Saturday, October 03, 2015

Why Read Fiction?

In my book, Glimmerings II, I mentioned this anecdote in #1737. But I have another response I'd like to share.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I chose, from among the available requirements, a course in Introduction to the Theater. A major part of the course was to read and discuss various plays. One day early in the quarter, we were to discuss a Shakespeare play. The graduate student teaching the course put on his bright-eyed face and his hopeful tone, and asked, "Well, what do you think?"

After a bit of nonspecific interchange, ("I liked it," and "I couldn't understand it," etc.), a young woman, who had clearly already taken a course in race, class, and gender, announced in a deathly tone, "I can't relate to this. It's not about my people or about my experience." Now, since this was about 1970, it was probably the first time the teaching assistant had been confronted with this basis for rejection. He didn't  have much  of a response. But I have one.

I would tell her t his. Fictional stories, including plays, novels, short stories, and even some poems, are read for two reasons. The first reason is, "We read because we find ourselves there." That is, we relate to a character or situation or problem or crisis that is handled by the work of fiction, and as a result we feel a sense of belonging, being human, since our problems are encountered by others. We lose a sense of aloneness and alienation. Now, you have specifically rejected this reason, because you say that you cannot relate to the plot, character, or any other part of the play. We can let that go for now, with just the reminder that we sometimes must use our imaginations to translate a character's circumstances, words, and actions into something we feel as relevant to our own lives.

But there is another reason to read fiction. It is also said, "We read because we do not find ourselves there." Now, taken with the first statement above, that might seem like a paradox, but it conveys another truth. We read about characters and circumstances that are very different from our lives because we gain insights into ourselves and into the possibilities for additional life choices that we might make. Like travel, reading broadens our outlook and gives us a better, more circumspect view of life. We find options, possibilities, choices we never might have thought about otherwise. And with a little imagination, we can translate even very different circumstances into some idea relevant to us. We might not have a personal taylor who presses us to wear larger epaulets, but we can use the incident to reflect on dress and how clothing symbolizes something about ourselves, our attitudes, our values, and who we are. We might not see 18th century fops anymore, but we do know that some clothing styles send negative messages.

Suppose you read about a character who lives in a mansion and employs forty servants, Not your life experience, eh? But can you put yourself imaginatively in his shoes and ask yourself how you would live? How would you treat your servants? How would you run the household? What can these answers tell you about your own character?

If you don't yet have my book, Glimmerings II, get it from Amazon:

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