Why Reading Fiction is Important: An Analogy

I know that there are people who don’t read fiction. The idea is that reading fiction is pointless because the narrative either never happened or it doesn’t play out exactly the way it happened in real life. Supposedly, there are better things to do with one’s life than waste it on things that aren’t real, such as studying and exploring things that are real.

However, even biographies and nonfiction books on…physics or climate change or economics or what have you… they can only do so much for that exploration. Even though fictional books never happened–and in the case of fantasy, could never happen–their hypotheticals are capable of capturing real life in a way that nonfiction simply can’t.

It’s almost like studying a language. What you hope to get out of learning the language will dictate which one you learn, and the more languages you learn, the better you’re able to communicate with those you would not otherwise be able to understand.

Reading epic fantasy and hard-core science fiction serves much the same function as learning Latin. Epic fantasy takes place on an alternate world, one where the specific horrors of our own world are nonexistent. The exact nature of colonialism, climate change, racism against blacks and other minorities, the systematic and intentional erasing of our treatment of indigenous Americans, and so forth, are all specific to our world. To Earth. When we read a fantasy book, it’s a blank slate, one that allows authors to start a dialogue about some of these topics without putting people on the offensive.

At its core, fantasy serves as a more general translation. Consider Latin: it’s a dead language. No one speaks it anymore, and no one learns it except to study its linguistic effects on current languages. If the only language you know is Latin, you won’t be able to hold any conversations with people, but knowing the language allows you to pick up on familiar words and phrases in a variety of other languages.

SFF, similarly, won’t teach you the history of World War I, why it began or what scars it left behind, but it can remind its readers how horrific war is, show us how the cost is often not worth the goal. It may not teach you about racism or elitism, but it can explore what unchecked power can do to those just barely struggling to get by.

When it comes to realistic fiction, or the softer SSF like urban fantasy/sci-fi, reading these genres serve much the same function as studying a modern, non-native language. These genres are steeped in reality, some more so than others, but just because they’re still fictionalized doesn’t mean they don’t hold their own worth.

People study new languages to communicate with those they would otherwise be incapable of holding a conversation with. They learn to better be able to share ideas, to better learn of other cultures, and to essentially explore lifestyles that are not their own. But, at it the center of the endeavor, at its core, people learn new languages to find camaraderie and solidarity with a group of people that might have otherwise seemed too strange and alien to understand.

Often, when we read realistic fiction, we are seeking characters that we can relate to. (The same goes for SFF, but the drive holds more weight here.) But the narrative is still undeniably untrue. Just because Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series is set in the USA doesn’t mean Blue and her fellow Raven Boys are real people. It doesn’t even mean that physics are real. But many of the conflicts they find themselves dealing with very much are real–I’m not, of course, referring to Glendower, but rather things like being your own person, trying to escape poverty, exploring romantic feelings, etc.–and allowing readers to put themselves in these characters’ shoes. This, in turn, enables readers to expand their point of reference to something beyond what they already knew.

That’s not to say nonfiction is not without its merit, yet it is more like studying your native tongue. It’s not that you don’t learn new things in the process; it’s just that fiction can do so much more than its nonfiction counterpart. It’s more than just relaying information; fiction allows people to see it, interact with it, and understand it. And while that doesn’t make fiction inherently better than nonfiction, it certainly has its own merits. That’s why it’s important to read widely as well as deeply.


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