It happens fairly frequently. Once I get to talking about books (another frequent occurrence), I hear this phrase or something fairly close to it: "I'm not really into novels, I read mainly non-fiction," or "I don't really read much, but when I do it's something non-fiction." Now, maybe it's only in my insecure little mind but, is that also a little bit of condescension I hear in that quote?
You see, this type of quote usually comes up once I've been asked about the type of books I read or what my favorite books have been. My reading history has a large amount of fiction in it and this comes out in my answer. Cue the above quote.
To be honest, I feel a bit silly writing this blog. I don't think reading fiction should need a defense. It stands well on it's own as a simple hobby done for pure pleasure, why should it have to be defended to anyone? But here's why I'm writing this blog anyway: What I get from some of the non-fiction only readers is the sense that if you are going to do something as unenjoyable as reading, why not be reading something that is worthwhile?
I will address this question in two parts. The first will take on the assumed un-enjoyable-ness of reading, and the second will apply to the worthwhile-ness of fiction.
First point of defense: Reading fiction teaches you to enjoy reading. This is fairly straightforward. Everyone loves a good story. And reading is like anything else, the more you do it the better you become at it. The more you read, the easier and more enjoyable the act of reading becomes. I've heard multiple people say they would like to read more (more frequently I've heard that they should read more). Usually with the intention of reading some non-fiction in a vague attempt to hit the vague goal of makeing themselves a better person. The attempt is to be applauded and encouraged. But the excuse is almost always that they "just couldn't get into it", which is, in general, just a nice way of saying it was too hard, difficult, and unenjoyable. Pick up a good novel, or a bad novel, or just some story that sucks you in and the reading will happen on it's own. You can grow from there.
Reading stories is one of the most powerful tools we have for shaping the imagination, and therefore, shaping character.
Second, and probably the more important, point of defense: Reading stories is one of the most powerful tools we have for shaping the imagination, and therefore, shaping character. One of the most important things we can learn in life is to know what The Good is and to love The Good. In general knowing what is good is a lot easier than loving what is good. It is easier to know that you should treat your defeated foe with dignity and mercy than to love the concept enough to actually do it. By "watching" characters go through and react to situations that we will never actually be in, we have our imagination shaped in ways that results in our automatic and natural reactions and feelings to what we encounter in our world.
Often the effect of stories on our imagination and thinking is not something we realize until years later. I've come to realize that, as a young boy, I learned more about what it was to be a man from reading the Young Trailers series by Joseph Altsheler than from just about anything else. The series taught me about bravery, loyalty, and friendship. It taught me that good people can be caught on opposite sides of a fight. I learned more about teamwork from that series than a lifetime of sports has taught me. Likewise, Tolkien taught me what Home is and that fighting a good fight is worth it even if you don't reap the benefits. These ideas were set deep into my mental processes without me even being aware of it.
Because of this effect a word of caution is in order. There is a tendency in some of the modern novels toward having a lot of "gray area" morality and anti-heroes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it can help us wrestle with difficult issues, but if one does not already have a solid backdrop of true heroes with which to read these books against the damage to the imagination and moral sense could be serious.
There is plenty more to be said on this topic, (like what about movies for forming the imagination?) but alas this post is already at the point of being Long Enuff. So I leave it up to you, dear reader, to continue the conversation. Let me know what you think in the comments or on Facebook!