One of the things I’m doing over Thanksgiving is catching up on reading that’s not specifically for college. Right now, that’s “Cards on the Table” by Agatha Christie and Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.
I started to read murder mystery novels last semester as an antithesis of sorts for all the Middle Eastern politics and journalism stuff I’m reading for class or for research. It’s got me thinking about reading fiction and how worthwhile doing so actually is. It’s something I grapple with every few months — in the spring of 2014, I decided to experiment with my literature diet and read only nonfiction until the end of the year. I think I broke that resolution a couple times, but I enjoyed it overall. Right now, I probably have a 10:1 nonfiction-to-fiction ratio.
Nonfiction books are directly related to my areas of interest — politics, censorship, press freedom, the Middle East. “Palace Walk” by Naguib Mahfouz is an excellent book, but reading a story set in Cairo after the war doesn’t convey that much information about the city, or the political milieu of Egypt 1917-19. If I want bang for my buck, I go across the bookstore to the nonfiction aisle. Fiction gives you the color, but nonfiction lays the foundation for learning about a subject.
That said, any list of emotionally impactful books I make will be almost entirely fiction. These are the books that spoke to me, that influence the choices I make, and how I see the world. (Off the top of my head, Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother,” Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” would probably be the top three of that list. Maybe I’ll actually write it up some day.) If I could only read fiction books that changed my world view and which I made a point to reread once every year or two, I would, but selecting these books is quite difficult. Only one of the three named above, for example, won a Pulitzer or award of equal distinctino, which you’d imagine would be the bar set for life-changing fiction, since high accolades are how you tell good nonfiction from bad.
One interesting spanner is the works of this thought process is the positive social aspects of reading fiction. I think everyone had long suspected that people who read fiction are more worldly and empathetic. Turns out there’s science to back this up — reading Harry Potter and rooting for the good guys (i.e. not being camp Voldemort) “improves attitudes toward stigmatized groups (immigrants, homosexuals, refugees).” Then, the question for me becomes centered on trying to limit my consumption of to only the best fiction stories, but I have no good answer for how to do this. The life-changing fiction books are diamonds in the rough, not especially obvious.