I often hear people say that they have a hard time reading fiction. Some just don’t like reading at all. But more frequently I hear from people who love to read, but who still don’t read fiction, commonly saying that reading fiction seems like a waste of time when there are so many good and important non-fiction books out there. With so much knowledge to be gained, why spend your time on some goofy story?
But I wonder if there’s another reason.
Most kids love fiction. Even the ones who don’t like reading still enjoy having a story read to them. They know how to lose themselves in the narrative and explore this new world the author has created. So it doesn’t seem like we need to learn how to enjoy a good story.
But maybe we can forget.
Alan Jacobs has an interesting section in his book The Pleasures of Reading in a Age of Distraction where he discusses this very thing. He argues that different kinds of writing require different kinds of reading. You don’t read a novel the same way you do a poem or a theology book. But, this means that reading fiction is a particular skill, distinct from those required for reading other genres. And most skills atrophy if not used regularly. You may not ever forget how to ride a bike entirely, but spend several years away from one, and I bet you won’t be as comfortable on a bike as when you were a kid. Maybe reading fiction is the same way.
If he’s right, focusing exclusively on non-fiction is like exercising regularly, but with only your right arm. The muscles on that arm grow large and sharply defined, making it useful for a whole range of activities. But the neglected left deteriorates into something good only for keeping your hand attached to the rest of your body.
This may be an apt description of many academics, people with finely tuned skills at reading non-fiction, but whose fiction skills have atrophied through neglect. And Jacobs uses Charles Darwin to illustrate this problem. Here is Darwin’s situation in Darwin’s own words:
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
Darwin was a lopsided weightlifter. Are you?
So, according to Jacobs, it’s entirely possible that one of the reasons people don’t read fiction is because they’ve lost the ability enjoy doing so. It’s like trying to throw a ball with a hand atrophied from disuse: awkward, uncomfortable, and ultimately unsuccessful. Who would enjoy that?
But the only solution is to begin exercising that neglected left arm. I can’t promise you’ll enjoy it at first. It may feel more like getting back on your bike after many years: wobbly, uncertain, and somewhat painful. But give it time. I could be wrong, but I think the child who loved hearing stories is still there, waiting to meet new people and explore new worlds again.
[You might also be interested in 6 Reasons You Should “Waste” Your Time Reading Fiction.]