Getting Back Into Fiction
Jan 11, 2020 • matt on the shore • ~ 8 minute read • 1029 words
For a while (something around 6 years), I haven’t read a fiction book for pleasure.
It’s not that I haven’t read fiction; but, when I did, it was usually a means to an end. I read 1984 and Animal Farm to learn about Orwellian states, Brave New World to be sad about humanity, and Atlas Shrugged… well, I’m not sure if I learned anything from that. I read books like Homecoming by Yaa Gyasi (which, by the way, is really underrated) for class and to get a better understanding of race and class. It’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading these books - I absolutely did - but that wasn’t my goal when I picked them up.
I used to be really into fantasy and sci-fi novels. But, when I got into high school debate, I pivoted towards reading debate-y non-fiction works: books like Justice by Michael Sandel to delve into moral philosophy or Sapiens to better understand debate arguments about human sociology (e.g. tribalism, communcation, human nature, etc.). I really enjoyed reading these too - but there isn’t that same level of being lost in a book.
And, I started reading lots and lots of news. My news diet used to be The Economist + The New York Times + occasionally Slate/Washington Post/The Toronto Star, which was a lot. Granted, I had lots of time to kill on my commute to and from school, but it’s not a pace that I can still keep up on - now, it’s just The Economist, with a bit of research on specific topics.
During high school and my first year of college, I read religiously (figuratively). There’s no precise way to quantify it, but I’d say I read a minimum of 100 pages of words for non-school reasons a day, with an average closer to 150 or 200. A lot of this was news (and I think you parse it differently, both from a time and intellectual stimulation perspective), but I still snuck in normal books when I had a chance.
Rarely though, were they fiction. And it was never fiction for the sake of fiction.
At the time, I didn’t find anything particularly wrong with this attitude. Yes, I enjoyed reading less - I personally don’t get lost in microfinancing or health economics in the same way that I could get lost in Greek mythology or Narnia - but I was willing to make that tradeoff for debating, and so I could become a more well-rounded, global citizen.
I think it worked, but it’s hard to say if that was the best choice. Looking back on it, I think I lost opportunities to understand pop culture, but moreover, about human (if maybe Anglo-centric) culture: to know the great stories of our time, but also to understand the different conditions that each of us lived in. Don’t want to sound too pretentious, but I think you get the idea.
the tipping point
I will say, I didn’t hold this habit with zero opposition. In particular, I have a friend who lived a similar life but had almost an entirely different policy than mine: they loved debating, math, and computers, but exclusively only ever read fiction (books, they still read the news). We had a long discussion about it one time, and it basically just boiled down to a need to understand the human experience, which is something that nonfiction cannot solely fulfill.
I was already convinced by the argument, but kind of didn’t get around to putting things into action.
And so, I trudged along, reading books by Thomas Piketty and Dan Ariely and Hans Rosling about economics and the world. I still enjoyed them, but I did admit that there might’ve been something missing.
This past break, I had a friend give me a book for my birthday: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon. It was really sweet of them: not only because it’s a gift, but it’s a gift that I knew I needed, but one I’d never get for myself. It helps that I really admire this person’s taste in books, and I’m sure this one is no different.
In fact, it moved me enough to push me to make a resolution: I need to read more fiction, for the sake of fiction.
I will admit, I actually haven’t read the book yet. But it’s not because I’ve been flaky on this resolution.
kafka by the sea (no spoilers)
Instead, I binge-read Kafka by the Sea by Haruki Murakami in a day. Well, ~ 5 hours of reading in 20 hours. Almost a day.
And I’ve got to say, it was absolutely worth it.
Kafka is … a strange book, no doubt. I’ve heard that all of Murakami’s are (and 1Q84, the next one on my list, is supposedly even stranger). But it’s equally, maybe even more beautiful than the literary classics that I read when I was young. It helps that I’ve lived in Japan and gone through the motions of Japanese life, but Murakami just plunges you headfirst into our narrator’s life. Murakami’s blunt and heavy-handed with emotions, trauma, and life - and it makes for a stream-of-consciousness that thrusts you in the moment, rather than being a bystander in a bad movie.
It’s hard to say if it’s just Murakami, or a renewed interest in fiction, or a Matt with a bit more life experience, but reading Kafka was a lot more enriching and impactful than most of my reading experiences. After I finished it, I thought about it, alone, for almost an hour (though I also got some food). I didn’t look up any literary analysis, or ask someone to tell me what their opinion was on it (though I did both of those things later on). And to be honest, it was refreshing.
I’m definitely reading 1Q84 next, and I’ve still got to read Bleeding Edge . I think I’ll also re-explore (Franz) Kafka, check out Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and maybe some JG Ballard. Who knows?
But yes, I’m happy I can still get lost in a book.
And hopefully, I’ll lose myself in many more.