I often hear people say that they struggle to appreciate fiction. Life is short, and they’d rather spend their time on books that are more informative or useful.
In his famous An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis offered some powerful reflections on why we read fiction. For him, it ultimately comes down to the idea that fiction allows us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Although much of what he says applies to all kinds of reading–after all, any time I read someone else’s words I’m trying to see the world from their perspective–he argues that fiction does this in uniquely powerful ways. Fiction shows us a world, it doesn’t just tell us about one. And, as a result, fiction shapes us in ways that no other kinds of reading can. I wrestled with this a bit in 6 Reasons you Should Waste Your Time Reading Fiction. But Lewis does it so much better.
Why do we read fiction?
The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level – in other words, not to discount perspective would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distance. But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in’; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.
Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’.
And he goes on to distinguish literary/fictional reading from technical/informative reading. Although both kinds help shape the way we view the world, they are importantly different.
This must not be understood as if I were making the literature of power once more into a department within the literature of knowledge-a department which existed to gratify our rational curiosity about other people’s psychology. It is not a question of knowing (in that sense) at all….We become these other selves. Not only nor chiefly in order to see what they are like but in order to see what they see, to occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theatre, to use their spectacles and be made free of whatever insights, joys, terrors, wonders or merriment those spectacles reveal.
And then he emphasizes once again the power that reading has to draw us out of ourselves.
The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented….
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the’ privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality.
But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
Why do we read fiction? I’m sure everyone has their own reasons. For Lewis, though, good fiction leads us out of ourselves and introduces us to worlds that we have not made, worlds that we cannot see on our own, the worlds that other people inhabit.