Be it “Sesame Street,” “Game of Thrones” or even “Plato’s Republic,” much of the cultural canon revolves around fiction. Despite having false elements, fiction holds great importance to our society. At first glance, it may be challenging to understand why. Why does “The Alchemist” compel people to follow their dreams in ways that self-help books never could? Why does “Paradise Lost” teach us morality? Why do our references to dystopia often lead us to “Catch-22?” The deeper question to me is: If something is not realistic, how could it cut to the heart of the human condition?
First, fiction cultivates imagination. In our daily lives, we are never exposed to the thought processes of others. There is no requirement to imagine how others feel, and frankly, in our daily lives, it remains easier to focus on ourselves. Fortunately, fiction transgresses this mental boundary. Fiction plunges us into another world, forcing us to reconcile our beliefs with others’ thought processes.
Psychologist Raymond Mar testifies that the “capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions is ‘theory of mind.’ Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity as we identify with character’s longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”
When one begins to understand that internal motivations of others may be different than of the self, a lifelong journey starts, leading to improved interpersonal skills. As anyone who has ever been broken up with knows, relationships lack the closure and resolution that we desire. Fiction allows us to explore ideas of complex emotions, and change in such a way that seems vaguely reminiscent of a simulation. Being aware of other people and their motivations leave us better able to navigate the world and show mutual respect to one another. Seeing how someone else approaches a topic, problem, or goal leaves us more empathetic to them, resulting in ourselves being more open-minded and tolerant.
In a world where our attention span is constantly being whittled down, the ability to grapple and struggle over meaning becomes increasingly important. Reading classical literature such as Chaucer or Shakespeare is understandably challenging. Values, vocabulary and culturally antiquated views show up. Perhaps our first instinct in this constant notification-filled society is to viscerally condemn a certain character as cruel, racist, etc. However, by deeply engaging with interpretations, insight, wisdom and patience follow as a reward for the hard work involved in getting there. Since classical literature is extremely challenging, it teaches us to focus, allowing the ability to gain nuance and have a deeper, more measured understanding of the world around us.
This newfound patience and comfort with complex ideas and worlds results in a litany of benefits. The ability to think clearly and uninterruptedly has grown scarce in a world filled with distractions. Proving your patience makes you a more desirable partner, a significantly better worker and opens up the doorway to higher opportunities. While the material and social benefits are significant, the paramount benefits are internal. Reading fiction creates an inner peace. It grants the ability to parse through ideas slowly and savor them, to be able to truly appreciate complexity, nuance and deep thought.
Fiction is etched into the code of humanity. Through this shared cultural DNA, we as a species can comprehend concepts, ideology and other people’s internal motivations and goals if we embrace our ability to understand different perspectives. Reading fiction codifies our brightest dreams and our darkest nightmares. Maybe it will bring you on a magic carpet ride. If you have time to, pick up “House of Leaves” and read 10 pages, start over, try again and think about it. You will be better for it.
Thumbnail Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash
Isadore Johnson is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.