The Truth About Fiction

From Publishers Weekly:

As it has for so many people, the pandemic has prompted some changes in my life, and one change in particular may prove surprising to some of my librarian friends and colleagues: I’ve resolved to only read the books I really want to read.

You see, I am an avid fiction reader. But I must confess that I have always been self-conscious about my reading tastes. As a librarian and reader’s adviser, I always believed that I had to read serious nonfiction and not just fiction to be good at my job. And in retirement I’ve had a hard time shaking that feeling, even though so much of what I have learned in life I’ve learned from reading novels.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Nancy Pearl, the most notorious reader in our profession, shares similar feelings of angst over her fidelity to fiction.

“I belong to a book group that has met weekly for the past four years, where we each talk about what we’re reading that week,” Nancy told me recently. “There are people in the group who mostly read nonfiction. And even though I’ve spent my life, or at least my career, assuring people that the definition of a good book is a book that you, the reader, enjoy, when it’s my turn to talk I’m always a little embarrassed. I find I still preface my choices by saying apologetically, ‘Oh, my book this week is just a mystery.’ Or, when I’ve finished rereading Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy for the umpteenth time, I feel I need to add that Heyer not only invented the regency romance but that she was a terrific social historian as well. No matter how many times I tell others not to feel apologetic about the books they read, there’s still part of me that does it too.”

When I was library director for Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) in Ohio, I would dread the weeks leading up to my annual January appearance on a local public radio show to share my top book picks of the previous year. Knowing I’d be joined by the book editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the owner of Mac’s Backs bookstore in Cleveland Heights, I would let anxiety drive my holiday reading. I should have spent the holidays with what I love: a delicious menu of mysteries, contemporary literature, and magical realism. Instead, I always found myself cramming nonfiction books to catch up.

. . . .

There is an undeniable force in fiction that promotes compassion, empathy, and understanding. As young children, we are surrounded by story and encouraged to relish the rich, imaginative worlds created in picture books and to lose ourselves in the chapter books that are read to us. And it’s through these stories that we learn to read and learn to love reading, which is foundational to our broader learning and education. So what if a reader like me wants to remain in the world of fiction—that’s not a bad thing, is it?

Turns out, it isn’t at all. In fact, according to Richard Restak, my new favorite scientist (sorry, Anthony Fauci), a healthy love of fiction is actually, well, healthy.

Restak is clinical professor of neurology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and the author of more than 20 books on the human brain. I came to know him after reading his most recent book, The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind. And at the top of his list for supporting memory health as we age: reading more fiction.

“My conclusion about the effect of reading fiction came from my experiences with patients,” Restak says. “I noted that as they aged, they tended to avoid fiction, because they had difficulty remembering the characters, places, and actions.”

But rather than avoiding fiction as we age, we should actually lean in, Restak explains. Research shows that reading complex fiction with multiple characters and situations can actually lead to cognitive gains, precisely because it forces one to pay attention to character, plot, setting, and language, all of which provides vital exercise for the brain and helps with memory retention. Historical fiction related to one’s life experience may especially help support memory, as the easiest memories to retain are those connected to an image or emotion. “But it is not necessary to overdo that,” Restak stresses. “A simple plot with half a dozen or so characters can be also very stimulating.”

. . . .

Making the time to read fiction is important, though, Restak says. And he practices what he preaches. He really did make time to read fiction as he toiled in medical school and residencies, he says. And amid his busy research and writing schedule, he still sets aside time to read novels.

“I have always prioritized time for reading fiction,” Restak says. “When in medical school, I read The Alexandria Quartet in the evening just before bedtime. Sometimes I could only manage part of a chapter and sometimes just a page or two, but I kept at it and finished that work.”

Recently, Restak says, he read The Count of Monte Cristo with his wife—and enhanced the experience by listening to the audiobook as well. “I find that an audiobook is good for writing and maintaining an active writing career,” he explains. “While you are listening to the book, you can envision how the author probably wrote it in terms of paragraphing and punctuation, and it is easy to check these things by looking down at the book while listening to the audio version.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

4 thoughts on “The Truth About Fiction”

  1. It’s a bit depressing to treat fiction as a prescription for aging… but I’ll endorse fiction as a prescription for life. Humans are story-telling animals.

  2. Reading fiction that has as a side effect, intentional or not, having the reader BECOME the character is the best way to create empathy.

    It’s even better, in my mind, than direct experience, because, in the middle of an experience, analysis is not possible: you go with the flow, willy nilly.

    Properly designed fiction which is SUBTLE about this buries the empathy-building part in entertainment (a spoonful of sugar…), and the reader doesn’t notice their consciousness rising. Once you know how to do this, it informs all your writing.

  3. Murder Mysteries (among other genres) challenge the reader to put together all the clues and consider the motives of various characters. That certainly implies that they give a mind of any age a good workout.

    • SF&F are all about immersing oneself in strange worlds and pondering strange ideas.
      Romance about considering human relationships.
      In fact, just about the only genre that doesn’t require exploring the unlnown is lit fic. 😉

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