Fact and Fiction

I saw a sign in front of a bookstore not too long ago. It said, “A book a day keeps reality away.” I thought it was cute. And witty. And an unfortunate expression of what I believe to be a completely misguided cultural notion about books, reading, and the benefits thereof. 

Remember the classic Beauty and the Beast movie? It opens with Belle meandering through town, book in hand, lamenting the constraints of her provincial life. She goes to the library, she talks to sheep by the fountain, and the whole time she remains clueless of her fellow citizens’ musical commentary about how utterly strange she is. While the rest of them are busy with their daily lives of commerce and trade, this girl with “a dreamy, far-off look” and “her nose stuck in a book” floats along in her own private universe.

For many people, this is what they envision reading to be – an escape. And that’s exactly why so few do it.

We’re immersed in a culture that celebrates productivity and efficiency. We hustle, we grind, we git ‘er done. So if reading is a ticket to leave behind one’s daily existence in exchange for a frolic in imagination and fantasy, most pragmatic citizens of this modern world will take a hard pass. Who has time for that, anyway? Let the nerds and the English professors occupy themselves with such nonsense. The rest of us have more important matters to attend to.

And in the rare event that we do happen to pick up a book and glance at its pages every now and then, you can bet that it won’t be some silly, irrelevant story. Instead, it will be something directly connected to our own quest for personal self-improvement, a book to make us better leaders, parents, entrepreneurs, activists, or disciples of our political tribe. It’s hard to imagine anything less useful than a novel. We’re much more comfortable with rules, keys, insights, strategies, principles, and other immediately actionable items that don’t require us to get lost in the weeds of characters, setting, plot, or symbolism. 

At the end of the day, when given the choice between running the town bakery or joining Belle’s book club, most of us will choose the bread.

But in my experience, this dismissiveness is predicated upon an inaccurate understanding of what reading – and especially what reading fiction – actually is. The idea that books are a means of detaching from the here and now couldn’t be further from the truth. And to explain why that is, we need to travel back in time.

For as long as humans have exercised the gift of language, we’ve been storytellers. We’ve crafted narratives about love and heartache, about goodness and evil, about hope and loss, about success and failure. It’s what we’ve always done, and it’s what we continue to do. From the Neanderthal in the cave to the freelancer in the coffee shop, stories are in our DNA.

The question is: why?

It’s a fascinating thing to think about, and it’s what animates Lisel Mueller in her wistful poem “Why We Tell Stories.” In sketching an answer to that question, she explores our evolutionary roots (literally). She contemplates our ancestral history. She ponders grandmothers and grandfathers spinning their elaborate yarns. But the common thread throughout the entire poem is the idea that our storytelling impulse is deeply existential. Why do we tell stories? “Because the story of our life,” she writes, “becomes our life.” Storytelling is one of the primary ways that we pursue self-discovery. It’s how we create meaning.

Our stories have always been as diverse as the people telling them, but what each one has in common is a deep human inclination to explain who we are, why we’re here, and what on earth we’re supposed to do about it all. The princesses and dragons and evil wizards that populate our stories are reflections of ourselves – our desires, our fears, our questions, our possibilities.

At some level, we’re incapable of being content with our raw existence. Simply to be is not enough. And so we look for ways to anchor ourselves in something larger, to grasp the mysteries of the world and our relationship to it. It’s why we philosophize and worship and study the stars. But it’s also why we gather around the fire and say, “Once upon a time…” We’re not just passing the time or enjoying an entertaining diversion. We’re looking in the mirror and attempting to make sense of what we see.

The upshot of all this is that reading fiction is about as effective at removing us from reality as gasoline is at putting out a fire. If we want to escape from whatever we define as the “real world,” stories are a terrible way to do it.

I’ve spent my fair share of time between the covers of a book, and almost every time I do, I find myself more present to the world around me, not less. No matter how much I might want to escape reality, any book that’s worth its weight in words won’t let me.

Books are pesky little buggers. Even the most docile among them has a way of infiltrating our minds. Disorienting our values. Subverting our assumptions. It’s no wonder that a timeless characteristic of totalitarian societies is the restrictive policing of what the people are allowed to read. Reading is dangerous because it has the potential to transform our relationship to our daily, lived realities. 

I heard a writer recently observe that a good story is like an inoculation. When, for example, we read about the suffering or hardship of others (whether fictional or non), we’re subconsciously developing the mental framework and conceptual tools to more effectively respond to suffering when it inevitably comes into our own lives. In the same way that a vaccine engages our immune system to prepare it for the real thing, stories engage our imagination to prepare us for any number of unpredictable scenarios life may throw at us. This, of course, isn’t to suggest that reading a few books will magically make life easier. Any bibliophile can debunk that notion. But by engaging in a regular habit of reading, we’re giving ourselves intentional exposure to something with transformational power. 

This same principle applies beyond the experience of hardship. Stories don’t just strengthen us to face adversity; they train us to identify hope. They enlarge our vision of what’s possible. They make us pay attention to what’s around us. They instill a curiosity to learn. They foster acceptance of others. They invite us to dream. They nudge us toward empathy. They dare us to respect ourselves and embrace the undeniable complexity of being alive.

So when a customer walks into a bookstore in search of a new (or used!) novel to read, she may think she’s there merely to stiff-arm reality and scurry off to a make-believe world. But at some subconscious level, she’s there for a much more important reason.

Somewhere on those shelves is a story about a girl who learns to defy the expectations of everyone around her. Somewhere is a story about a parent who endures the anguish of losing a child. Somewhere is a story about a prince who falls in love with a peasant, a marriage that slowly crumbles to pieces, a space traveler who gets lost in the far reaches of the galaxy. 

Each of these stories may be entertaining in its own right. It may even provide a temporary relief from the stresses and demands of an overflowing laundry basket or a messy kitchen sink. But that’s not why she’s perusing the shelves, curiously scanning back covers and reading first lines.

What draws her to the bookstore is her own humanity. Like the rest of us, she’s trying to find her way in this wacky world. She’s searching for connection, meaning, belonging, and identity. And her heart knows what the human heart has known for centuries: that a well-told story may just help her find her way. 

That is why we read. Not because our lives are miserable and we want to forget them. But because our lives are precious and we want to live them.

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