When I first started reading, for a good amount of time I read only non fiction books.
I had the feeling that after not reading any books for so many years of my life I had a lot to catch up on. I didnt have time to read fantasy stories that were not based in reality, after all, what benefit could they possibly give me? I needed the hard facts and information that I had been missing all those years and I had no time to lose.
After some time, I became accustomed to the constant feed of information I fed myself and though I had read fiction before in my life (mostly during childhood and very sporadically since), I had no intention of returning to it in any serious fashion. As time passed some more, I realised that in order to get a fuller picture, a deeper understanding on modern culture, I would have to read some pieces of esteemed literature. This was inevitable.
I started by reading a book called Fahrenheit 451. This is a book written a few decades back regarding a dystopian future, one in which books were banned and burnt when found. The protagonist in this book, Montag, is employed as a ‘firefighter’, one who is tasked with burning books when found.
What captured my mind was that that though the scenario presented in the book was far from our current reality, the dilemma and struggles that the protagonist went through were completely relatable. He had to question his own beliefs and the reason he believed them, meeting people who made him question why he followed the status quo and even secretly owning some books himself.
This was as much a story about an individual thinking for himself and developing rational beliefs rather than the blind acceptance of something just because someone else told him. This was a story about accepting – or at least being open to – opposing views when your own seem insufficient to answer questions. I felt the tension Montag felt when he realised the status quo had no real justification. I felt the self-actualisation he felt when he decided to make a change for the good of his soul.
Eventually I realised that I had taken every step along with the protagonist along his journey. As the reader, I was the sparrow on his shoulder, the fly on every wall. This fact allowed me to absorb the lessons he absorbed, and see the wrong that he saw. And then I understood the power of fiction.
Fiction has the power to present challenging ideas through the power of empathy. It can provide advice to the reader and inspire us to take action through the backdrop of emotion, something that statistics, facts and raw data can rarely do. Though the reality of the book’s setting (a world where books are immediately burned) may seem unfathomable and far from our modern day reality, this too is a reflection of the underlying hopes and fears the Author has regarding the future.
The theme of the book is a commentary on society and where we are headed, whereas the plot was a way for us to engage with the theme and understand the underlying message. Contrast this to reading a standard Self Help book. We may be presented with facts and ideas designed to improve our ways of thinking, however we may also be subconsciously more defensive against it. Human beings are rebellious by nature and quite often an individual would have rather learnt something himself than be told it by another. How many times are you glad that you did something yourself before anyone asked you to do it? Some aspects of our nature will never change.
Perhaps this is why Alexander Pope said:
Men must be taught as if you taught them not, and things unknown proposed as things forgot.
My initial belittlement of fiction may have come from the fact that my main focus of study in my academic and professional career has been Engineering, either physical or logical. Since my teenage years, I always put an emphasis on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). I always had the idea that the fields of technical engineering and science had more intrinsic value to both myself and society that any humanities based subject. As far as I was concerned, everything else was a waste of time.
The General Arts
But as my views on fiction have changed, so too have my views on the so called liberal arts. I can now both understand and respect the contributions they make towards our societies and the power of emotion. on the other side of the coin, the dangers of prioritising STEM subjects over the liberal arts have become self evident. We seem to have sleepwalked into a society where we have become to tools of what used to be our tools. Technology used to openly exist to serve us, now we have found ourselves in a situation where we as individuals power and drive incredibly large databases used for spying, marketing and behaviour driven analytics.
I wouldn’t hesitate to link this to the same belittlement and dismissal of non STEM subjects throughout my academic career. How? Because when you see the world through data, facts, statistics and figures, there’s a real danger that is all you will see. Individuals become numbers, and emotion becomes almost irrelevant in the face of all the data in front of you. Perhaps this is why it has become so easy for many to be complicit in helping such large companies extend their reach with such amounts of data? The jury is still out on that, but I do find it interesting how people are faster to quote Orwell in response to privacy invading surveillance measures rather than Snowden.
Perhaps a degree more importance given to the more artistic of subjects will allow people to understand the humanity behind humanity. Not as numbers on a chart, but as real people. No doubt, the tall buildings of a nation are only constructed with the hard data of the Engineers, but we mustn’t forget that they are also designed with the imagination of an Architect, decorated with the paintings of an Artist, and the carpets of a Designer. I do not think that many would be happy to live inside an empty, concrete house no matter how large it was.
Robert Greene once wrote:
In any period it can be dangerous to express ideas that go against the grain of public opinion or offend notions of correctness. It is best to seem to conform to these norms, then, by parroting the accepted wisdom, including the proper moral ending. But you can use details here and there to say something else. If you are writing a novel, for instance, you might put your dangerous opinions in the mouth of the villain but express them with such energy and color that they become more interesting than the speeches of the hero.The 33 Strategies of War
This is an incredibly interesting point. Fiction can be used to push a point of view, a narrative that might otherwise be disallowed or looked down upon in current society. This only works because the reader lets down their guard and the ideas are able to pour through using the power of empathy. A Self-Help book absolutely couldn’t do that, or at least do it as effectively. While at times this may sound malicious, challenging people’s views using emotion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be a powerful method to make people realise that their enemies aren’t necessarily their enemies, or that certain people/ideas deserve more compassion than they are afforded.
In this sense, a good Fiction book is better than a Self-Help book with similar themes. It is a stronger, more persuasive version that has greater potential to leave an impact on an individual. While a Self-Help book is more direct with its advice, this isn’t always what we need. Sometimes we need to learn the lessons ourselves through hints, and come to the conclusion by our own accord. Sometimes it is better to be nudged the path and walk it ourselves, rather than led down it forcefully. Fiction can do that.
With the right Fiction book, you can change your outlook on life.