Why do we read fiction?

October 12th, 2006

Vivian Francis remarked under another post that perhaps we should discuss why we read, and I’m assuming that the question lies with fiction.   (Most people read non-fiction for information about the subject being discussed.)  The question came up after another sharp exchange about literary fiction vs. genre.  Different tastes, perhaps — but taste tends to have some underlying reason or rationale.

So, why do we read fiction, and more specifically, why do we read the kinds of fiction we like?  There are solemn reasons, mostly about self-improvement, but do we really read to expand our horizons, learn empathy, and all those serious motives?  Contrarywise, do we read “for entertainment,” ie, to fill up a few hours that would otherwise be boring, or to forget our bills, bosses, and other boondoggles?  What are your takes on this question?

30 Responses to “Why do we read fiction?”

  1. Kate Elliotton 12 Oct 2006 at 3:54 pm

    Yes.

    To all of the above, except maybe self improvement. I’m suspicious of ‘oughts’ in fiction – that is, that I ought to read fiction to grapple with life or improve myself or entertain myself or renew my sense of wonder or educate myself or struggle with meaning or any thing else for that matter. To me one of the great things about fiction is that it is so flexible in what it can accomplish and what it offers to different readers.

    I’ll come back with a longer answer later, but right now I have to go out to shop at Nordstrom’s flagship store!!!

  2. Vivian Francison 12 Oct 2006 at 4:26 pm

    Wow, thanks for posting this, Katharine. I’m excited hear what people say. I’ve got to come back later, after giving this some thought.

  3. Constance Ashon 12 Oct 2006 at 4:34 pm

    I read because I can!

    Most of it is for information, I suppose. However, when you are taken over by a new subject matter, it’s as compelling and leaving-the-world-behind as the most escapist, compelling fiction too. Certainly as exciting, if not more so.

    Love, C.

  4. Armchair Anarchiston 12 Oct 2006 at 4:49 pm

    I read because I love to learn – I think good fiction teaches you just as much as non-fiction, though in different ways and about different things.

    Specifically, though, I read speculative fiction because I don’t see any reason my sleeping hours should have the monopoly on my dreaming. :) I like to have my imagination stretched, my credulity exercised, and my cognition thoroughly dissonanced*, and the ways the real world achieves these things are rarely even slightly as pleasurable as reading a good story.

    [*Not sure if that's the proper formation of the verb; dissonated, perhaps? ;) ]

  5. melospizaon 12 Oct 2006 at 4:55 pm

    I read fiction first of all for fun. To be transported into somebody else’s imagination, away from my own sordid little problems. That same impulse leads me to read travel adventures. I like to pause and think while I read, and use my own imagination to flesh out details–contemplate how I would react in the same situation and why. I don’t like TV and movies for that reason.

    Because I like to learn from fiction: how other people handle adversity, make decisions, stay in love, react to the unknown, and deal with violence; new ways of looking at the world–through the mind of a surgeon or a painter or a soldier or an Italian child or a Chinese policeman or a starship navigator; how other people survive.

    I read mysteries, SFF, and literary fiction in about equal numbers, and don’t read romance.

  6. Laurieon 12 Oct 2006 at 6:19 pm

    My boyfriend, who only reads non-fiction, asked me why I read fiction the other day. He was amazed and a little appalled at my number of books – lugging boxes of hardbacks up the stairs at our new place left him a bit peeved, I think. ;)

    When I was younger, I loved the escapism angle, but as I get older I think my biggest draw is getting to see life through a different pair of eyes. I enjoy reading about interesting characters, and seeing the world as they see it for a while. My favorite books have made me look at issues from another angle, consider viewpoints that might not have occurred to me, or interested me in a subject I may not have thought about before.

    Since I started reading this blog, I’ve found myself trying to take stock of the craft involved in everything I read, too. I’ve been re-reading my favorite books – the Deverry series, the Hyperion Saga, the first few Anita Blake books (before the porn took over) – and looking for what, specifically, attracts me to those titles. I’ve also dug out a few of the books that I loathed – anything by Grisham, the first couple Song of Ice and Fire books – and see what I didn’t like about them, in particular.

    So, maybe your reasons change over time and with experience. I do know that I reread my favorites every so often, and I always find something new to ponder in them. I think that’s the mark of a really good book.

  7. Cathyon 12 Oct 2006 at 7:20 pm

    I read because it’s fun. I also read to escape, to learn, to laugh, to cry, to think, to travel. But it has to be fun, first and formost.

  8. heatheron 12 Oct 2006 at 8:01 pm

    When i was a kid, i read to escape. As i grew older it was because my book world was better than reality. Eventually, it got to the point that it was the only way i could get through the day. Stories of other people, other lives became my friends. I literally grew up with my head in the clouds. My mother once took all of my books away from me in punishment. I was addicted. I saw everything in words. So i started to write.

    Reading makes me a better person. It makes me smarter, kinder- happier and healthier (mentally which leads to physically). I just have to be careful not to but too many books at one time.

  9. heatheron 12 Oct 2006 at 8:02 pm

    buy too many, that is

  10. Sherwood Smithon 12 Oct 2006 at 8:34 pm

    What do I love about reading? I love discovering a world consistent enough to make escape, for the duration of the book, possible. I enjoy emotional fulfillment and insight. I like to put the book down and linger over thought-provoking ideas. I like to join in my memory the new characters who came alive and cavorted so entrancingly across the pages–and it’s exponentially more fun when others have the same characters in their memories, and we can discuss this shared experience.
    Henry James, in an essay about Anthony Trollope says that there are two tastes for imaginative literature: the taste for the emotions of surprise, and the taste for the emotions of recognition. I love my books to combine that the blend of differences and samenesses; the best books enable human beings to see each other across time, and be fascinated with how we’ve changed, yet still resonate with what makes us alike. I believe that books become a part of our lives, just as they became part of our ancestors’ lives, when they presented the familiar old world and introduced new ideas. Literature rehearses new ideas–not just political and economic ones, but social and emotional. We are surprised by new ideas, we gradually accept them, or at least become familiar with them, and as time wears on and a new generation comes along and reads those very same ideas, they perceive them as quaint, but that’s okay, that’s how civilization builds–and the books are still worth reading. They aren’t just escape or entertainment, they hold up a mirror to our past, whispering “Do not go there again, except in these pages.”
    Add to this my attraction for science fiction, which necessarily combines the taste for the strange with that of the familiar. In the best science fiction and fantasy there is presentation of paradigm–worldview–through the metaphor of other worlds. Paradigm–ideas–emotional resolution, insight, laughter, joy, shared sorrow, and above all triumph. What’s not to like about reading?

  11. Constance Ashon 12 Oct 2006 at 10:03 pm

    Um, what’s not to like about reading?

    You do it alone ….

    Same as writing.

    And sometimes, yanno, that’s not a good way to spend a life.

    Though it is very pleasant that one has done so for those who read.

    Believe me, that wasn’t a snark, it’s just something we all have to think about. Now. And Again.

    Love, C.

  12. Evanon 12 Oct 2006 at 10:51 pm

    If they haven’t already, I would urge folks to check out the rather conveniently-titled Why We Read Fiction by Prof. Lisa Zunshine…

  13. Kateon 12 Oct 2006 at 11:37 pm

    Often, my motives for reading are so I can research what is most well-known or what “has been done” in a particular genre. Most of the time, that genre is one I’m interested in writing and publishing in. Nowadays, however, I read because it’s assigned and I have to in order to participate intelligently in discussions and to ultimately get a good grade in the class and graduate. Most of the time, however, I do enjoy what I read, despite the fact that I fall asleep during the reading often. Ah, the joys of being a student. Subsequently, I don’t dare read for pleasure (which is defined as anything but schoolwork) until I have a break from school and nothing is assigned, and when I do, I read, quite frankly, because I cannot help myself. I’ve read for as long as I can remember. I often have other things I could be doing, even on vacation: correspondence, housework, other art projects, but reading has always been an extremely enjoyable activity, one perfectly suitable for vacation.

  14. Kate Elliotton 13 Oct 2006 at 12:11 am

    I think these are really interesting answers.

    Another reason I read is that reading relaxes me. If I am really stressed out and anxious and I can fix on a book long enough to transfer my attention to the act of reading, my body and mind literally benefit physiologically.

  15. Caton 13 Oct 2006 at 12:59 am

    I used to read because I had an active imagination and reading helped me expand that. (One of the reasons I worship fantasy.) Nowadays I read to get a different perspective on various aspects of life. When things get cruddy, I hit the books. Since doing a course on writing, I read to expand my knowledge of different genres, or maybe I have an idea but not sure how to flesh it out. I read a book with a similar theme, by all means not to steal ideas, but just to pick this author’s brain.

    But most likely I read before a drama performance, although I love it, an introvert surrounded by extroverts needs a place of quiet-and people will generally leave you alone if your nose is stuck in a book.

    Although if I work with a certain someone, he’ll tell me stories. He’s a great storyteller.

  16. Vivian Francison 13 Oct 2006 at 3:16 am

    2-3 years ago I read an essay (by LeGuin) that talked about why we “tell tales” or “bear witness.” That second term stuck with me. By bearing witness, I envisioned the teller including both information, and the witnessing of the information. The act of witnessing itself. And by sharing the witness with others, the teller is creating something—a story, a photograph.

    I thought if the teller is bearing witness, what is the listener doing? When I read a book, or look at a photograph, I think it’s not so much that I become the POV character or the photographer, it’s more that I get to share in the act of witnessing, and the act of creating. Share with another. An other. And the best part is, as Sherwood said, they “become a part of our lives.” We get to carry them around with us.

    In fiction, I like that this sharing I often includes the thoughts and feelings and doubts of the POV character, and I like getting to fill in somethings for myself, and I like the length of the telling. I like hearing the voice of the narrator. I’m curious now about how the medium of a novel shapes the type of connection made with it.

  17. Mark Tiedemannon 13 Oct 2006 at 8:20 am

    I read because it gives me an experience I can have no other way. In the course of a story or book I can live an adventure or a life that is not mine (yet it is, because I’m cooperating in its execution). Deep reading–of the sort Harold Bloom touts–is like listening to music, it is a sensual experience, evocative and exciting, that triggers emotional and aesthetic responses we get no other way.

    All other benefits accure around this core consequence.

  18. Muneravenon 13 Oct 2006 at 11:08 am

    1. I read in general because it feels good to make my brain go to new places and experience new things, and reading is a very expedient and cost-effective way to accomplish that.

    2. I particularly like speculative fiction because it makes greater demands on my brain than many other sorts of fiction. It requires me to patiently put little bits of information together as I read in order to understand the world of the book. In many kinds of fiction the nature of the world is a given. That’s sometimes too simple for me.

    3. I have a vivid imagination and often I find that television and movies spoonfeed me too much of the story. I can read for eight hours and never get bored. I can’t watch TV or a movie half that long without my mind wandering.

    4. I like people who read and people who write. I like them better than people who don’t. I’m sorry if that sounds snooty, but it’s just true. I think highly of well-read, literate people and I try to be that sort of person.

    5. Paul Simon wrote a song called “I am a Rock” and here are some of the lyrics:

    I have my books
    And my poetry to protect me;
    I am shielded in my armor,
    Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
    I touch no one and no one touches me.
    I am a rock,
    I am an island.

    I certainly read for escapism when I was younger and sometimes I still do. In a world that is sometimes mean, scary, confusing, and brutal, books and poetry and music and art CAN be a way to protect oneself.

    The trick is always to know when one should take one’s armor off. :-)

  19. Don Meadon 13 Oct 2006 at 1:22 pm

    I read THE HOBBIT when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old and was captured by the ‘sense of wonder.’ It was the first book I ever read for pleasure. I started reading voraciously after that – - anything in the SF/F genre. Most of my friends (at that time in the 1970’s and 80’s) read genre too, so when we got together, we passed around whatever we were reading. So it had a powerful social aspect to it.

    Now that I’m writing and constantly thinking about the writing process, I often start out reading a book for pleasure, but end up red-lining it – - thinking how to make it better. I started reading short stories to teach myself the art, (as opposed to novels) but now I find that I prefer short stories, and I’m very impressed by those who do it well.

  20. Vivian Francison 13 Oct 2006 at 3:40 pm

    I was reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and one of the things he did was to “graph” a whole bunch of different comic artists on a triangle where each point represented a particular approach to drawing. To the best of my memory, they were:

    1) An appreciation of the physical world, what we can discover with the five senses
    2) An appreciation of ideas and concepts; iconic representation
    3) An appreciation of art; the picture plane and abstraction.

    To map my reading of fiction: I think I tend to range between one and two, further away from three.

  21. Darcyon 13 Oct 2006 at 8:09 pm

    I like to read fiction because it stretches my horizons. No matter how much non-fiction I read, or how much I explore the world, fiction provides something more. It’s not a quantifiable something more, but it’s there.

  22. M.T.on 13 Oct 2006 at 8:34 pm

    I tend to be a bit of a binge-reader. When I pick up a book, I’m looking for a new world to explore; a place to get away to and experience the characters’ lives. Hence, I rarely ‘think’ while I read. I have reactions, and the occasional mental comment. But I don’t really think about ulterior motives, or why something was or wasn’t there until I’ve either put down the book or finished it.

    That’s when I start looking at what worked or didn’t work, what could’ve happened differently, why the characters were what they were, etc.

    Then sit in awe at the author who wrote it all.

    Really, I’d say ‘all of the above’, but most of the time I’m just trying to get away from real life. It’s not the best remedy, but it’s something to look forward to at the end of the day.

  23. zoeon 14 Oct 2006 at 8:37 am

    I don’t know why I started reading in the first place as I was very young, it was perhaps because I was an only child and had to entertain myself.

    The reason I read now is because I can’t not. I feel at a loss if I don’t have a book to read – I’m agitated and feel depressed and unsettled. The need goes for any book – I can get just as engrossed in non-fiction as I can in fiction – the act of imagining and the escapism and learning are all part of the need.

    The reason why I like to read fantasy type stuff most of all, is probably because it’s the most imaginitive. It’s the opposite of why I don’t watch soaps on TV – they need no imagination whatsoever and therefore it bores me.

    Anyway thats me done

    Zoe

  24. tchernabyeloon 15 Oct 2006 at 12:47 pm

    There are an awful lot of reasons to read – even if we just take the subset of reading fiction. I read Janet Evanovich for very different reasons than Dorothy Dunnett, but I like both.

    Primarily, though, I probably do read for the “escape”, and I suspect that’s broadly true for most of the readers of SF/F – these are, after all, the genres of the imagination, the genres of escape. Historical fiction can do it too, and romance… maybe even crime and thrillers… it kind of depends what you want to escape to (or – to a lesser extent – from). But avid readers of horror (I’m not one) surely have a very different motivation, as (I’d guess) do many readers of literary fiction (past and present).

  25. Liane Skyeon 20 Oct 2006 at 7:44 pm

    I read fiction for the same reason I write it–to find myself transported into another place!

  26. Mikeon 25 Oct 2006 at 4:37 pm

    I read fiction to:

    1) Relax. After a busy day of real world problems, it is nice to escape to the problems of a fantasy world.

    2) To pass the time. What else are you going to do while waiting in the doctor’s office or riding the bus to work?

  27. Dawn McCoyon 05 Dec 2006 at 1:33 pm

    funny you should ask that. I have read since age 3. Now, 51, I do consider myself ‘well read’, in both non and fiction. You are one of my top five authors, sharing the spot with Isaac, Heinlein, Eddings, and the ever prolific but vastly misunderstood Anthony.

    I have learned much of human nature in my fiction reading. From Heinlein’s observation that civilization begins it’s downfall when public restrooms are left dirtier than when you entered; Isaac’s “Laws of Robotics”; and Nevyn’s description of the ‘bodily humours’ that can mess with a person’s general health. I agree with another poster that we learn through reading, whether fiction or non, and further, that those who read incessantly are junkies for thought. Now that you mention it, I am a junkie for thought. As long as I can read, I can learn. As long as I am learning something, even if it is a new word (rarer and rarer these days), then I am assured that I am not simply existing, but in fact, living.

    dawn

  28. Dawn McCoyon 05 Dec 2006 at 1:35 pm

    oh. DUH! LOL. And because, well, I LOVE TO READ !!!!

  29. Victoria H.on 25 Mar 2012 at 11:30 am

    I read fiction for a lot of different reasons, but somehow they are all connected. I am currently writing a research paper about how fiction is the most read genre and what the most read fiction book is. I think that I read to escape my life at home so that I don’t have to think about it, and also that when I jump into a good book I go into my own personal word to become the hero or main character(s) of the story. I also read to just have fun and fall in love with a good book for hours at a time. Thanks for reading this!! :D
    P.S. This was written by a 15 year old.

  30. Apoorvaon 01 Jan 2013 at 10:03 am

    i love fiction cause its not about the everyday stuff … its a way beyond the ordinary stuff… + it isnt real, its an awesome piece of imagination.

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