How fiction can out do non-fiction

My friend Jeff Aronson posted this insightful comment as a contribution to my reprimand to a young man for not reading fiction. He makes a strong, almost unanswerable, case for reading fiction. I worried that Jeff’s words might never be read as a comment to a blog posted a long time ago (indeed, it took me a long time to find the comment myself.) So here it is in all its glory. (And I should report that I’ve had to reprimand another young man–and have sent him off to read “Middlemarch.”)

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:

“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.


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