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Why Read Fiction If It Doesn't Make You Smarter?

It’s food for the soul, even if not always for the brain.

28/03/2017 12:57 PM IST | Updated 08/04/2017 10:51 AM IST
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I often tell myself that one day, when I will grow up, I will read non-fiction too. But for now I am content with my world of fiction. Such a confession often invites judgemental looks. "So you don't want to broaden the scope of your reading? You don't want to be well-informed? Don't you want to grow (and sound) wiser?" These are the implied questions that are raised along with the eyebrows. The underlying assumption being: fiction is not brain-nourishing, to put it mildly, or that it is juvenile, to put it bluntly.

In a previous post I talked about how while growing up I was never introduced to the classics. So I was untouched by the art of Tolstoy, Austen, the Brontës, Proust or Twain. By the time I came to realise the importance and necessity of reading the classics, it was too late. After a point you just have too much on your plate. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to take time out for such pastimes or to make up for what you had missed out in your childhood. And thus you want to make the most out of whatever little you get of this precious reading time. However, for a reader like me this situation presents a new dilemma. Should one read things that one would like to read or one ought to have read by now? Or should one read stuff that's supposed to make one wiser and more informed (or at least make one sound wiser and more informed)? Yes, I mean non-fiction.

Should one read stuff that's supposed to make one wiser and more informed (or at least make one sound wiser and more informed)? Yes, I mean non-fiction.

Whenever I sit to read fiction something in me feels a bit uneasy. Or perhaps guilty. Guilty of not devoting this time to sharpen my wits by reading non-fiction. Can Pride and Prejudice not be written off as nothing more than glorified chick lit from the Regency era? Can reading Madam Bovary (or Lady Chatterley's Lover) not be scoffed at for it is nothing but a litany of woes of an ingénue who asked for all the trouble? And, of course, won't my reading Harry Potter, at this age, make no-one want to take me seriously?

Although people like me would want to believe that reading fiction makes you smarter, there's not enough credible and concrete proof to suggest so. Thus we still can't conclusively say that fiction indeed makes us smarter and nicer.

One may argue that reading fiction comes with its own benefits. The staple ones being: facility with the language, enriched vocabulary, development of the organ of empathy, escape from grim reality, awareness of and exposure to cultures other than your own etc. But are these enough?

Firstly, it must be stated that literary fiction is not entirely untruth. It's not falsified reality; but it is reality ordered and arranged in a certain fashion so as to make it more lucid and tangible. There are indeed additions and subtractions done by a writer to dramatise and to intensify the reality, but the base is, mostly, the lived experience (of the writer's or of the people they've known).

Literary fiction is massively capable of inducing epiphanies. It holds your hand and leads your way to the threshold of the sanctum of realisation...

And literary fiction can go beyond the aforesaid perks, I feel. It could help you crystallise sentiments that are otherwise amorphous. It breaks down, in words, what you may be feeling at any given point in time, or that you may have felt at a certain point in time in the past. The joy of stumbling upon sentences that capture ever so precisely what you're feeling is incredible; it makes you want to thank the writer heartily. It could also make you wonder if the writer was snooping on you, or if he or she is endowed with uncanny prescience. Emerson had once remarked, "In the work of a writer of genius we rediscover our own neglected thoughts."

Literary fiction is massively capable of inducing epiphanies. It holds your hand and leads your way to the threshold of the sanctum of realisation; and then it withdraws its steps as you enter the sanctum, while it stands at the threshold with its arms crossed, smiling, contented in the knowledge that within you're revelling in the glow of that realisation. Thus in a way literary fiction has the potential of not only informing your outlook ("inlook" too), but also rendering it anew. Like any other form of art, good fiction could be both informative and transformative.

Of all things that are disobedient, time is most annoyingly so. But when you immerse yourself in a good book, time does slow down.

Another thing that draws me to fiction is that it gives you an impression, even if false, that you can control time. Of all things that are disobedient, time is most annoyingly so. But when you immerse yourself in a good book, time does slow down. Through the eyes of the writer you get to observe and dissect many micro-expressions, micro-thoughts, micro-moments passing between the characters. It's only through the latitude that language enjoys in fiction that you can check the inexorable tide of time and retrieve these tiny nuggets of observation that otherwise get lost on us. The consciousness of a (good) writer can push itself betwixt two closely overlapping, infinitesimal moments, and then wring out the very essence of all that is felt by us in those fleeting moments, such that the consciousness of the reader can then soak up that distilled essence.

"[W]e will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology," Noam Chomsky had once said.

Even if not brain-nourishing, fiction could very well be soul-nourishing. Then, how could a reader, who has already missed out a lot of these wonderful gems in his growing up years, not feel compelled to choose fiction over non-fiction?

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