Everyone ought to recognize that a woman in possession of a sound mind must be in want of a good story. Jane Austen must’ve thought so, for her novel Northanger Abbey is one of the best literary defenses for fiction, and she has the book’s hero Henry Tilney declare that “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
“But I’m a reader!” you say. “I make reading lists!”
I know you do.
I’ve seen them, or you’ve told me about them, and the truth is, they’re painfully deficient in fiction.
Fiction–novels–those are the kinds of books we’re not reading enough of anymore. Instead, our reading lists are jam-packed with things that have more obvious bearing on everyday life. Good, helpful things like parenting books, business strategy guides, dieting advice, motivational books, and self help books.
We’re not intolerably stupid. We read these non-fiction books to help us improve our lives and routines, and we do recognize a good story when we see it. The problem is that we’re not reading enough good stories, and we’re missing out because of it.
You probably didn’t mean to neglect novels and stories, but if you have, please consider these reasons why fiction should be more than just dessert on your reading list.
1. Fiction is restful
In a culture that puts so much emphasis on productivity and advancement, reading fiction, especially novels, seems like an indulgence–even a waste of time. You don’t read novels to become a better small business owner. You don’t read them to improve your parenting, change your marriage, boost your productivity, or innovate your roles in life. You read fiction for you.
And that’s good. It’s good to rest, to live fully in the moment and not allow our minds to race with all the things and people we need to improve. The ripple effect of rest is that very likely our relationships and roles will improve, but that’s not our original reason for curling up with Sense and Sensibility at the end of a long day.
2. Stories remind us what we love
With a few well-chosen words, an author can remind me how much I relish a rainy day at home; a long, solitary walk; or the first meeting with a kindred spirit. When we reacquaint ourselves with things we love we come alive again.
3. Fiction expands our minds, hearts, and imaginations
Inhabiting another world through the pages of a story expands our own world. We grow in empathy, in knowledge of other cultures and perspectives, and in ability to express ourselves and our own stories. We become more well rounded, the kind of “accomplished lady” that Mr. Darcy describes as one who seeks “the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
4. Good fiction is art (and we need more of that!)
It might take you a dozen readings to appreciate all the nuances of Persuasion, but it only takes the first to realise you’ve encountered something exquisite. Humans are hardwired to need and appreciate beauty. I believe there is beauty in the mundane actions of everyday life, but I also firmly believe that we’ll find that beauty more readily if we’re regularly exposed to good art. This is why you might discover that a half hour of reading Persuasion may do more for your homemaking than two hours spent creating the perfect cleaning schedule.
I’m not saying that you should shirk your duties so you can binge-read Jane Austen. Work when it’s time to work. But then find time in your day to set aside chores and to-dos so you can immerse yourself in the beauty of a good story.
5. Stories shape our souls
Stories teach us to appreciate what is beautiful, and hate what is ugly. We learn to despise characters like Mr. Wickham who betray our trust, while we admire heroines like Emma who overcome vanity and pride. Sometimes reading a book is like holding a mirror up to your face; the characters, good and bad, reflect your own faults and foibles back to you: selfishness, pettiness, impetuousness, proclivity to gossip, unfairly judging another person’s actions or character. Living with the characters through the pages of a story is a cathartic experience for the reader. You never exit a book unchanged.
The next time you’re feeling weary, overwhelmed, or just want to stir up fresh life, try a good piece of fiction. The best books–like Jane Austen’s–will leave you feeling satisfied, even while you’re longing for more. Wanting more will make you not just a reader of fiction, but a re-reader. Because that’s another thing about fiction–its truths are infinitely more layered than most of the non-fiction on your shelf. And uncovering them is one of the best and most enjoyable ways to put that brilliant mind of yours to use!
Want more posts on books and reading? Here’s how I’m reading now more than ever (even though I’m a mom), and here’s classic literature and young adult novels that will make you fall head over heels in love with reading.
In addition, my new literary blog, Tea and Ink Society, is launching March, 2017! Join the waiting list now and you’ll be the first to know when it goes live!
Illustrations by Charles Edmund Brock and Hugh Thomson