color or the font of the text play a role in what you imagined?
You know your answer, and yet when you ask another person the exact same question, they’ll give you a completely different one. Think back to the last time you read a story– the words were black ink on white paper one second, and bright colors and vivid landscapes the next. That’s the beauty of fiction: you’re given the outline, but you shade in the colors yourself. Fiction creates a movie in your mind’s eye, and isn’t it so much better to be the director of your own movie than the audience for somebody else’s?
Thankfully, some of the world’s best writers recognized the growing disrespect towards fiction and strived to correct this kind of thinking. Author J.R.R. Tolkien (you may recognize him as the genius behind the Lord of the Rings series) argued that his books were never meant to be exclusively for children. In his 1947 essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” he explained that it is a common misconception to attribute fantasy to children. He also said that writing fiction is a much more difficult task than writing nonfiction, as it demands the creation of a whole new world. “Few attempt such difficult tasks,” he writes. “But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.”
At the end of the day, however, what you choose to read is always your own choice. I have friends who read nothing but nonfiction, owning teetering piles of autobiographies and economic journals but not a single YA fiction novel. I also have plenty of friends who detest reading completely and complain about how they can’t bring themselves to read more than a single page of any book. All types of readers exist in this world, but if you ever catch yourself on the receiving end of criticism for holding a fantasy paperback in your hand, just know that whoever’s judging you probably has the attention span of a goldfish and will likely forget your existence in a matter of seconds.