“Reading is an act of civilization; it’s one of the greatest acts of civilization because it takes the free raw material of the mind and builds castles of possibilities.” –Ben Okri
Fiction can be more illuminating than our own historical texts. Imagination can be more powerful than reality. Literature gives us the freedom to question the values on which our society is built and imagine new realities to better our own. We read to understand the past so we can learn from it and impact our future in a positive way, to look at our current systems without the clouded lens of inherent biases, and to explore the questions of who we are and where we fit in the universe.
The two main types of fiction, literary and general, support these reasons. Literary fiction focuses on character and the human condition, whereas general fiction focuses on plot and storyline. Under both of these categories are many subgenres of fiction: sci-fi, historical, mystery thriller, crime, fantasy, contemporary, horror, romance, young adult, etc. The books I read are mostly historical, fantasy, and science fiction.
Historical fiction lets us explore the past through the what-if possibilities of stories. Authors use first-hand accounts to construct a narrative that allows readers to interpret the past while staying truthful to the evidence. Historical fiction often allows us to understand the ideologies of the time, and gives us a forum to explore how we can improve the present by learning from that past. Two notable examples of this are Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, both of which give harrowing perspectives of the Vietnam War and WW2 respectively, and the lasting traumatic effects they had on young soldiers.
Fantasy allows us to dive into imaginary worlds and explore our ideologies through clear eyes. The idea that anything is possible gives us space for self-reflection without internalized biases. Some good examples of this are the Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo, which give us the ability to critique social discrimination and prejudice without the judgement-clouding context specific to our world, and the series An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, which presents a clear commentary on the power dynamic of a society in which the military is the main controlling power. Both stories allow the audiences to examine social and leadership systems free from our cultural context.
Science fiction causes us to imagine what society would look like in a futuristic setting or present-day parallel universe, and how new advancements would change the social order of our world. Two of the most prevalent themes in sci-fi literature are futuristic technology and philosophical questions about humanity. Both types of exploration help us think about our place in the universe and our individual value systems. Many sci-fi novels ask what separates humans from artificial intelligence, to what extreme can society change based on how advanced our technology is, and what are the ethical dilemmas that accompany those questions. Two examples from this genre are Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, which brings up many questions about what it means to be human and have a soul, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which discusses the themes of conformity, oppression of individualism, and technological consumerism.
Fictional stories make us examine the moral basis of our societies and cultures. We look with a side eye at the foundations on which they were built, like capitalism, consumerism, and greed. The stories compel us to come together and make lasting changes in our world. They connect us to each other and give us the vocabulary and understanding to more effectively communicate our thoughts, feelings, and ideas. We can find guidance from fictitious heroes and leaders when the real world divides us. Reading fiction inspires and motivates us to believe that positive change is always possible.