When I tell people it is important to read fiction, I regularly get a reaction that sounds something like this - “I don’t have time to read stories. I need to gain something from what I read. I can’t even keep up with all the non-fiction I want to read so why waste time with fiction?” I understand this response as I once shared these sentiments, but I think this approach is shortsighted and misinformed.
Here are just a few reasons why reading fiction is so important:
Fiction helps us see life through the lens of story. Reading stories develops an ability to connect characters, timelines and themes. This is so important for believers because the Bible is a story. The Bible is the timeless, cosmic, redemption story of God.
When we only read non-fiction books our minds are trained to think in a linear, cause-and-effect way. The result is treating the Bible as an “if/then” book to be used, often with the intent of mining principles out of it, rather than seeing it as a story that includes us. As believers we are part of the story of God and it would serve us well to connect our story with the people, history and themes of the Bible. So when we read the story of David we see ourselves in his failures and triumphs; when we read the Gospels we remember the covenant to send a Messiah centuries earlier; and when we read Paul’s warnings to be on guard against deceptive philosophies we realize we are that community of faith, with the same tendencies to fall prey to selfish desires.
The poet Denise Levertov says that poetic story language is not “an examination of what happens but an immersion in what happens.” The Bible is not a life-management book or a collection of moral lessons but rather a story to be entered.
Fiction helps us see the complexity of the world. When we read fiction we experience the nuances of life and understand that the world is not black and white. Non-fiction books (especially pop-culture, self-help books) are often very black and white with little concern for the layers of complexity that is life. A wise old friend of mine once said “adolescents see the world in black and white…until they grow up and realize the world is a lot of gray.” This is not to say that the Gospel is relative, but that the world around us cannot be comprehended with simplistic naïveté. When reading The Great Gatsby you learn who Gatsby is and develop sympathy for him rather than making sweeping judgments as we can so easily do when we only see people one-dimensionally. Fiction reminds me to see people through the lens of grace.
Fiction develops our imagination. The language of non-fiction books is not the same as a well-written novel. Non-fiction language is primarily the language of information, but to only engage the world on the level of information is to miss the beauty and profundity of that which isn’t “useful.” The beauty of relationships, creation and many of the ordinary aspects of life can easily be overlooked unless our eyes are trained to see beneath the first layer. The Bible has some facts and data but it is mostly jammed with poetry, song, prayer, narrative, metaphor and prophecy. To only read the Bible for information is to miss out on a significant portion of what God is saying through His Word. In the words of Susan Sontag (Against Interpretation), “We must learn to see more, hear more, feel more.”
Time is valuable and we shouldn’t waste it reading meaningless drivel, but I implore you to have a steady dose of fiction in your reading diet. Regardless of whether you are an avid reader or a meanderer, pick up a piece of fiction and enjoy the story.