What You Know: Reading Fiction and Nonfiction

I was talking with a colleague the other day about loving to learn and about what kinds of things I like to learn. He mentioned that he can’t read novels because there are simply so many nonfiction topics to learn about that he can’t imagine wasting time on fiction. While I can understand the drive to learn as much about our world as possible, I can’t understand cutting fiction out of my life. Most of us understand what we learn or gain from nonfiction: straight facts or insight into phenomena or incidents in the world. However there’s a lot of people who appear to miss the real learning we can do when we read novels.

As a novel junkie, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain how I view fiction as a source of knowledge.

Many people see the arts as beneficial because they allow us to connect to each other, or to feel emotions. These are good things, but they aren’t direct lessons or sources of knowledge. In addition to catharsis or other emotional and/or spiritual (in the sense of connective) elements, there is a little more to fiction. In my mind, the most important thing we can learn from fiction is empathy. When we allow ourselves to enter into someone else’s mind and story, we learn about what it’s like to be another person. We learn about other experiences. We learn how to imagine what things might be like for someone else. This skill provides us with a great deal of straight information, and as we partake in this process in each novel, we gain facts about what it’s like to be each character in the novel. While no two people are exactly the same, these insights can help us connect with real human beings and understand their motivations, histories, and experiences.

In addition, we can also understand a bit of the human psyche by reading fiction. A good author will create characters who react realistically to their surroundings, who have understandable and realistic emotions and motivations, and who make sense as human beings. Spending time in someone else’s head can help you not just to understand a specific type of person, but to understand some basic human psychology. Again, this provides you with some additional empathy.

Depending upon the genre, you may also learn something about history, a certain place, a particular incident or phenomenon, or a group of people because of the setting. Again, many fiction authors spend a good deal of time researching and understanding the setting of their novels so that they can create something that is realistic and will teach you through the story.

But there are more difficult things you can learn by reading novels. Novels are made up of characters facing difficult situations. This means you as the reader are asked to contemplate those difficult situations, and you are left with a deeper understanding of ethics, as well as your own character. You can find new roles models (I learned feminist ideals from many of my childhood and teenage reading), learn what sort of person you don’t want to be, or imagine ideals in things like friendship and family. Literature often tackles deep philosophical questions, and while you may not directly discuss them while reading, you do still find yourself thinking about them and wondering what your own reactions might be.

Examples of these issues from books I’ve read:

1.What does it mean to lie?

2.When should you trust someone?

3.Should men and women be treated the same?

4.How should you treat a friend?

5.Are adults trustworthy?

6.What makes life worth living?

I also have read fiction books that tackled everything from mental retardation to pregnancy to life in poverty to being a rich socialite. You get insight into each of these worlds, you get to inhabit each of these worlds for a time and hopefully understand better the perspectives of individuals in these situations.

In addition, the conversations that arise out of novels and fiction are hugely important to informing our sense of self and our knowledge of the world around us. We see which things we react to and we can begin to understand why when we discuss novels and fiction with those around us. We may gain empathy for one of our friends or colleagues by hearing their interpretation or perspective on a book or movie. All of these things are real and true forms of knowledge: they’re knowledge about what it’s like to experience things, and that is something that you can’t gain from nonfiction.

2 thoughts on “What You Know: Reading Fiction and Nonfiction

  1. *claps vigorously, enthusiastically* Yes! Exactly. I’ve done a lot of research into narratology, trying to understand the power of fiction on me, and, as a “novel junkie” myself, I agree with your perfectly put post!

  2. Mark Field says:

    I concur. I’m the type who claims to prefer non-fiction, but I’m trying to change. Lately, I’ve read more fiction than usually. Your post is perfectly stated.

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