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.

How Do We Talk About Eating Disorders?

I’m currently working on a post for Teen Skepchick¬†about eating disorders in a cross cultural perspective. At the moment, I’m just in the research stage of this post, so I’m reading a lot about the research that’s been done about cross cultural eating disorders and about the differences in symptoms, causes, and etiology of eating disorders in different cultures.

And I have to say that I am deeply upset by the way we talk about eating disorders. I am particularly upset because I’ve been reading academic articles, pieces by graduate students studying psychology, and other articles that are surveys of the literature on eating disorders. These should be held to the best standards we have. Unfortunately, no matter where I look (except for in very particular blogs written by people with eating disorders, particularly Science of Eating Disorders), I hear the same things over and over and over again:

“When we expose our girls to thin models and beauty ideals they develop eating disorders”

“Girls of African American descent aren’t likely to get an eating disorder because their culture values voluptuous bodies”

“Eating disorders only crop up in other countries as they become infiltrated by Western beauty ideals”

I am SO sick of the conversation around eating disorders being dominated by conversations about models and images of women in the media and the desire to be thinner. It cannot be that difficult for people to understand this, but I’ll say it again: an eating disorder is a mental illness. It is not a diet. It is not even an extreme diet. It is not a desire to lose weight. It is a coping mechanism to deal with difficult things in your life that you can’t cope with otherwise.

There is VERY little evidence that eating disorders are caused by skinny models. What there IS evidence of is that eating disorders are caused by low self-esteem, family disruption, trauma, other mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, OCD, BPD, bipolar, and addiction are common), abuse, or other difficult situations that you need a way out of. It is such a cliche by now that eating disorders aren’t about food, but I cannot stress it enough: eating disorders aren’t about food! They aren’t about looking pretty or beautiful. I have YET to meet someone with an eating disorder who says they just want to be pretty. I hear them say that they’re depressed, that they can’t cope, that they’re lonely, that they don’t feel acceptable when they’ve eaten, that they feel out of control around food, or that they use food to numb out emotions and manage other parts of their lives.

It is not helpful to keep refocusing the conversation on how someone’s body looks and the beauty ideals. This continues to reinforce them as what’s important, and it focuses the issues on the body again, instead of addressing whatever mental stress has occurred. It simplifies the matter to a point that is unhelpful, and makes treatment and self-understanding very difficult because it doesn’t allow us to reach the real etiology of the disease. It even reinforces those negative suggestions that a woman’s worth is in the beauty standards she does or does not strive to live up to.

Instead of these things, it would be far more helpful to talk about the sexism that makes women feel inadequate no matter what they do, or the bad family systems that don’t allow for good communication or healthy emotions, or the abusive relationships that many women are in, or the trauma and depression of daily life, or the failure of our mental health system to provide us with good coping techniques for when we do start to feel over our heads. If we want to talk about cross cultural eating disorders, maybe we should talk about the different family roles that exist, the different expectations of women in different cultures, the common mental illnesses in those cultures, the differences in guilt and shame in different culture (these feelings are huge in eating disorders), and the relationship that these cultures have to food as symbolic, relational, or positive.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses. They are not an attempt to be skinny. They are not a reaction to the media. They are not the desire to look like a model. They are serious. They are life-threatening. They are painful. They come with depression, constant mental stress, trauma, self-hatred, difficulty with relationships, isolation, loneliness, feelings of guilt and inadequacy, and all sorts of things that ARE NOT simply reactions to the media, but are about how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others. Can we please start talking about them in terms of the mental situation of the individual suffering, because that is what makes something a mental illness?