Why Read Fiction? – Forbes

We often hear friends ask why they should read fiction. There is so much to learn, they say, from history, from what is going on at the frontiers of science, and from contemporary studies of human behavior. Why should they spend their scarce “free time” reading fiction, the purpose of which, at best, is only entertainment?

We bristle at such comments. Yes, we respond, we do find pleasure in reading fiction. But we also learn much about how best to live our lives in ways that can only be captured by fiction. In fact, we think “fiction” is a misnomer for any great work of literature. “Fiction” means “untrue,” and the best stories and novels contain wisdom for living that cannot be captured in any other way.
We recognize that some novels are entertaining, but leave no lasting impression. What makes a novel more than entertainment?

Our answer is that we don’t just read great books — they read us as well. The human condition is complex and contradictory, layered like an ice-cream parfait, with flavors blending among the layers. A great novel reflects that complexity. We may read it several times, as we do with our favorites, and each time it is like finding an old friend and gaining new insights from that friend. We put it down with new understandings of the world around us and, most important, of ourselves.

Let’s look at the novel Frankenstein, written in 1818 by Mary Shelley, and on the great-books list of many colleges. If you have not read this tale recently, you may have forgotten that Frankenstein is not the monster, but a young man who is impatient to seek out the secrets of the universe. He believes he has found the key to generating life from studying science. To test his theory, he collects body parts from morgues and dissenting rooms, assembles an eight-foot creature, and charges it with life. When the dull yellow eyes open, however, Frankenstein is appalled by what he has done. He abandons the creature, which is scorned and attacked wherever it goes. It becomes enraged and ultimately kills Frankenstein’s brother, his bride, and his best friend.

On one level, Frankenstein is entertaining — a good horror story, though a little dated when compared, for example, to Stephen King’s best sellers like the Dark Tower series. But Shelley writes more than just scary entertainment.

On a deeper level, her book forces us to ask whether humans reach too far in playing God. Genetic engineering already enables us to alter the food we eat and the very bodies in which we live. At what point are we trying to take over God’s creativity, to gain knowledge that is as forbidden as the fruit of the Garden of Eden? This theme, as old as the legend of Prometheus, dominates Frankenstein.

Shelley, of course, knew nothing of genetic engineering. But she did know that the Industrial Revolution was sweeping across England and ambitions for scientific progress were intense in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. She was deeply troubled by what human beings might discover about themselves, and the effects of those discoveries on society.

Our reading of great literature can also be enriched by understanding the author’s personal interests and anxieties. Shelley was only eighteen when she wrote Frankenstein. Birth and death are closely linked in her prose and in her experiences. Her mother had died giving birth to her, and by the time she began writing this great novel, she herself had already had two babies out of wedlock. One had died within a few weeks. The novel echoes her deep anxieties about giving birth and her fears that birth will bring death.

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