Below, after the links to my chastisement, are my young friend’s response to my stern words on him not reading fiction.
He can now be revealed as Gergely Stewart, and you will, I’m sure, that his response is spiritited if misguided. I will be back with my response.
An English friend who is highly intelligent, lives in London, and has travelled widely tells me that he reads 45 mins of fiction every morning, and that to ignore such literature is to make a serious, even stupid mistake. I have not read any fiction in the past 12 months. He tells me he is appalled.
Firstly, I am honestly quite thrilled that he has taken a take-no-prisoners approach to slapping me down, publicly no less through the posting of his blog on social media, that most whitewashed forms of communication, where most people spend their time advertising the outside of their lives whilst never revealing anything much from their inside. How refreshing.
Secondly, it’s true, my statement to him in defending my lack of story reading was pretty appalling. “Fiction is a cop-out on dealing with the real world”. The milllions, perhaps billions of hours enjoyed globally every year snuggled up behind a good, fictional book are all hours well spent, and even better spent when you consider how most people spend most of their spare hours. For one, as a childhood fanatic of Roald Dahl, I fully prescribe to his call against The Box:
“So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.”
However, whether to his relief or to his dread, it wasn’t a statement designed to provoke just for the sake of provoking, and here’s why.
Rule number 1 – life is short, potentially too short for fiction (or for very much of it).
Life Is Short. I try to live by this rule. If you die tomorrow regretting how you spent your time today, then you’re wasting your precious life.
The question is what to do with that precious time, once you’ve fed and clothed yourself, provided a roof over your head, and spent the time you need and want to spend with your close ones. What to do with the remaining “me” time.
My first reason for not giving any space in those hours to reading fiction is because essentially it is a form of escapism that I already get (and more) through non-fiction. Life is quite simply too short, the hours I have purely to myself too few, to lose it to fictional escapism.
For non-fiction has a trump card, as it is both knowledge and pleasure, in fact pleasure through knowledge. Not the deceptive knowledge of thinking you understand human kind through reaching into the heart of a Dostoevsky character. But actual, practical, touchable and applicable knowledge of how humans are of have been, how they behave, what drives them, how they build their world, and how our world is built, that offers lessons on a daily basis about the contemporary reality around us.
Nonsense, I can hear him say. Fiction is much more than pure escapism. The pleasure of reading fiction also comes from it being “best and perhaps the only way to experience another world.” Yet, without once stepping out of the non-fiction section of the bookstore, in the last twelve months I’ve have been to Ecuador with Alexander Von Humboldt, Persia under Cyrus the Great, Mexico with Cortes, the Pacific islands with Magellan. These were books written not for professional, academic readership, which I agree can mind-sapingly dry, but for those desperately hungry to experience another world through colourful and enriching prose.
Indeed, life is so short that I find walking through bookshops painful for the knowing that I’ll never be able to read everything good on every part of history worth reading about. How can I give up my precious time to someone else’s fantasy, when I’ll never even have a chance of reading about all the wondrous civilisations, the real peoples, of the past?
Rule number 2 – the truth is not in fiction, it’s in yourself.
My friend believes that fiction is by far the best way to understand people, “real people,” relationships, and essentials like love and death. Which is true, in an ephemeral, intellectual sort of way. I hope he doesn’t believe it can be put to any actual practical use.
Indeed I’d go so far to say that it doesn’t matter how much fiction a person reads, they will never truly understand people, relationships, love and so on unless they focus on the science – on the non-fiction world – of psychology, and first and foremost on themselves, their own psychology, their own mind. Understanding how they react to people and situations around themselves, why they feel they way they feel, and how they can help themselves to work with their inner mind to then be better able to work with everything around them, can only be achieved through hours spent in discussion with someone else who understands how psychology works.
I’ve met many well-read people who seem utterly lost in the world of people, and a few who have almost no interest in reading but have a profound understanding of themselves and their environment due to their intense interest in psychology as a practical application.
Rule number 3 – I realise that pride comes before a fool.
I can hear my friend’s mind whirring already with his original counter arguments. How can you ignore the pure pleasure of fiction, the deep, soul enriching satisfaction that comes from reading great literature, because it’s not somehow as practical or “real?” “The stories are mostly a means to an end not an end in themselves,” he says. On this, he is of course right. Sometimes, the journey is more important than the destination.
For this reason and indeed for his last, that for “even the smallest aspiration to write as well as you can then you need to read and read,” I would also happily accept his prescription of a regular diet of fiction (poetry will have to come later; that will prove I fear a far greater challenge), especially if I am able to replace TV/football watching time (both of which I already do far too much of) with the stories of the imagination.
He insists that I change, and I reply that I will try to spend more time reading fiction for pleasure and leisure. But for my part I insist that he re-evaluates the true-life value of the fictional word. Happiness and fulfilment, “pleasure of the most lasting kind,” begins in one’s self.
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Richard is right.
Since I was a young boy I have read constantly, on average 100 bound volumes of both fiction and non-fiction a year, plus newspapers and magazines. Over a reading lifetime of, say 70 years, that would amount to about 7000 volumes. Even if only 1000 of those were works of fiction I would have read much of the world’s great literature and would have benefited from it. In fact, my personal library of about 6000 volumes includes about 2300 works of fiction, 800 on medicine and science, 300 on linguistics, 300 general reference books, 100 biographies, and volumes on many other subjects, including music and art, theatre and cinema, philosophy and religion, history, and sports. “The young man who reads no fiction” must think that I have been wasting about 40% of my time reading fiction, when I could have had “TV/football watching time” instead, as he has.
Some years ago, when Richard Smith was editor of the BMJ, he commissioned an article from me on autopathographies or “patients’ tales”, book-length accounts of people’s illnesses, told by themselves. Here is an extract from that article (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1119270/):
“Jean-Dominique Bauby, a well-known Parisian journalist, has a stroke and loses consciousness; on awaking he finds himself paralysed and unable to speak. René Maugras, a well-known Parisian journalist, has a stroke and loses consciousness; on awaking he finds himself paralysed and unable to speak. Bauby’s stroke (in 1995) really happened, and the resultant locked-in syndrome left him unable to communicate except by flickering his left eyelid—enough to enable him, via an amanuensis, to write ‘The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly’, in which he poetically muses on his life and predicament. Maugras is fictional and his stroke features in a 1963 novel by Georges Simenon, ‘Les Anneaux de Bicêtre’ (‘The Patient’). Both narratives begin with the ringing of church bells and repeat the motif elsewhere. Other correspondences include a description of the physiotherapist, the ordeal of the new wheelchair, reminiscences of work, thoughts of food, memories of childhood, the regaining of speech.
“We are enchanted by Bauby’s poesy; we wonder at the courage of a man who can mentally survive his ordeal; and we experience frissons of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God horror down our spines. But Bauby’s account, moving though it is, is bounded by his own circumstances and one that we can experience only through his eyes (or eyelid). In contrast, Simenon, his imagination roaming free, unconstrained by autobiographical reticence and untrammelled by facts, gives us a riveting universal account of the psychological aspects of a problem that is the daily experience of all hospital physicians but about which they seldom think in other than physical and social terms. His ability to describe an experience he has not had, and that most of us could not begin to imagine, is spellbinding.”
Read fiction. The insights can be striking. It is not true that only non-fiction can bring such insights. Reading an author’s biography or autobiography is an incomplete experience unless you read the author’s works too. Reading the prose of great writers of fiction also, I believe, improves your own writing. And remember that there is at least as much fiction in autobiography as there is autobiography in fiction.
Finally, here are two non-fiction books that “The young man who reads no fiction” may like to read: “Guide to Modern World Literature” by Martin Seymour-Smith”, who wasted his time reading about 5000 works of fiction, poetry, and plays, and “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” edited by Peter Boxall.