Monday, July 26, 2010

Excuse Me? or a Defense of Reading Fiction

My parents and I had lunch with some old friends and other people the old friends knew. We had eaten lunch, and the women had settled in for a delightful post-lunch conversational meander. The talk turned to books (four of us were teachers, so this was no surprise), and in the midst of discussions about Harry Potter (yay!), the Twilight series (blech!), and whether the standards for the Newberry had changed, one lady casually mentioned that she only allows herself one novel per year.

*Insert crickets, blank stares, and a rather uncomfortable silence where the rest of us looked at each other awkwardly, not quite sure how to respond*

This lady then went on to explain that she had so much to read with her cookbooks and children's school books (she homeschools them) that she just couldn't justify allowing herself to read more than one novel a year.

I have to admit that I was more than a little put off by her rather nonchalant statement. I can understand people who don't like or want to read (crazy people that they are) not wanting to read much in a year, but how is it possible that someone who suppposedly enjoys reading, who is trying to instill in her children the importance of words and reading, deprives herself of so much great material? This lady is clearly reading other things, but it irked me that she made this statement as an obvious testament to how pious and worthy she was because she wasn't reading the drivel and slop that the rest of us were because she didn't read multiple novels each year.

And this, really, is the heart of the issue: people still see reading fiction as largely a waste of time. I know there are people who prefer non-fiction, which is fine. There is a lot to be said for personal taste. I also know that people who are not readers cannot quite grasp the sometimes obsessive nature of a booklover's desire to read. But what I want to know is how a responsible, educated person can assert that all fiction, across the board, is frivolous and meant to be doled out in tiny bits like too-rich candy to children who might get sick if they eat too much of it. Is there frivolous, fluffy fiction? Certainly; the same, however, can be said for non-fiction.

What I really wanted to say in response to this woman's statement (but didn't because I was too dumbstruck) is that fiction has value. It's an argument that's been debated since the beginning of literature: what makes literature valid and valued? Is it only worthwhile if it instructs (which many associate with non-fiction)? Is it valuable if it only entertains? I would assert that the best literature (fiction, poetry, non-fiction, you name it) does both, but it is not necessary to feel actively instructed to take something valuable from a work of fiction. Sometimes it is enought to recognize yourself, your situation, or your feelings in a work. Even better if you learn something because of it.

I have gained so much from the fiction that I have read throughout my life. My appreciation of and love for music and beautiful things have been heightened by works like Bel Canto and the poetry of Liesl Muller. I have understood sacrifice and true love (romantic and non) more deeply and more truly because of Our Mutual Friend, Lord of the Rings, Little Dorrit, and even something as silly as Belong to Me. I have seen great moral lessons played out in To Kill a Mockingbird, Tale of Two Cities, and Things Fall Apart. I can hardly make a respectable dent in all the historical fiction I have read that not only taught me about the time and place but also brought significant history to life (Outlander, the Sunne and the Splendor, Macbeth, Gaskell's North and South, all of Dickens' works, The Bronze Arrow, the Little House on the Prairie books, Maude Hart Lovelace's Betsy, Tacy, and Tib books, and so many more).

I can honestly assert that my life would not have been the same if I had not read the books that I read, and most of those books have been fiction. Regarding all fiction as suspect is as problematic as assuming that every work in a certaing genre is valuable because it is that genre. It smacks of smugness and ignorance, and I don't like it.


Catherine said...

What a great post and what a BIZARRE woman! I can't believe someone who is homeschooling her children is such a poor role model. Talk about missing the big picture.

I've never met anyone quite like this, and I can only hope that she's an anomaly.

In other news, I can tell we have very similar taste by the books you mention here. You hit on at least three of my top ten (OMF, TKAM, and TFA), so cheers to that.

And thanks for coming by my blog! I did appreciate your comment. :)

-Catherine (

Read the Book said...

Thanks for the vote of support, Catherine. I also thought it a little strange, but hey, what can you do!