I Used to Avoid Fiction Like the Plague, But This is Why I Changed My Mind

I like people in limited quantities, and I like books realistic and practical. But that’s only one way to look at it.

Originally published on Medium.com.

I recently finished reading The Chronicles of Narnia.

You know the one: the children’s fantasy series of seven books British writer C.S. Lewis penned in the 1950s, and maintains popularity today.

Yes, I just admitted to reading kid books. And yes, I was aware of this fact when I started and embraced it nonetheless. The author crafted riveting stories for the children, but it carries plenty of English wit and timeless meaning for the adult reader as well.

Some of the most moving, poignant, and humorous passages I’ve read in years came from those simple, magical stories. Like in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Or in The Magician’s Nephew:

Or in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

“’You can’t know,’ said the girl. ‘You can only believe — or not.’”

Or in The Silver Chair:

“Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do.”

There’s plenty more, and of course the more you know the context of the stories, the more powerful the excerpts become. That’s something I rarely considered as a reader; I always wanted the penultimate quote to carry as much meaning for people who hadn’t read a whole book as it did for me when I read the book. [That’s why I started Quotes Collection]

That’s fine for nonfiction, but in fiction, it’s about the whole connected story. The power lies in the mini-narratives working underground and surfacing into the meta-narrative, how nuance and complexity don’t diminish from the story, but add beautiful layers of contour to it.

The magic is in the details.

Good fiction brings together many streams into one powerful river.

It’s not that I read them all as a child and only remember their nostalgic value. I only read two of them in elementary school: The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I remembered little from my first encounter with those stories all those years ago.

So after a few years of seeing them on my bookshelf, since my wife fell in love with them in her childhood and kept them in her library, I finally decided to give them a shot.

I don’t often read fiction. It’s not that I don’t like it, or I don’t like being entertained, or immersing myself within a world of fun adventures and mythical creatures. I’ve just been stuck in reality for a while, digging into current events and news selections and personal development insights and wholehearted self-care and relationship enhancing.

I love reading practical nonfiction. But now I believe fiction is an invaluable part of any reader’s lineup.

The Advantage of Fiction Readers

I read a nonfiction book a few years ago called The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall. One chapter mentioned a study by Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar that explored the correlation of people who read fiction over nonfiction and a growing social awareness. I would have guessed that people who locked themselves indoors with Harry Potter or The Hunger Games would be the shy, socially-inhibited types. Yet the data suggested otherwise, as Gottschall wrote:

“In a second test that accounted for differences in personality traits — as well as factors such as gender, age, and IQ — the psychologists still found that people who consumed a lot of fiction outperformed heavy nonfiction readers on tests of social ability. In other words, as Oatley puts it, differences in social abilities ‘were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did.’”

Could it be that people who read fiction engage in those mythical worlds through the emotional, psychological, and relational lens of the protagonist? And if they do, that they almost unconsciously pick up social cues, navigate moral decision-making, and develop a stronger concept of the world and how to live within it?

“When we experience fiction, our minds are firing and wiring, honing the neural pathways that regulate our responses to real-life experiences.”

In other words, reading fiction trains us to live nonfiction. By immersing ourselves in a fake world and made-up scenarios, we prepare ourselves to do better in reality.

I am sorely behind.

Not just because I am a rather adamant introvert who enjoys plenty of solo time and has no problem avoiding people when I don’t want to talk (which some see as a social flaw), but I’m at another disadvantage because I gravitate toward nonfiction.

So this year has been, in part, about immersing myself within a few fictional jaunts with the hope of being a little more well-rounded, as well as being entertained while developing a richer appreciate of the world I live in.

There’s something else, too.

The lessons we need to learn most are not always the ones we’re open to.

We may say we want to have a healthier relationship, but we don’t accept the wisdom of trustworthy people around us.

We may say we want to make better decisions or eat better or exercise more or grow a more resilient faith, but without action, good intentions are pretty useless. They’re even self-sabotaging because we deceive ourselves into believing we’re making progress on that thing when we’re only just identifying part of it, while failing to identify our apathy and laziness when it comes to actually making the change.

“Things always work according to their nature.”

One of the powers of fiction is in subversively teaching the lesson and driving home the point before we ever realize we’re being preached at. Gottschall explains:

“When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.”

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Because no matter the world we live in, we’ve got to learn how to navigate it well. [That’s why I’m writing this book.] No hiding in our rooms, no hiding in the pages. At some point, we’ve got to step outside the narrative we’ve given ourselves or assumed from others around us, and forge a new path in the bright land of the living.

That sounds like an adventure worth taking.

Here’s to you, fiction reader. Be patient with me; I’m on my way.

***

Thanks for reading!

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