I used to be a nonfiction snob. You might know the type.
A typical book conversation might go something like this:
Person: “Hey Robert. What are you reading these days?
Me: “Only the hottest nonfiction book on the market. It’s called Seven Ways to Overcome Fear By Following These 11 Tips In One Easy-To-Learn Process. You’re reading that too, right?”
Person: “Uh, no. Not familiar with that one. I’m reading To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Me: “Yeah, I don’t read much fiction. I’d rather read about real life.”
Person: “Oh, To Kill A Mockingbird is pretty realistic. You can actually learn a lot from it.”
Me: “Yeah, nice story. But that’s all it is — a story. I need something more practical. I like to read books I can learn and grow from.”
Person: “Hey, is that a parrot?” [Quickly walks away.]
Wow. Was I ever an idiot. Some of you might be nonfiction snobs like I used to be. Apparently, it’s a trend.
The sad part? I’m a writer. Meaning I write for a living. Meaning I’m paid to be creative. How in the world could I justify not reading fiction?
Working in a creative field and only reading nonfiction is like training for a marathon by doing pushups and curls. You’ve got to work out the creative part of your brain.
It’s not that nonfiction can’t do that; it’s just that fiction does a better job of it. Here’s why:
Fiction can go anywhere
Fiction can even start from anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be linear.
Maybe point A is actually point Z. Or maybe there is no point A. Maybe you thought it was point A, but it was actually point R.
The author’s imagination is the only limit to where the story can go. How can we not appreciate this and learn from it?
Writing styles are varied
If you want to become a better writer, reading fiction is a must. Every writer has such a distinct style and voice.
Find a style you like and read it. Orwell is crisp and clean. Hemingway is simple and sweet. Joseph Heller uses wit and humor. And David Foster Wallace is, well, all over the place.
Let’s be honest: If we compiled a list of the best writers of all time, how many would be fiction writers? Most of them, I bet.
The power of story
The power of story is incredible. We’re all living and telling our own stories — whether they’re great, mediocre, or inspirational — with our lives and work.
When you dig into other people’s stories — even fictional ones — you put yourself in their situation.
How would you handle being stranded on an island like the kids in Lord of the Flies? How would you respond to living in the society portrayed in 1984 or Never Let Me Go?
Learning takes work
I used to hate homework. I’d always want the teacher to just tell me what’s on the test so I could study with focus. In a way, reading nonfiction is straightforward like that.
Want to succeed in personal relationships? Read this chapter. Want to become a better parent? Read that chapter. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but fiction isn’t so clear. And I like that. You’ve got to do a little homework.
For instance, what can you learn about social justice from To Kill A Mockingbird? Or power from 1984? Or bureaucracy from Catch 22?
Everything isn’t so black and white
I love the grey areas, wrestling with questions of morality, philosophy, and spirituality.
Great novels have a way of throwing you right into the middle of all that — situations like the impoverished mother who steals a loaf of bread to feed her starved, dying children.
These types of stories can take us to places we never thought we’d visit: Like, could stealing be okay in a certain context?
Creating something out of nothing
Whether you’re an artist, writer, dancer, blogger, or painter, the bottom line of creativity is this:
It's about making stuff where there was nothing. With fiction, it’s the story, the characters, the setting, the dialogue.
While a biographer organizes and tells an existing story, a novelist creates a new one.
Where to start
I’m not suggesting you drop nonfiction altogether. But add a little fiction to your reading plan. If you’re strictly a nonfiction person (like I was), pick a well-regarded novel to read this year. Start somewhere.
Novels aren’t just a fantasyland “escape” from reality. That’s a very small-minded, uncreative approach to fiction. As artists, we can do better than that.
Take it from a former nonfiction snob: You can learn a lot from reading novels.
What do you learn from reading fiction? Share in the comments.
*Photo credit: Jay Bird (Creative Commons)