“. . .many infallible grounds of wisdom. . . lie dark before the imaginative and judging power, if they be not illuminated or figured forth by the speaking picture of Poesy.”
– Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, 1595
Most of my friends are intensely practical people. Much more (or so it seems) than the rest of the population, they’re interested in regularly pursuing personal growth and self-improvement, from business to moral self-knowledge. I’m really grateful for that.
This post is for people like them.
They might call themselves practical people. I would agree that they are. They’re not much for speculation, preparation without action, or theory without practice.
As such, they put a high value on how they use their time. That means they’re likely to have a few things they do differently, from limiting access to email and social media, skipping television watching. All of these choices let them avoid waste and spend time on self-improvement. This is wise.
There’s one area where I’ve seen them do themselves a disservice: reading.
They read plenty of business books, self-help books, and other non-fiction books describing the latest ways of solving problems, hacking creativity, or avoiding common business failures.
I don’t see them reading fiction often, and I think it’s because there’s a sometimes-explicit, sometimes-implicit narrative out there that fiction is just for humanities people, for English class, for dreamers, or for mindless pleasure. The same narrative says that non-fiction is where the true value lies.
This is nothing new. We’ve seen self-improvement-minded people questioning the value of fiction for as long as written fiction has existed. Albert Sidney, whom I quoted earlier, had to defend the value of poetry to the English Puritans in 1595. Even the first village storytellers must have been seen as wildly impractical by their hunting fellow tribesmen.
I think they’re wrong, and they’ve always been wrong (or at least incomplete) in their judgment of fiction. You practical people need fiction more than ever, and fiction needs you.
You see, there’s something fiction can do that no amount of self-help or non-fiction fact-reporting books can do. At the risk of sounding like one of those inspirational Reading Rainbow bits: reading lets you live other lives.
Put another way, reading is the first virtual reality simulation technology. That should mean something for practical, self-improvement minded people.
When we read stories, we enter their situations and get to simulate how we would respond in their place. Our intelligence is tested, and our ethical judgment is tested. Through the process of engaging with characters and story lines, we get to experience moral training of kinds which our day to day lives might not prepare us for.
Want to know how you would act in a war? In the face of an atrocity like the Holocaust? How you would respond to the despair of a society facing the Black Death? If you were a woman in late 18th century Britain (shout-out to my homegirl Jane Austen)? Read fiction.
What’s more, don’t be afraid to read the fantastic and mythological breeds of fiction. These are often wrongly relegated to geekdom, even though they draw on the oldest and most useful symbolism human culture has to offer. Fantasy and its off-shoots are better than many genres for providing tried-and-true patterns of fighting back evil within and without you – whether you find yourself called out on a quest or discover a previously hidden part of your identity/personality.
Stories are remarkable in their ability to compress the detail of moments and the patterns of whole lives into reading or listening times of just hours. With good books – particularly ones which have stood the test of time and informed other actual human lives – you can get to understand dozens of different lifestyles, cultures, and moral dilemmas of all kinds. By entering the minds of others, you will have to find out who you are and why you are the way you are. This is why people keep reading works like the Bible or the plays of Shakespeare or the Harry Potter books: they contain an astonishing variety and powerful descriptions of moral/practical situations which every human faces over a lifetime
This deep understanding and grokking – “understanding intuitively or by empathy”is usually not something the non-fiction format can offer you. Over the course of a few hours, a good non-fiction self-help book can give you lots of good knowledge about a way to potentially live a better life. The investment of reading time itself does not improve your life, and the knowledge for self-improvement lacks context and testing. You’ll have to go simulate – test – that advice yourself and take the time to know if it works. Usually a self-help book really only “clicks” if we have somehow gained the context and experience for ourselves already.
Fiction is different. Over the course of a few hours, a good piece of fiction can expose you to the time-bound experience of how knowledge and action play out for human characters. As long as the work follows a logical, realistic plot line, this simulation does two things: 1) it gives you back a great deal of time you would otherwise have spent running a simulation at your own cost, and 2) instead of giving you mere knowledge, the process of reading itself gives you the contextual wisdom of seeing how beliefs or knowledge play out in a complex world.
In short, reading non-fiction helps you know things. Reading fiction – like gaining experience – gives you wisdom for how to use knowledge.
By all means, keep reading self-help books. The genre is older than it seems, and it’s important. But it has never existed without a dialogue with oral and written storytelling traditions (you’ll notice the most effective self-help books draw heavily on anecdotes), particularly the folk tales and myths that have become the fantasy and science fiction of today.
Do you see why you might want to read fiction? With books, the concept of “reincarnation” actually gains momentary reality: we find the lived experiences and moral wisdom of dozens and hundreds of other humans added to our mental arsenals. No practical person could ask for more.
If you’re interested in exploring the practical philosophy of fiction in greater depth, Philosophy Bites hosts David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton interviewed philosopher Kathleen Stock on why fiction engages us as fellow actors in stories. You can listen below or check out the Philosophy Bites listing to get the episode on your podcast player of choice.
Now if you’re ready to start fictioning it up, come back tomorrow for my current top ten fiction book recommendations.