A couple weeks ago, I said to my friend, “You like books.” That’s what I do with my friends sometimes. I identify things they enjoy and I say those things out loud. When I told my friend that he liked books, he looked at the ground, kicked the dirt (we were actually not outside), and said, “Oh, I just read fantasy books. Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson. Those sorts of books.”
“Those are books,” I exclaimed. I was excited because those writers write books and he read the books those writers wrote. But he sounded sad. Forlorn even. Why, because, to him, fantasy books don’t count for anything.
My friend, thinking about his preference for fantasy literature. | Via GIPHY
It’s something a lot of people seem to think. Reading about orcs, dragons, sorcerers, or happiness are just things of make believe. They could never really happen. Thus, fantasy books are pointless. You don’t get anything from them besides some popcorn entertainment. Fantasy books are the literary equivalent of brainless summer blockbusters. That’s what the people say.
But is this true? No. It is not true. In fact, it’s the opposite of true. The more books are based in reality, actually, the less educational they are. There’s a direct correlation between fiction and education. The more fictitious a story is, the more educational value it has.
The way to think about this is putting nonfiction against fiction. Nonfiction can include biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, textbooks. Pretty much anything fact-based. The thing is people are only motivated to write and record facts when the facts are in some way notable. There are so many biographies written about people like Napoleon or George Washington or Martin Luther King, Jr. Reading about notable people does give you a useful glimpse into history, but those biographies were only written because those people don’t represent their time period. They were exceptional.
Reading about historical exceptions won’t really teach you much. You’ll learn about amazing people or events, but those amazing things aren’t representative of the largely mundane goings-on of most people’s lives. Like Mark Twain said,
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
In Poetics, Aristotle talks about the logic necessary to hold a story’s plot together. When you read a story, you’ll only sink into the story’s reality if the plot follows a logical sequence of events. There needs to be a logic that the story obeys. Logic is the thing that makes even the weirdest book familiar to the reader.
Logic isn’t taught to the reader at any point. It comes from living life. Nonfiction defies logic. Fiction is defined by logic. In this way, we can learn more about the logical cause-and-effect of life by reading fiction. A fiction author has to create characters, story, settings, and plot based on nothing but logic. By reading a good fiction book, the reader can see logic stretched to its furthest extent.
This all might seem a little abstract, so a concrete example in a bizarre work of fantasy is The Hobbit. As defined by Tolkien, hobbits are hothouse flowers, always staying in their little village, and never ever going on adventures. When Gandalf suggests Bilbo, a hobbit (THE hobbit, in fact), join an adventure to the Lonely Mountain, a bunch of dwarves laugh off the suggestion. Bilbo? An adventure? He’s a hobbit! But Bilbo joins just to prove those dwarves wrong. That’s the inciting incident and it happens through a logical series of events. It might be about wizards, dwarves, and some people called hobbits, but it follows the rules of basic human interaction. When someone says you can’t do something, you want to do it even more.
Reading a lot of fiction, then, makes the reader really skilled at identifying thought patterns. It makes certain scary or surprising decisions people make in the world more understandable. It ties really closely to empathy. When he appeared on The Late Show earlier this year, George Saunders said, “Empathy is like a superpower. Very robust if you do it.”
So, next time someone asks what you read, you should say loudly and proudly you read the silliest, most inconsequential fiction out there. Nonfiction is good too. It’s just less good than good fiction. So go read Patrick Rothfuss, friends. You’re smart too.
Feature Photo by mvp Via Unsplash