For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on Earth.
What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.
Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean;
they show us how to live and die.
I have already answered why I began writing fiction, so let me unpack why I read it too.
I think I have always been a bookworm.
As a child, I enjoyed reading stories of other people in other times and other places with other problems.
Why is it that we seek out more problems, about people who we don’t even know, who aren’t even alive?
Well, why not?
When I first started up with books, I did it because reading fed my growing imagination in ways that video games and television never could achieve. Screens win for visual stimulation, no doubt, but ironically enough it is the lack of stimulation in books – the gaps between the reader and the sentence – that allow our imagination to do its thing.
And as an introvert and generally shy child growing up in a very rural community, I enjoyed the quiet hobby of reading alone in different places, readily excusing myself to savour some solitude with a cat and a cup of coffee.
But I never thought of it as something more than what it was – reading. Reading books was confined to either
a) homework assigned by teachers in a mostly punitive fashion and b) a rainy-day option to pass the time until something more exciting came along…
Of course, I don’t think I would hold as much potential as a writer if I didn’t read books or if I found the act of consuming stories to be inconvenient.
It was not until recently that I began to appreciate how reading, at any age, can be the beginning of a life-long habit towards becoming a generally better, more well-rounded person.
That’s really what I think reading does, for me and most people: it helps us help ourselves. And I’m not even talking about all those studies recommending reading as good for our brains or stress. I think a lot of that is pretty well-established, right?
I’m talking about how fiction is good medicine for us humans.
Fiction helps develop our most valuable quality as organisms sharing this planet.
Now there is a time-and-place for non-fiction, like when life brings some tough confusing problems that necessitate getting direct advice – this can range from coping with grief or can be as mundane as starting a garden. In many ways, Youtube has replaced some of these instructional DIY books, offering visual 5-minute demonstrations when a 200-page book might take 2 weeks to read. But like books turned into movies, reading 12 chapters about electoral politics or STD’s is likely going to offer longer-lasting knowledge when compared to a too-long-didn’t-read explain-it-to-me-like-I’m-five vlog.
But “fiction” – the genre of stories made up of mostly untrue details – is something special.
My feeling is that there’s no such thing as nonfiction.
Everything is fiction, because in the moment someone tries to relate an experience of what happened to them, it’s gone.
The reality that was felt at the moment is impossible to describe.
It’s one reason why there are writers, to come close to how it felt when it happened.
Well, while every writer is trying to convey something to the reader, the fiction writer is really trying more to convey the sincerity of a voice than the legitimacy of an argument. So while all non-fiction is basically saying “I’m the best authority on this subject, so read me”, all fiction is instead of saying “I have something to say.”
That’s why you can have books with all kinds of narrators, from objective god-eye viewpoints who tell you what’s what in third-person all the way to subjective unreliable points of view of someone who encounters this story first-hand, just like you.
This distinction might seem pretty slight to you at first until you realize how we humans consume stories really changes whether we remember that story for life with a desire to return to it again and again OR whether we forget it almost straight away.
It’s the difference between hearing about a death on the news being reported in a rush along with tomorrow’s weather and experiencing that same death as if we were there, as if we committed it ourselves as if we saw it happen as if we were the victim.
All good books are alike that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you;
the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.
If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.
But still, the question at the beginning still asks: why do I read fiction, why do we seek out more problems, about people who we don’t even know, who aren’t even alive?
Well, for starters, fictional stories help us take a break from our own life.
We can get swept up in the problems of another, and the stranger they are or their world, then the easier it is for us to let go of our “real-world” assumptions, biases and expectations about everything. If I were to say the protagonist is a veteran, republican and reads the Bible, that’s going to pop a lot of images into your head – but if I qualify that saying they are a veteran of a future war with robots, a republican exiled on the third moon of Saturn, or someone who reads the Bible in an era when all other Bibles have been burned, well that changes the image in your head a little bit, no?
And yet still, the stranger they are (and if the story is told well), they will feel like an old friend of yours by the time you finish it, leaving you changed from who you were before you heard their story.
Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being?
Isn’t it such a relief to have somebody say that?
Secondly, sometimes reading fiction can wake us up.
We can be reading page after page, and then suddenly come across a sentence where the words are chosen and their precise order is just exactly right. When that happens, it is dazzling, like witnessing magic or finding buried treasure. It is so special because we can really identify with the words you just read, can almost actually see yourself on the page.
It is not only incredible for tiny scribbles of ink to evoke a mirror reflecting our insides like it’s nothing at all, but even more, what a fucking shock it is to know someone else has felt what you felt and had the tenacity to capture it by writing it all down!
- That bully you see every day? Kind of like the evil king in this story…
- That awkward conversation? Sort of reminds me of this dialogue in chapter 10…
- That major fuck-up embarrassment? The heroine of this book can totally relate…
Every reader of a novel is in effect the reader of his own life, whose shape we are better able to appreciate thanks to spectacles which the novelist has offered us.
Third, stories of fiction can offer solutions we might never have found.
Ironically enough, sometimes our imagination needs some entertainment before our more critical, rational mind is ready to really accept an answer to a problem.
Using our surrogate self, the protagonist or narrator’s point of view, we can see everyday reality through a fun-house mirror, distorting this or that, making us blink and question what is real and what is make-believe. And this disorientation just happens to be an excellent way to come upon new insights and new conclusions.
When people feel depressed or anxious, what often troubles them is time. If you cannot see tomorrow, a minute goes so slowly, the clock doesn’t move, and that’s how I feel when I’m not doing well.
So, I read writers’ letters and journals — you’re looking at a lifetime in 600 pages.
Katherine Mansfield died young but in her journal it was a lifetime. She had to live every day. Every day was still pain and struggle and poverty. Days are repetitive.
Reading other people’s letters and journals makes me a little more patient with life.
It reminds me of this video someone edited of Will Smith giving out advice:
(excuse the ableist metaphor and homophobic comment by the radio DJ)
Last of all, reading fiction helps us think and relate and live beyond ourselves.
Unless you are some alien body-snatcher or reincarnated with full memories of past lives, you are like me and are confined to one body, which is relatively bound by time and space, such that you’re unlikely to see firsthand most of the world in your lifespan and definitely not all the people of the world and certainly not the places and peoples who lived long before you and who will live long after you.
And until some new drug or technology comes along that allows us to enter into immersive virtual realities, the humble book is the cheapest and safest way to experience more of life.
Stories, when they are well-told, expand the reader’s perspective by exposing us to think new thoughts and confront new realities. We can come close to finding out what someone in the ancient world cared about or how they coped with a broken heart, and we can surpass our physical limitations by living out adventures (again and again) that we would happily decline for good reason in our day-to-day.
We not only can find affirmations that tell us what it means to be human, that what we feel and fear are as human as anything else, but we can attempt to experience what it means to be Human, the collective species, made up of a gazillion random emotions and petty rivalries and epic ambitions and mundane chores.
Books are the way that we communicate with the dead.
The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.
But all of these gifts demand a patient reader, to risk precious time by investing interest into a story, to pause and wonder over words that describe people and places and problems, and to search for truth hidden in between the lines.
Maybe someone like you?
And that is why I read – thank you for reading this!