Why I prefer novels to nonfiction

When I was sick for several days recently, I caught up on the New York Times Sunday Review and the New York Times Magazine. As usual, the exceptional writing impressed me.

But after a few days, I craved a novel. I needed to immerse myself in a story and get to know its characters.

I didn’t have the energy to go out to the library (I still read on paper) and decided rereading a novel from my bookshelves would do. I picked up Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in which an investigation of a dog’s killing thrusts a boy on the autism spectrum into painful discoveries about his parents.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly six in ten Americans don’t read novels. One of the most thoughtful people I know says she reads mostly nonfiction books because she likes to learn. A very knowledgeable member of my book group said when he joined that nonfiction was his go-to for lengthier reads.

My nonfiction reading is largely periodicals. I haven’t given nonfiction books much of a chance. I’m too occupied by novels.

With all respect to my nonfiction-preferring friends, I think we learn as much from fiction, and what we learn is more valuable than information. A good novel imparts wisdom about human nature and how to live. Fiction brings a wide variety of humans into my acquaintance and lets me dissect their thoughts and motives. I relish the ah ha moments when an author puts into words shared feelings that I couldn’t articulate. How characters deal with their challenges informs my own judging skills.

Multiple studies have found that fiction readers are better at discerning and empathizing with the emotions of others. Of course, plays, movies, and television programs also feature fictional characters, but a novel inserts you into other people’s minds.

I’m not claiming every novel is edifying. There is plenty of junk out there. Without getting into the debate about literary versus genre fiction, suffice it to say that the novels I’m talking about exhibit both excellent writing and character development.

Jane Austen, my favorite novelist, lived when the novel was in its infancy and derided by intellectuals as not worth their time. She answered critics in this famous passage in Northanger Abbey (sold 1803, published 1816):

“Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.

“From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.

“‘I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.’ Such is the common cant. ‘And what are you reading, Miss ___?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. ‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

Talking about edification and wisdom makes reading novels sound like a highfalutin activity, but don’t be put off. Look at how Austen began her defense of the novel: by talking about pleasure. The main reason I read novels is because I love it. You can and should stop reading any novel you don’t enjoy. There are hundreds of thousands more to choose from.

 

*****

ANTI-TRUMP QUOTATIONS: 83RD IN AN ONGOING SERIES

“I can’t tell if he knows right from wrong or if he even cares. I just know he’s done wrong.”
— House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

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