My Little Defense of Literature

As I have already wholeheartedly recommended Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and have been unable to stop myself from continuing with this fifteen volume series in order to focus on other ‘serious’ pursuits, I thought I might spend my time here talking about this crazy idea that has been growing on me. It is one that any reader of this blog will hastily admit to being true, but your very eagerness to jump up and proclaim your loyalty shows that there is a little kernel of doubt lurking in the back of your brain. The idea is this: reading fiction is good.

Many people will say that reading is good, but then they will turn right around and tell kids to stop rereading Percy Jackson, try to ban fiction books about magic, and assign busy work instead of good reading. Readers will utter the same sentence and then only allow themselves a few minutes to read before bedtime or berate themselves for indulging when they could be sweeping the floors… yet again. The statement’s critics will say that it is merely ‘escapist entertainment’ and if one should spend time reading it shouldn’t be about unrealistic things like the boy who lived. In fact, (and this might be what prompted the post) one of my new classes in Library School showed a slide which classified novels as escapist – on a chart – as if it were generally accepted knowledge.

My chart insists that stories are absolutely necessary for health and happiness. Instead of plopping it down as several notches more ‘escapist’ than music, I would place fiction right next to eating, sleeping and exercise.  It is the fruit and vegetables of life – not the candy. Fiction allows us to step into the skin of the authors, to broaden our imaginations and thoughts and to place ourselves in situations that we would never otherwise be in. Fiction readers have character’s personalities in their heads – my most persistent one right now is Matilda, urging me to play a little trick on my messy roommates.

The other day, in fact, I stood in CVS for nearly an hour waiting for them to fix a glitch with my insurance and, as I became more and more frustrated, it occurred to me that none of my favorite characters would stand for this. Milo, from The Phantom Tollbooth, would think his way out of the doldrums, Harriet the Spy would use the opportunity to listen to cell phone conversations, and Mary, from The Secret Garden, would probably be ogling all of the newfangled seed packets and fancy garden tools. Novels give us role models, encourage us think about moral and philosophical claims, and prepare us for many varied occasions in life.

Fiction can’t be escapist if you bring yourself, with all of your critical thinking skills and personality, into the book, and then take something back out with you. And, it can’t be ‘just’ fun when happiness itself makes you heal faster and think better (research summarized in The Economist) than those who are stressed. I, for one, side with my favorite character from The Wheel of Time series, Loial, who often “seemed more interested in checking his books than in warming himself.”

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