Why I’m a Fan of Fiction

Last year, I wrote a guest post for the Grammarly blog about writing, and how it is one of the most important skills you can develop. Today, this post on Iserotope (one of my favorite teacher blogs) inspired me to write a sequel about the importance of reading.

Specifically: the importance of reading fiction.

You might think that I’m a big fan of reading because it makes you a better writer. Or that it allows you to explore parts of the shared human experience that may be difficult to explain in a non-fiction format. Both of those things are true. But they’re not the reasons why I’m such a big fan of fiction.

The internet has made readers out of many, many people that almost never pick up a book in their entire lives. They read blogs, they read the news, and they read pithy little status updates from their friends. It may not be heavy duty stuff, but it is reading.

Without the kind of brain that sorts through the incredible amount of information we take in every day (174 newspapers worth, apparently) and makes connections between the relevant bits, we’d be no smarter on Tuesday than we were on Monday. And we would be getting quickly left behind by our friends, our family, and (most important, job-wise) our colleagues.

The ability to build mental bridges between all the random things we read and organize it all into a coherent network is a skill that is vital to a knowledge worker — and we’re all knowledge workers to some extent. This is what allows us to learn a lesson in one context and apply it broadly to other aspects of our life.

Nowhere is that kind of a talent development more naturally and organically than through fiction.

When a child reads the Chronicles of Narnia, for example, he is learning about the importance of exploration, of honesty, and of virtues like courage and forgiveness. He isn’t reading a pamphlet that spells it all out in bullet points. It’s not a blog post or a self-help book, but it is something that has the potential to stick with him for the rest of his life. And it’s a foundation upon which many of lessons can be based.

The more fiction we read — and the more great English teachers we have — the more we see that these works of fiction are more than simple stories or diversions. And we begin to connect the lessons we learn in one book with those we learn in another. We draw parallels, create connections, and build mental bridges.

The better we get at that, the more suited we are to dive into our modern world, where more information is created every year than the year before it. Understanding how to make sense of it all is not just a nice bonus. It is an essential element to being employable and staying relevant.

Sure, we can create high-level college courses to teach kids how to connect seemingly unrelated thoughts and build functional databases in their brain. We can call it “Mental Data Filing 101″ or something, and claim it’s a new science.

Or we can give them some great books to read as kids and they’ll start doing it on their own.

Don’t let an obsession with The Test strip fiction from our curriculum. There are cheap, online flashcards to help with test prep. (Did I mention we make those?) And there are excellent tutors out there to fill in the gaps. Teachers have skills that go far beyond preparing students to take a test. Let’s make use of them.

2 Responses to Why I’m a Fan of Fiction
  1. This is an excellent argument for reading (and teaching) fiction. We know that fiction builds empathy and increases attention. But it’s also true that fiction provides big narratives and big structures on which to place our everyday bits of information.

    In my typical daily reading — a little here from the newspaper, a little there from my Google Reader, and tons of other stuff — I don’t always know how to connect the dots. What’s the bigger story? What’s important, and how do things relate?

    With fiction, the author has given us a full trajectory to follow. Things make sense. The more fiction I read, the more I understand the disjointed, disparate factoids that go through my head every day.

    As online reading proliferates and fiction reading decreases (except for the privileged), your connection between the two is extremely important. Thank you for this post.

  2. John

    I think the best thing about reading fiction is, as you say, that the writer has (hopefully) given us the whole arc. We know all the clues are there. We just need to look for them. And (again, hopefully) all will make sense.

    The important thing is to teach kids that the same is true in “real” life. The solution is out there. Chances are you’ve already read it. Now, find a way to call it up and make sense of it.

    I believe there is research on how people are better at solving problems that they think are solvable. This is sort of how we need to teach students to view the world. That even the seemingly-unsolvable must be solvable with the right bits and pieces.

    After all, we’ve done the impossible time and time again throughout history.

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