A young English friend who is highly intelligent, speaks fluent Russian and Hungarian, lives in Moscow, and has travelled widely tells me that he has read zero fiction in the last year and that fiction seems a “cop out.” I’m appalled. He is making a serious–and, I dare to suggest, a stupid– mistake. I insist that he changes.
His logic, I suppose, is that fiction is “made up.” It’s not “real”; the characters “don’t exist.” In contrast, we have the diaries, letters, autobiographies, and biographies of real people, and histories of real events. In addition, we have books of psychology, sociology, science, philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, and the like that deal with the ways of real people. Why would anybody read about imagined people and events when he or she could read about real people and real events?
I must make clear that I’m not against reading non-fiction and do so every day. But I always start with reading fiction because–like Martin Amis–I believe that “the truth is in the fiction.” I’ve written about how I like to start each day with 90 minutes of reading: 45 minutes’ fiction, 30 minutes’ non-fiction, and 15 minutes’ poetry. http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2012/09/18/richard-smith-how-to-start-the-day/ Since then the 90 minutes often stretches to 120 minutes and includes 15 minutes of reading philosophy.
The core argument for reading fiction is that it’s by far the best way to understand people, relationships, and essentials like love and death.
Let me enlarge on Amis’s quote by using the example of his stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard. She lived a long and colourful life and wrote many novels. She didn’t write an autobiography, but there is a biography of her life–and she left letters. So what should we read if we want to understand Howard to know what it was like to be her? An autobiography if one existed would be both partial and censored. A biography is one person’s view of a mass of facts and events; it’s necessary to impose some sort of narrative to make the book readable, and the result will be selective and distorted. Letters are written to particular individuals and have a purpose different from revelation. We learn much more about Howard, I argue, by reading her novels: there she can write about relationships, marriage, affairs, and struggles directly without having to censor. And in doing so she will give us deeper insights into humanity, relationships, and, paradoxically, real people than we can ever hope to gain through reading psychology or sociology.
My young friend actually seems to contradict himself in his message to me. He writes: “In fact reading Russian literature is less for me about the stories than it is about understanding the country and mentality, for incorporating myself into the ‘Russian mind.’” Exactly, I respond. The stories are mostly a means to an end not an end in themselves. How best to go about understanding the “Russian mind?” Speaking Russian, living in Russia, marrying a Russian, and mixing and working with Russians, as my young friend has done, are probably the best ways, but the understanding will be deeper if complemented by reading. Yes, he should read histories of Russia and biographies of Peter the Great, Lenin, and Stalin, but I think he will get closer to his mission by reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Chekhov than in any other way. And through his reading he will deepen his understanding not just of the Russian mind but of all minds.
Or think about how to understand woman (if you are a man), love, and death? The best fiction (and I’m unashamed about my snobbishness when it comes to fiction) will take you far beyond any other kind of reading.
Then there is the question of style. Style, which great fiction has and most non-fiction lacks, is crucial to understanding. Martha Nussbaum, one of the leading living philosophers, argues that saying some important things about how to live, one of the traditional tasks of philosophers, depends on style and that literature can answer important questions that philosophy cannot. She observes that modern Anglo-American philosophers use only the pallid, rational, bloodless, hygienic style of the natural sciences–and so inevitably falls short of telling us the best way to live. She argues this in part because of her lived experience. Her love life has been turbulent, and she has got more help and understanding from Dickens, Dostoevsky, James, and Proust (her favourites) than from philosophy. She quotes another writer, Cora Diamond:
“The pleasure of reading what has been written under the pressure of content shaping form, form illuminating content, has to do with one’s sense of the soul of the author in the text, and such pleasure, and such a sense of the soul of the author, is precisely what is irrelevant or out of place in the writing of professionals for professionals.”
My young friend doesn’t mention poetry, and perhaps he devotes hours a day to reading poetry. But I fear that, as seems to be common, he may be even more disdainful of poetry than of fiction. This would be a terrible mistake.
Poets are the antennae of the world, detecting the beautiful and the damned before the rest of us do–and transmitting it to us. Poetry can express what prose cannot. Even those disdainful of poetry are driven to it by grief and love. “When power leads man toward arrogance,” said John F Kennedy, “poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” “Poetry,” according to William Hazlitt, “is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself.” Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, came to believe that only poetry not philosophy could answer the question of “What is it like to be a human being?” “Poetry engages us in a way that goes far beyond the mere exchange of information.”
So I prescribe my young friend a regular diet of fiction and poetry. It will give him pleasure of the most lasting kind and, I believe, deepen his understanding of the world in a way that nothing else can.