Thursday, May 03, 2012

On Reading Fiction

I DON’T KNOW OF any men who read the blog ‘The Art of Manliness,’ although I know very many women who do, which is quite telling. Our culture, as is now well known, has become increasingly feminine, or rather more effeminate, and very many women, it seems, do very much want their men to stop playing video games and to get up off of the sofa.

However, a recent article from that site (whose link a lady friend sent to me), Why Men Should Read More Fiction, recommends that men sit back on the sofa and read a good book. But not any book, but a good book of fiction. The amount of fiction read by men is apparently at a low point — and this genre seems to be mainly dominated by women readers.

Now I must admit that there was a time that I was proud to say that I only read non-fiction. This was long before my conversion, and I thought there was a practical benefit to this, that fiction was a waste of time that took away from the daily business of life. I looked down upon people who never read serious non-fiction. This kind of Puritan practicality, while true in a certain limited sense, is hardly a guide to living a vibrant life. Reading fiction all day every day has nothing to recommend itself to the pursuit of virtue, but reading no fiction at all has its dangers also, as the article states:
Most of your success as a man, whether in love or work, depends on your ability to socialize adroitly. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Success depends not on what you know, but who you know.” As much as you’d like to think that’s not true, it is. You can be the most skilled and talented whatever in the world, but you’ll likely labor away in obscurity if you don’t know how to reach out and share those talents with others.

Unfortunately, men have gotten the short end of the evolutionary stick when it comes to our ability to socialize. Studies show that male brains are generally wired for dealing with stuff, while female brains are generally wired for dealing with people. This may explain why women often prefer fiction over non-fiction: their brains are already wired to want to read about “selves in a social world.”

Thus as men, we probably have the most to gain from reading fiction. Instead of seeing fiction as a bunch of made-up, waste-of-time baloney, look it as a simulator that allows you to exercise and strengthen the cognitive muscles responsible for socializing. Every time you pick up and read a novel, you’re molding yourself into a better, more socially adept man.
Ah, I see my own failure here, having long considered myself an expert in “dealing with stuff,” while tending to ignore the social part of life.

I recently watched the popular television show Downton Abbey with a lady friend. While disappointed that this abbey had no monks (thanks to the evil King Henry VIII), I still found it fascinating. However, I watched one episode by myself, and I found it incomprehensible — I was unable to comprehend it without the assistance of my friend explaining things to me. Partially this was due to the complexity of characters and events, but other times I simply missed subtle clues such as body language, or the meaning of certain oblique lines of dialogue.

The one time in my adult life when I did read lots of fiction was the time in my life when I was most dissatisfied. My career was going very strongly, and I traveled frequently by plane. For whatever reason, I chose fiction books to read while flying: at the time I thought this was a weakness, that I was failing at doing what I had to do, escaping into my mind when I should instead be confronting reality directly. But is not the mind a part of reality? Just because science has trouble characterizing the mind does not mean that it is unimportant. The needs of the soul ought not to be ignored. I was dissatisfied, but I did not know why; fiction became important to me, but I did not know why it was important.

My eyesight isn’t what it used to be, so nowadays I tend to prefer audiobooks to paper books, and I also get to have some entertainment while driving. When I got a free membership to an online audio book website, I initially wanted to get long non-fiction works, but instead selected a couple of fiction books — and I was immensely pleased by them, becoming far more involved that I would have suspected. There is something to be said about fiction that I had ignored before.

Chesterton wrote that good fiction tells you more truth than do mere facts. This is due to a certain abstraction, the taking away of confusing and inessential facts to get to the meat of a story. He also wrote that good fiction tells you truth about the characters, while bad fiction tells you truth about the author, which is important to know when choosing what fiction to read.

The principle of abstraction as found in good fiction was greatly helpful to me when I did photography for the new book “St. Louis Parks”. A good composition will eliminate unnecessary, distracting details, and will emphasize what is important.

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