How I Choose Books: Why Read Fiction

Recently, a friend of mine mentioned that he would be interested in reading a blog on how I choose books. I’m a reader and am known as such, though I think even the people who know me well would be surprised at some of the things I read (for example, Fullmetal Alchemist and The Hunger Games). I read widely and there are two real reasons for that. First, I read widely because I have wide interests. I am interested in history, poetry, fantasy, economics, religion, philosophy, classical and modern fiction alike, and a myriad of other things.

If I could change one thing about some of the guys I know, it would be this: I wish they read more widely. In particular, I wish they read more fiction. I understand the aversion to fiction; the assumption, I think, is that it has less to offer than non-fiction. They aren’t wrong–at least about some fiction. The trick is not to choose the right genres, but to choose the right books, regardless of genre.

I’m planning on making this the first in a series of posts explaining how I choose what books to read. I’ll explore a different genre in each post. Today I want to write about fiction because, again, it is the genre my friends tend to ignore. I get it, I really do. But I think they are missing something extraordinary. Dealing with how I choose fiction books will take at least three posts. Today I want to simply deal with the question: Why read fiction? When people tell me that they don’t read fiction, I doubt that they are thinking of Austen and Dostoevsky–my assumption is that they are thinking of Clancy and King. In other words, my guess is that my friends do not read fiction because they assume that it is all the same and that the genre is characterized by the modern novels they occasionally read for fun. They believe that the genre has nothing to offer the reader other than entertainment.

They are wrong.

Your understanding of any genre should be informed as much–if not more–by its greatest successes as by its failures. It would be silly to say that you decided to stop watching movies because you saw a bad one. The hundreds of fantastic movies should inform your opinion and give you an understanding of what the medium has to offer, regardless of the accompanying failures.

It’s the same with fiction. Sure, there are a lot of terrible novels. But have you ever read Crime and Punishment? That book, more than any other work I have ever read, gave me a profound understanding of the utter darkness of human nature. Outside of my father and brother, I don’t know of anyone who has read Thomas Mann‘s Buddenbrooks–it is my favorite work of fiction. It chronicles the gradual decline of a family over four generations; it is not real history, yet it is more beautiful than any history book I have ever read.

I guess it might be said like this: fiction explores human nature in a way that non-fiction cannot. It’s like the difference between reading a history of ad agencies in the 60’s and watching Mad Men. One is certainly interesting and informative, the other is beautiful yet tragically sad.

And fiction can be transformative. The Lord of the Rings changed how I saw fiction, how I saw writing, how I saw storytelling. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion showed me the power of tragedy, just as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina did. Dostoevsky and Austen changed how I viewed human nature, one in the understanding of evil and one in the assumption of goodness. Dumas showed me that fiction can be exciting; Hemingway that it can be real and harsh; O’Connor that it can be hilarious, and on and on.

My point is this: fiction has so many works of astonishing beauty and depth that it borders on criminal to dismiss the genre as having nothing to offer. It is like saying that you only view those works of art that portray real people or places.

And, by the way–if you consider fiction “only” entertainment, I wonder whether you enjoy reading boring non-fiction? Aren’t the best history books, the best economic books, the best science books; aren’t great non-fiction books of any genre great precisely because they take their subject and make it fascinating? Entertaining?

So read fiction–if you do not, you are robbing yourself and frankly, I think you are stunting your growth as a person. The question is: how do you choose good fiction? For the next couple days I’ll expand on this theme, that reading fiction is beneficial. Tomorrow, I’ll write about Classical Fiction and how I choose what to read within that genre.

What about you? Do you tend to see reading fiction as not worthwhile? Why? What would it take to convince you otherwise?


5 responses to “How I Choose Books: Why Read Fiction

  • Mike Tuttle

    I think I have let my reading of fiction wane so much in my adult years because I read it differently than non-fic. I can start a non-fic, even something like Donald Miller or Richard Branson, and it doesn’t matter if some odd event keeps me away from the book for a three- or four-day stretch (or even longer). I can pick back up right where I left off with little more than a glance back. Fiction, on the other hand, demands that I keep up. I have to keep track of the disparate threads of characters and lineages and subplots… and I love it, I do. But, I end up with so many interrupted books, stories I would have been obliged to mostly re-read in order to enjoy properly, books laid aside with a promise to return to when I have 2-3 vacation days, and I’m on to the next non-fic- which, by the way, can be read two or three at a time.

    I’d love to reacquire the taste. It has not been a conscious decision to avoid fiction, but a schedule default. I know I am missing out. There are jokes I won’t get (though those are fewer and farther between nowadays). I have a Kindle that lies unused because that format does not support how I read non-fiction. But, every time I browse for a fiction title to load on to it, some non-fic catches my eye and I’m off again.

    Very interested in seeing your recommendations though. Perhaps a book club is in the offing?

    (Wow. WordPress mobile is unwieldy.)

  • Travis

    Jack, two things: 1) Great post, I look forward to the ones to come. 2) What’s with the pelican? Haha

  • Clifton Griffin (@clifgriffin)

    I’m in complete agreement. I’ve had this argument with a friend who reads every book that makes the front shelves at LifeWay, but has no time for fiction.

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  • Betsy Clark

    Wow, I couldn’t agree more. For me, a well-written fiction story allows me to remember a principle much more easily than non-fiction. Crime and Punishment cemented in my mind the way a criminal sees himself as above the law. C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair illustrated with such the numbing lure of sin.
    But, as with Mike above, it does take a block of time that is difficult to come by as an adult.
    Thank you for this post. It reminded me of how formative great works of fiction have been in my life and how enjoyable it is to learn that way.

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