I was in a conversation recently with a friend about a few of the books I’ve recently read – specifically Samanta Schweblin’s brilliant Fever Dream and Murakami’s Men Without Women. During our conversation, she kept coming back to the same argument about her own reading habits, specifically that she wished she had the time to read. It caught me by surprise because this is a woman who seems to have more time than most to read. Indeed, she posts two or three lengthy articles a day on her social media accounts and has in fact read many non-fiction books, mostly of the self-help variety, in recent months. What she really meant to say was that she wished she had the time to read fiction, as though she placed less importance on fiction, reducing it to a cheap pleasure.
She’s not alone. In this age of content, that which is being consumed is quick information, fragments of something larger – a segment on NPR here, a podcast there, CNN soundbites from the treadmill at the gym. And while I will never be one to argue for ignorance about what is actually going on in the world, I will posit that entering the fictional world is of equal importance, never more so than today, because while the content we consume informs of us our hyper-defined identities in this digital world, it does little to change us. It’s homogenous, rooted in group-think and our evolved need to belong to a side of the aisle on every topic making the rounds. But whereas digital consumption might inform (or entertain) our preset belief systems, reading fiction can inform of us of who we really are, or who we want to be.
A content-driven world is a world concerned more with consumption than correctness, more concerned with information than truth. It is a world that has subverted the news cycle and ushered in a new era. These are post-fact times, and it is unlikely that we are going back anytime soon. And yet, while consumption seems to be a driving force behind young and old, most of the content being devoured comes through social media enterprises and cable television networks. Podcasts. Blogs. It is troubling enough that this is a post-fact world, but it should be equally frightening that this has increasingly become a post-fiction world. I use the term fiction here to refer specifically to written stories and not to denote something that isn’t true, for there are often the most sincere truths inside of written stories.
In a piece some years back, the Guardian excerpted a Neil Gaiman lecture, quoting the following:
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different (“Face Facts: We Need Fiction”).
This stuck with me, because that is precisely the power of good fiction: it can transport us someplace else, oftentimes places we’ve never visited and likely never will visit in our lifetimes. And this is important. We are people of habits and comfort; we aren’t primed to learn when we remain in our comfortable environments. We need to be taken to faraway places to be challenged. We need to sit at an unfamiliar table to learn. We need to meet people who aren’t like us to understand more about them, and us. Fiction is the vehicle through which we discover these places and people.
When I graduated high school an English teacher of mine passed down a copy of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. This was a time for me when my world consisted solely of basketball, church youth groups, and hip-hop music to some varying degrees. I’d always been a reader and a writer, from the earliest of ages, but most of my reading to date comprised of bestsellers, classic English literature, and John Grisham legal thrillers. I was only at the start of my literary journey, and that now well-worn copy of Siddhartha would serve as the catalyst for the transformation that followed. Through those pages, as I followed Siddhartha’s search for enlightenment, I began to question my own journey. What purpose did any of this have if there wasn’t an end goal. It had to be more than basketball and church camps and music. I had just finished devouring Camus’ The Stranger and some of Kafka’s work, and coupled with Hesse’s work, I never looked back as the journey evolved into something greater with each book.
I moved on to Dante’s work, Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat, and then on to Steinbeck’s works. From there it was Kerouac and the Beats and then Hemingway and then Sylvia Plath and then, eventually, to the profundity of Didion’s work. Each new author and book was like a course I’d never taken, one with a purpose not of educating me to pass an exam or earn a degree but of introducing me to new worldviews and perspectives I had not yet known. I had my own ideas now, new ideas that were not reliant on the various groups one typically identifies themselves with. Much like Hesse’s Siddhartha, I was in the midst of an awakening. I was now understanding the current events through new lenses that helped identify nuances that I previously would have missed, and it was exhilarating. It is exciting to be exposed to fresh voices.
The fiction writer is not just the dead white man taught in outdated courses. The fiction writer today is also the immigrant woman, the non-binary writer, the Indian doctor, the Japanese jazz club promoter. These are voices and points of view that may differ from our own, worldviews we’ve never encountered, and to that I say good! This is the challenge of reading, to divest ourselves from the narrow worlds we inhabit in order to see the whole.
It is impossible to visit the Grand Canyon for the first time and not leave feeling differently, as though you’ve encountered something overwhelming. Likewise, it is impossible to read a new narrative and not leave having changed in some way. As our news cycles and the information age tailors what we see through algorithms designed around our inherencies, fresh voices and worlds are more important than ever.
There is an excitement, too, in fiction that lacks in the routine, take-centric world of social content. There is fear, joy, heartbreak, uncertainty, laughter, all found in the pages of fiction. So that when we read Didion’s Play It As It Lays or Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, there is a profound, quiet devastation that resonates for weeks, months, lifetimes. Or when we read the clever insight in the stories of Curtis Sittenfeld or Otessa Moshfegh, we might begin to think about the world, ourselves, a little differently. When we read the deficiencies of a Cheever character or the classist issues at play in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus we might begin to understand a difficult coworker a little bit more. When we read the simple, beautiful truths of a Carver story, we might begin to feel better about our own places in the world where we’ve previously doubted. These are tonics to be taken, pills that can open up the mind to new realms that were previously unreachable.
As we continue to consume information at exponential rates, that which is being consumed begins to have no meaning. The news story becomes a repeat. The political scandal is less scandalous. The celebrity gossip becomes old hat. Outrage and controversy lose their bite. Fiction can help bring life and perspective back into these stories. The wisdom of the writer is in her observational prowess, something much needed when the information begins to bleed together. This is not to say that the smartphone, the tablet, the computer, the television are the enemies. This is not an indictment of one thing, but rather an exaltation of the other. It is through fiction where we begin to realize the fallacy of such mutual exclusivities. It is through fiction where we begin to realize just how many fallacies we’ve actually bought into. It is through fiction where we become better citizens of the world.
Stay informed, for ignorance is not a mark worth aiming for. Stay up-to-date on current events and the social issues affecting the communities around you. And at the end of the day, when you’ve grown weary from over-consumption, block out some time to pick up a book and transport yourself into the insightful escapes of fiction.