A couple of years ago, I finished my college degree. Normally, I hesitate to share more information than that, because when I tell people I majored in English their reaction is usually along the lines of:
Now, rest assured, this is not another rant about “how I’m under appreciated” and “why English majors should get paid more”, although I am and we should. But rather, I want to make the terrifically under-spoken point that you should all read fiction. While there are scientifically-proven social benefits for picking up a good novel, those aren’t my focus today. Instead, I want to point out why you should read fiction; not just for fun, nor relaxation, social awareness or because the cute girl at Starbuck’s happens to love Steinbeck. Rather, you should read fiction because your soul depends on it.
To understand why fiction is important, we must first explore the concept of story, a notion that has been lost in our society. While it may be difficult to prove that “stories” have been utterly abandoned, they have been, at the very least, neglected and abused. I say this because in an age of Twitter, XBox, Sparknotes and 30-second attention spans, our culture is suffering from intense story depravation. This is a vague notion to try and attach a statistic too, but in a recent poll, it was found that 42 percent of college graduates wouldn’t read another book after graduation. 80 percent of US families did not buy a book in the last year. Even amongst families that did make a literary purchase, they didn’t necessarily utilize their acquisition…57 percent of new or recently purchased books last year were not read to completion (granted, I can’t complain because later I bought them at a library sale for a nickel). Compare this to the number of people who access Twitter or update their Facebook status on a daily (or even hourly) basis, and you’ll see the disparity.
And the loss of story is a detriment to society. Whether you want to start with the epics of ancient Greece, which it is estimated were first written down in the 8th century BC (although they were an oral tradition for centuries before that), or cave drawings from the Aurignacian period in Spain dating back 40,000 years ago, we can all agree that story is nothing new. The art of storytelling has been cherished, taught and, arguably, the very foundation of societies since the dawn of time.
Because story telling is universal. A story isn’t just: “hey, let me tell you what happened to me” or “this is how I felt after watching the presidential debates”; they are not limited to the explorations of self that post-modernity preaches and are most commonly presented today. Rather, stories are a chance to venture outside of our egocentric realms and into something that is beyond us: because through stories one can begin to experience the Universal rather than what is subjectively important to me. In any language of the world, in any culture, tradition, time period- you name it- the idea of story is one that registers with people on one level or another. And although the forms of story change, though the tongues and traditions in which they are passed down can alter and vary across cultural lines, there are certain aspects to a story that always exist.
For instance every story must have a protagonist, antagonist and conflict. In other words, in every story there is someone or something that seeks someone or something and is prevented by someone or something from attaining the someone or something to which the aforementioned someone or something was striving.
Because although I did tell you something, it sure wasn’t a story. Now if I had said: “Today I went to get some coffee and when I pulled into the parking lot I nearly ran into the light pole before getting out and tripping over my shoelaces on my way inside where I proceeded to make a fool out of myself by ordering a ‘small’ coffee at Starbucks (and ‘oh hey another English major!’)” then there are all the aspects of a story: the protagonist (me), the conflict (wanting to get coffee) and the antagonist (my perpetual ineptitude). Thus, I told you a story. Although the cultural aspects of the story wouldn’t be the same if I were relaying this in, say, India, the elements of the story would still be present.
“But,” you say, “That isn’t fiction. In that example you’re discussing something that actually happened to you, and therefore we’re not talking about fiction. I understand the notion of story is important, but why are fictional stories important?”
On the first day of my sophomore British literature class, my professor stood up in the room and opened with the following proposition: “fact needs fiction to survive.” I needed no further justification or explanation. The sun will rise each morning, politicians will never get along and fact needs fiction to survive. Of these, I am convinced.
Because fiction is the color between the lines in a painting; it’s the harmony accompanying the melody of reality. It’s the third dimension of a scenic landscape, the focusing of a camera lenses on a child’s smiling face. Fiction is the oxygen in the atmosphere of intellect, the salt in an ocean of life and the chemistry between the lover and His eternal bride.
Without fiction fact wouldn’t just be degraded, downplayed or lessened; rather, it would lose its very substance. Because within every work of fiction we find universal aspects of story. But rather than these aspects of story having been grasped or acquired from a previously existing notion (as is the case with non-fiction), they are being presented through the creation of one’s imagination. Thus, the imagination of an individual is creating artwork with subjective and aesthetic qualities, which at the same time features universal elements. Not universal in its’ meaning, application or significance, but universal in its’ substance. Fiction is a created thing that appeals to a universality, which must then be traced back to a universal source or God. In short, fiction is a soul’s adventure among the mind of God, a role that fact alone cannot fulfill. Every fictional work into which we step is like us taking the hand of another and walking through wardrobe of their creation to a journey with God we couldn’t have experienced otherwise. (If you didn’t catch that reference then you really, really ought to take this post to heart.)
“But”, say you, “what about fictional books that make a case against God? What about books of depraved morality and/or objectionable material? How can you say that God is present in those?” It’s simple. Because even within these books the elements of story (and thus universality) have been conjured up by a creative spirit and thus point to God. Furthermore, there’s no piece of fiction that exists that doesn’t involve conflict. Try and present a piece of fiction in a writer’s workshop that doesn’t feature conflict and you’ll get:
If conflict exists, then there must exist a right and a wrong. Within such, we can accept that there must be good and bad. If this universal “good” or “bad” exists, then a Being that determines and governs that universality must exist. This is not to say that all fictional works bring glory to God, or that they necessarily ought to be read. Some fictional pieces are the equivalent of taking someone’s hand and being led to play Frogger on the crowded interstate of their utterly confused and misguided reality. But even within these train wrecked works, the elements of story intrinsically point to the existence of a Universal.
Take for instance (and I really can’t believe I’m doing this), Twilight:
Now there are countless reasons why Twilight sucks, but this is all the more reason me to use it as an example. For instance, within Twilight there is a conflict between good and evil (although both sides are vampires, go figure). There’s another conflict over the love Bella has (depending on the millisecond) for Jacob and Edward. I’m sure there’s more, but after a while I gave up looking and started drinking. Even though lines are blurred by Stephanie Meyer’s moral relativistic influences and literary ignorance, there is still undeniable conflict and thus a struggle between good and evil throughout the saga. Each clash between the two forces appeals to the reader’s sense of the Universal and thus has them gripped and rooting for some force to win. Admist shouts of “Team Jacob!”, “No! Edward glitters!” and tight fisted grips of millions of pubescent-girls-at-heart-around-the-world (“but Bryn, it sounds like you read Twilight…” “Shut up, that’s not the point”), you have a readership that is drawn into a work of fiction and exposed to the Universal. Thus, Twilight, in all its depravity, is still the product of a creative mind that (albeit, in limited capacity) points to universal truths and likewise a universal God.
In short: fiction is the act of another taking our hand and leading us into a previously inexistent realm. It’s the journey of our souls towards a land we would never have explored otherwise. Our souls need this adventure. We need these dances with the Almighty, guided dives into the depths of Universal Truth that, though never understood, must always be explored.
Each piece of fiction, in it’s own way, is such a venture, and for that alone is worth the effort of a quick read.
If you need recommendations: don’t hesitate to ask your neighborhood friendly English major (aka Barista). Whatever the case, do your soul a favor and start reading fiction today.
Also, I should get paid more.