Every so often, people will ask me why I read so many novels. They sneer: Why don’t I want to know about real life?
Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of When I Was a Child I Read Books, writes that she read “to experience that much underrated thing called deracination, the meditative, free appreciation of what ever comes under one’s eye.” Even more fundamentally, she read because she wanted to.
But to fiction skeptics, “Because I want to" usually doesn't cut it. I like nonfiction, sure. James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood caused me to miss a subway stop. But I don’t care about politics, at least not as much as I should. Or about the biographies of great men and women. Honestly, the Times is all the “real life” I need most days.
Sometimes I read fiction for the sheer beauty of other people’s words. Over winter vacation, I brought along Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. I came across these lines—
"Far from it," said Nick. "No, no—he spoke, as to cheek and chin, of the joy of the matutinal steel." They all laughed contentedly. It was one of Nick’s routines to slip these plums of periphrasis from Henry James’s late works into unsuitable parts of his conversation, and the boys marvelled at them and tried feebly to remember them—really they just wanted Nick to say them, in his brisk but weighty way.
—and quite suddenly, because Hollinghurst’s writing is so baroque and perfectly rendered, I found myself thinking and speaking with those “plums of periphrasis” for the next week. Other people can’t change my tone like that. The world around me can’t change my thoughts like that.
But the best, the most important reason that I bother with the figments of an author’s imagination is to understand other people. Annie Murphy Paul explains that when we read, we interact with the characters as if they were real. “The brain...does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life,” she explains; “in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”
It’s true: I tend to imagine the characters I’m reading a little too well. I had to stop reading Watchmen when Dr. Osterman was destroyed in an Intrinsic Field Subtractor. And when I read Teju Cole’s Open City, I found myself unable to separate Julius’s view of New York from my own. I never had an invisible friend as a child; it looks like books took care of that for me.
Hence my answer: I can read nonfiction to understand how the world works, but I’d rather read fiction to understand how people work. What about you?
image credit: litfestalberta.org