I was at a reading yesterday. The novelist was well accomplished and took some general questions at the end. The very last question he got was:
“Why is reading fiction good for us?”
Of course we can all come up with good reasons why reading fiction has many positive results. To put it in the most general terms:
It broadens the mind and the heart.
There is the possibility to experience another person’s life, times and adventures. We can develop empathy for that person and persons like them. We can become aware of intra-personal and population-based dilemmas. We can project our emotions on characters in a completely harmless way and we are escaping boredom and dullness. These are all very good reasons to read.
Beside those, we are a species of storytellers and story listeners. There is no way we won’t turn our experiences into stories to share.
After all these affirmative answers, I was wondering why reading fiction would ever be detrimental. I turned the question around to: Why is reading fiction bad for us?
And I found three cases where reading novels do pose a slight danger.
The first danger, especially for introverts like me, is that we escape too much and too long.
We use our ample imagination to live in the books. We experience things vicariously through the heroes and heroines in our favorite books and forget to live in the real world. As Albus Dumbledore said: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” As tempting as the alternative might be, we need to make sure that our own life is worth a story and that we not only hide in the stories of others.
The second danger is that we expect the unexpected to happen. We expect the extraordinary to materialize.
Many stories center on the underdog winning in the end. We read about friends who stand up for one another, no matter the consequences. (Oh captain my captain!) We read of a small group of people defying the odds and make it through, because their cause is just and their friendship is pure. We read about the socially awkward guy or girl who gets the guy or girl in the end and the money/job,opportunity of a lifetime on top of that. These stories resonate with us, because they highlight the extraordinary. The ‘For once the system got screwed and the good guy won’ moment that usually doesn’t happen in real life.
These extraordinary results are only that, because they are rare. Usually the ordinary happens. Ordinary people being ordinarily screwed in an ordinary society. Nobody will stand up and nobody will brave the odds in the end. If you go into the world with your novel happy end expectations, reality can come as quite a shock to you.
The third danger follows from the second one. It’s the danger of expecting real people to act as perfect as imaginary characters.
There is a saying that boyfriends/girlfriends are always better in books. That is the case, because the hero and the supporting character, or co-hero share the same brain: The author’s. Every character is put in a book to bring a point across and every character understands the main character so much better and can forget all about their own story and their own life, if the need arises to be there for the main character.
Real people can never do that. First, they can’t look into your head and know what exactly it is you need right now. And secondly, they are the hero of their own story every minute of every day of their lives. They can’t just forget that they have to work, are tired, or hungry, or just got yelled at by their boss, just to be absolutely there and perfect for you. If you expect your real life friends to be like book characters, you will put much too much pressure on them and will end up disappointed and alone. You will then turn again to your books and reinforce the cycle.
Okay, now that I have sufficiently scared you, let me just repeat that reading fiction is important and essential and good. I don’t go a day in my life without reading fiction. It is just a good idea to check your expectations once you put the book down and go back to reality.