truth about fiction


As with so many people, the pandemic has caused some changes in my life, and one change in particular may surprise some of my friends and fellow librarians: I’ve decided to only read books that I really want to read.

You see, I’m an avid reader of fiction. But I must admit that I have always been aware of my tastes in reading. As a librarian and reading advisor, I always believed that I had to read serious non-fiction and not just fiction to be good at my job. And in retirement, I had a hard time letting go of that feeling, even though a lot of what I learned in life I learned by reading novels.

Apparently I’m not alone. Nancy Pearl, our profession’s most notorious reader, shares similar feelings of angst over her fidelity to fiction.

“I belong to a reading group that has met weekly for four years, where we each talk about what we read that week,” Nancy told me recently. “There are people in the group who mostly read non-fiction. And while I’ve spent my life, or at least my career, assuring people that the definition of a good book is one that you, the reader, enjoy, when it’s my turn to speak, I’m still a bit embarrassed. I find that I still preface my choices by saying apologetically, “Oh, my book this week is just a mystery.” Or, when I have finished re-reading Georgette Heyer The Big Sophia for the umpteenth time, I feel I must add that Heyer not only invented the regency novel, but was also a formidable social historian. No matter how many times I tell other people not to apologize for the books they read, there’s always a part of me that does too.

When I was director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) in Ohio, I dreaded the weeks leading up to my annual January appearance on a local public radio show to share my top book picks from the previous year. . Knowing that I would be joined by the publisher of the book of Cleveland Plain Dealership and owner of Mac’s Backs bookstore in Cleveland Heights, I would let anxiety rule my vacation reading. I should have spent the holidays with what I love: a delicious menu of mysteries, contemporary literature and magical realism. Instead, I always found myself hoarding non-fiction books to catch up.

To be fair, it was during this non-fiction holiday that I discovered many wonderful titles such as Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn, Behind the Eternal Beauties by Katherine Boo, Forced out by Matthew Desmond, and The warmth of other suns by Isabelle Wilkerson. So it’s not that I don’t like non-fiction (I do). But, looking back, my life has been 50 weeks of fiction and a desperate binge of two weeks of non-fiction so I could present myself as a complete reader.

And if a reader like me wants to stay in the world of fiction, that’s not a bad thing, is it?

Why, however? There is an undeniable power in fiction that fosters compassion, empathy and understanding. As young children, we are surrounded by stories and encouraged to savor the rich, imaginative worlds created in picture books and lose ourselves in the chapter books that are read to us. And it is through these stories that we learn to read and to love reading, which is the basis of our learning and education at large. And if a reader like me wants to stay in the world of fiction, that’s not a bad thing, is it?

It turns out that’s not the case at all. In fact, according to Richard Restak, my new favorite scientist (sorry, Anthony Fauci), a healthy love of fiction is actually, well, healthy.

Restak is a clinical professor of neurology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and author of more than 20 books on the human brain. I met him after reading his last book, The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind. And at the top of its list for supporting memory health as we age: read more fiction.

“My conclusion about the effect of reading fiction came from my experiences with patients,” Restak says. “I noticed that as they got older they tended to shy away from fiction because they had trouble remembering characters, places and actions.”

But rather than avoiding fiction as we age, we should actually be leaning in, says Restak. Research shows that reading complex fiction with multiple characters and situations can actually lead to cognitive gains precisely because it forces attention to character, plot, setting, and language, all of which provide a vital exercise for the brain and aid in memory retention. . Historical fiction related to a person’s life experience can be particularly helpful in supporting memory, because the easiest memories
to remember are those linked to an image or an emotion. “But there is no need to overdo it,” stresses Restak. “A simple plot with half a dozen characters can also be very stimulating.”

Speaking of memories, I vividly remember a popular statement printed on t-shirts and tote bags at past library conferences: “So many books, so little time.” As I look to my own reading future, I’m reassured that reading all the fiction I want is time well spent. But, as the tagline suggests, time can be hard to come by in today’s frenetic, connected world full of distractions and responsibilities, and reading a good novel to many probably seems like a luxury.

However, it’s important to take the time to read fiction, says Restak. And he practices what he preaches. He really made time to read fiction while working in medical school and in his residencies, he says. And amid his busy research and writing schedule, he still sets aside time to read novels.

“I’ve always prioritized time spent reading fiction,” Restak says. “When I was in medical school, I read The Alexandria Quartet in the evening just before bedtime. Sometimes I could only manage part of a chapter and sometimes just a page or two, but I kept going and finished that job.

Recently, says Restak, he read the count of Monte Cristo with his wife and enhanced the experience by also listening to the audiobook. “I find an audiobook to be good for writing and maintaining an active writing career,” he explains. “As you listen to the book, you can imagine how the author probably wrote it in terms of paragraphs and punctuation, and it’s easy to verify these things by looking at the book while listening to the audio version.”

Additionally, Restak recognizes that libraries and librarians have always had an important role to play in getting people to read. “I think libraries have a role to play in motivating older people to become readers,” he adds.

So there you have it, doctor’s orders: read more fiction. Take the time to read more fiction. Do you have a patron who only wants to read fiction? Go ahead, make them happy. And why not add audio books to enhance the experience? It’s a medical prescription I’m glad to have, and the librarians will be eager to fill.

A version of this article appeared in the 10/10/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title :


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