Many of us may remember the colorful posters and banners that lined our elementary school classrooms, decorated with big block letters that wrote “READ” or “Pick up a book!” As a child, I had the privilege of growing up alongside Dr. Seuss and “Magic Tree House” and “Junie B. Jones” books. I remember being scolded for not completing my chores because I was so engrossed in these made-up worlds. I was perfectly content spending the day with Ramona and Beezus. So, what happened? When did these days of fiction-filled bliss end?
Maybe it’s because there’s this stereotype that children read fiction and scholars read nonfiction. Once you graduate high school, fiction is something you indulge in on the beach, or pore over when you see a New Yorker book review and want to appear “in the know” at a cocktail party. But we should be reading more than just The New York Times’ No. 1 best-seller every year. We should be reading old classics as well as breezy romances, heart-wrenching war stories alongside science fiction.
Part of what drives this desire to read exclusively nonfiction is this push for productivity. More often than not, nonfiction gives us facts, statistics, theoretical frameworks — all of which are traditionally “useful.” We look more professional when we talk about the book we just read on policy tactics than when we discuss a coming-of-age novel. We read books on the Middle East so that we can intern at some foreign policy agency. In reading nonfiction, we gain a tangible reward for having invested time in reading.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a consumer of information. If we weren’t, then many of us wouldn’t be here in the first place. However, there is a problem when we constrain ourselves to works that don’t challenge us to feel in different ways as well.
Reading fiction endows us with skills that reading nonfiction simply cannot. Research has consistently proven that fiction makes us better decision-makers, strongly increases our emotional intelligence and helps us exercise our empathy. Even former President Barack Obama said, “When I think about how I understand my role as citizen … the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels.”
Oftentimes we moan about our ever-growing book list, which feels directly in competition with our ever-growing to-do list. “I just don’t have time to pleasure read,” comes out of my mouth just as often as my classmates’. But we need to make time. Bring the book on the subway to your summer internship. Read a few pages before bed (“instead of watching another episode of ‘Friends,’ Hala”). Even listen to audiobooks in the car if you must.
Granted, I believe that professors should assign less reading (seriously, would you rather have students read 50 pages in depth or skim 200?) that we can directly engage in, allowing us the time to explore other types of books and literature on our own. I also believe that more syllabi should actively include fiction. How am I supposed to understand the complexities of tough issues and nuances of culture without engaging with them on something other than a purely informational level?
Unfortunately, one of humanity’s most necessary skills doesn’t make an appearance on CVs: empathy. We need empathy to work in public service. We need to understand how people think to work in business. We need to empathize to be doctors. For the most part, we’ll be in work environments where we have to work with others on a daily basis. As such, we need to engage in people’s stories if we ever want to succeed.
I’m not saying that there isn’t value in reading nonfiction, but there is a balance. And currently? The scales tip far in favor of nonfiction. But as Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The same applies to books. I had studiously studied Chechnya in various classes and read the assigned reports on the situation, debating it in foreign policy classes. But something was still missing. When I began to read about Chechnya through the lens of various civilian narratives, I could see the situation unfold in front of me, the details vividly marked in my memory. Granted, memoirs and nonfiction stories accomplish much of the same goals as fiction, but there are few things as raw and universally human as engaging emotionally with carefully crafted characters and stories that relinquish real identities and all their preconceived notions.
I’m not merely writing this column as an excuse to read the “Harry Potter” series for the millionth time (though I probably will). I fundamentally believe there is something incredibly powerful — and dare I say, magical? — about living in someone else’s created world, created using only the alphabet and a pen.
Hala El Solh is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .