Why I Read Fiction

Just back from a great event at the Write Idea Festival in Whitechapel on the subject of whether or not fiction still matters.

A number of people have told me recently that they read less fiction nowadays, diving instead into biography and history and popular science and philosophy.  My husband has an admirably disciplined approach, alternating fiction with non-fiction in strict, not to say slightly obsessive, order.  Me, I rarely read any non-fiction longer than a newspaper feature and don’t feel the need to apologise for it.  I read for comfort and company, entertainment and enlightenment, insight into other cultures; to experiment with experiences I will never have and seek reassurance that  experiences I am having have been shared by other people at  other times.  I read fiction because it has an emotional truth and resonance that I don’t find in non-fiction.  And,  as the panellists in today’s event said, it quite often has a depth and truth that non-fiction can’t rival.

I have, coincidentally just finished reading Penelope Lively‘s How It All Began which is in part about the power of reading.   One of her central characters is a retired English teacher who is teaching a class of new arrivals to London to read English. There’s a wonderful passage in the book in which she reflects on what reading has meant to her.  Too long to quote in full, but here’s a bit:

Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost but is in there somewhere.  She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way she has lived.  She is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.

Me too. And maybe I’m also a bit like Anton, the Polish would-be accountant who goes to Charlotte’s class.  She gets him to persevere with reading by giving him children’s stories to read, luring him in by making him want to find out what happens next.  Sceptical at first, Anton succumbs eventually to the joys of reading Charlotte’s Web on the tube.

  He rattled through the darkness, reading.

Which surely is what we’re all doing. Rattling through the darkness.  Reading.

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