What is the point of telling stories, or, for that matter, reading them? Is it purely for entertainment? The avid readers among you, I’m sure, would agree that stories fill a purpose far more significant than simple entertainment. But I have friends and acquaintances within my circle who find little or no value in reading fiction. To each their own, of course, but I can’t help but feel a little sad for them.
To say that reading broadens your horizons feels a bit cliché, but I believe it nonetheless. Can fiction really expand one’s range of interests and knowledge? Of course it can. The skeptics would counter that fiction is precisely that—untruth. Made-up stories about people that don’t exist doing things that never happened couldn’t possibly teach us about the real world.
Or could they? Our knowledge about the world comes from a wide variety of sources. We don’t just learn from textbooks; we learn how to be a whole person from absorbing and processing the world around us. Memorizing facts in school doesn’t lead to moral understanding, critical thinking, empathy, or social acuity. On the other hand, reading fiction can give us essential insights into how the world works and what makes people tick.
The older I get and the more broadly I read, the more I lament the woeful deficiency of my public school education. The history I learned in school was limited and biased, and even if it had been more comprehensive, facts in textbooks simply do not capture the whole truth of major world events. Historical fiction can provide an enriched understanding of time periods and events, giving insight into the emotions and motivations of the people who lived through them.
I’ll never forget when I first learned about the Battle of Bataan in the Philippines during World War II. It was mentioned in passing in a novel I was reading, and I immediately started to look for more information. How could I be utterly ignorant of this devastating chapter of history? The gap in my knowledge felt unconscionable. My research eventually led me to Tears in the Darkness by Michael Norman, an exhaustively researched account that delves into the extent of the horrors of the Bataan Death March. Notably, it was a fiction novel that I’ve completely forgotten that was the catalyst that opened up this new knowledge to me.
The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure gave me a disturbing glimpse into the broad spectrum of human behaviour and the lengths to which people will go to survive. Ai Mi’s Under the Hawthorne Tree introduced me to China’s Cultural Revolution. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead reminded me how deeply-ingrained systemic racism is not ancient history. The list goes on, and the novels pictured at the start of this article are but a handful of examples. Are these books biased? Absolutely—every book ever written reflects to some extent the bias of its author, but I always read with discernment and look for the other side of the story.
It is, admittedly, ironic to think of absorbing facts from works of fiction. But understanding human nature and our history without consuming the stories we tell would be impossible. So read books. Read difficult books. Read stories that make you uncomfortable, sad, uplifted, angry, triumphant, shocked, devastated, hopeful. Along the way, you’ll uncover things you never knew; research them. Ask questions and look for the answers. Be equal measures skeptical and trusting, discerning and objective. I can promise you: You’ll be a better person for it.