I’ve been alive thirty-two years. For thirty-one of them, I avoided fiction books. I was assigned them in high school, I’m sure of it. But I’m also sure I read zero of them cover-to-cover. Thank you, SparkNotes.
I began getting serious about books after college (when I was no longer required to read them…weird how that works). They were exclusively non-fiction, though.
I’ll be honest: I saw fiction as a waste of time. I mean, why? I didn’t get it. Even the great novels, the classics, were reserved, I assumed, for the nerds, the folks who didn’t have real friends or a real life.
I hope you’ll excuse my snobbery.
About a year ago, I took inventory of my little library. I own more than a few books these days. This is symptomatic of an addiction, my wife says. I mostly agree. One could be addicted to far worse things.
In my defense, though, I read a lot of books – 34 so far this year.
Anyway, I began the laborious task of sorting my books into sections: leadership/self-help, memoirs, Christian, fiction, etc.
Upon completion, I noticed something. I had a solid selection of books in each section above. Except fiction.
My fiction section consisted of four books. Four. And two were hand-me-downs.
This seems wrong, I thought. So I made a conscious decision to read more fiction.
I didn’t expect much, really. Low expectations. Fiction didn’t do much for me in high school. Why would things be different now?
Things were different, though. I found myself immersed. Weird, un-Frank-like things happened. Things like reading entire books in one sitting or crying over printed ink or opting to read rather than watch TV. The Odyssey. The Alchemist. The Hobbit. Harry Potter. The Great Gatsby? If my high school literature teacher only knew. Was I becoming a nerd? I didn’t care.
This is the power of story. Stories is as old as time. For centuries, humans have relied on story, not just for entertainment, but for survival. Stories help us make sense of the world. They help us predict and prepare for the future.
Fiction is story, of course. And, according to research, fiction shapes us, even more than non-fiction. Fiction has a way of by-passing the ego’s walls of bias and certitude and infecting the sub-conscious, that part of us that shapes many of our decisions, unbeknownst to us.
Some of history’s most influential people seemed to get this. Take Abraham Lincoln. When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), he famously said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” He was referring to the Civil War, of course.
Really, Mr. Lincoln? A book the catalyst for our nation’s most bloody, deadly war?
Or take Adolf Hitler. This might shock you – it certainly did me – but Hitler was infatuated with the arts. Some historians – again, shockingly – believe Hitler’s obsession with the arts rivaled his hatred of the Jews.
Hogwash, you say? Maybe. But on May 10, 1933, Nazis set out to burn every book deemed “un-German in spirit.” In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall says the Nazis committed a holocaust of books “so there would be fewer barriers to a holocaust of real people.”
So what is it about fiction? In what specific ways do fictional stories shape us?
Glad you asked. Here are a few.
Fiction makes you more open-minded and tolerant.
The Harry Potter series has captivated a generation. More than 450 million books sold in 70-plus languages.
I won’t ruin the whole thing, but I’ll say this: Harry Potter prevails in the end. The main character, however, does more than save his people. He teaches people how to battle prejudice. According to a recent study, reading Harry Potter vastly improves people’s perception of stigmatized groups – homosexuals, immigrants, refugees.
I’ve read the entire series. Racism and elitism and privilege are woven throughout. I, for one, was deeply moved by their impacts – positive and negative – on the characters involved. In the final pages, I felt a deeper connection to my brothers and sisters of all backgrounds, the marginalized in particular.
Fiction improves your relationships.
The very best stories master the art of dialogue and navigating all manner of relationships. They show you how healthy and unhealthy people communicate.
Fiction, in other words, simulates real-life situations.
Non-fiction books, with the primary goal to convince, don’t have the same effect. Research has, in fact, shown that folks who read fiction perform better in social settings than people who just read non-fiction.
Why is this? Steven Pinker says stories help us establish a mental filing cabinet of dilemmas we might one day face as well as – and this is key – workable outcomes. People who read fiction understand many different personalities, at least in part because they’ve encountered them in the books they’ve read.
Fiction loosens the grip of certainty.
Your ego is that part of you that needs certainty and despises change.
The ego also loves happy endings. This is why I love movies. Almost all movies resolve. The hero wins. The villain loses. The folks who are supposed to end up together, end up together.
As you might have noticed, however, real life doesn’t always resolve. Things aren’t always happy in the end.
I could argue, in fact, life is chaotic, if it’s anything.
Things are in flux, always. People who find peace and contentment give up the futile search for happy endings and instead nurture the ability to find these eternal virtues in themselves, apart from external circumstances.
Fiction, much more than non-fiction and even most movies, reflects this disordered life. Things don’t always work out in books, not in the ones I’ve read.
That’s why people who read fiction, according to this article, are more creative and more comfortable with uncertainty and paradox.
Fiction makes you more empathetic.
Empathy is powerful. It clears space in our heart for love and compassion. Empathy makes us more human. It makes us more Christ-like. You can’t be a good leader, pastor, parent, or spouse without empathy.
The best way to grow in empathy is through relationships with people.
The next best way? Fiction.
There’s no way I can understand the unique sufferings of every person in this world. I’ve never experienced the trauma of losing a parent, a spouse, or a child. I don’t understand the difficulties associated with special needs or autism. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman or a minority.
There is, however, a book out there for all of these, one that gives you a glimpse of life from a different perspective.
The best novels out there have a way of pulling you into the story. You feel what the characters feel. You identify with their longings and frustrations. You begin to envision a world outside your world.
Fiction awakens wonder and hope and awe.
Annie Dillard says we read books to be inspired with hope and wisdom, courage and wisdom. “Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love?” she says, “We still and always want waking.”
Non-fiction books can wake us up, no doubt.
But, in my experience, fiction books accomplish this goal more often and more completely. After The Alchemist, I felt an uncanny aliveness. A renewed passion. A restored hope. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows rekindled my belief in the power of good to overcome evil. The Hobbit reminded me of the power of risk and adventure.
On and on I could go.
Fiction books appeal to the imagination. They remind you what could be. They invite to live more fully. They show the power of connection and importance of being human.
What you realize – what I’ve realized – is that all good fiction stories borrow from the Story, God’s story. I’m speaking, here, of the Bible. The more you read, the more obvious this becomes.
That’s why, if you’re a Christian, reading fiction is quite healthy and good. These stories don’t diminish or detract from the Story. They reinforce it. Redemption. Selfless love. The desire for connection. The battle between good and evil. Suffering. You’ll find one or more of these eternal themes in every good work of fiction.
That’s because every story borrows from God’s story.
In my next post, I want to give you a list of fiction books I believe every Christian should read.
Until then, grace and peace, friends.