I have struggled recently with the value of fiction. In conversations with friends, we note that as we age, non-fiction appeals to us more. Non-fiction is pragmatic. It wrestles with real-world problems. It informs our daily lives with facts and guidance and useful stuff. Biographies of people who have lived lives that mattered hold particular appeal. These histories provide context and understanding. For example, I have made note in remarks at the college of Taylor Branch’s trilogy America in the King Years (I am two-thirds of the way through). The first volume illuminates the early 20th century debates about the role of vocational and liberal arts education for African-Americans that has an immediacy in our discussions about College to Careers. Non-fiction appears to have a hold on me that fiction held when I was younger. Is this a natural evolution in taste, an inevitable by-product of aging, or a symptom of the type and quality of what I am reading?
Two articles from my Sunday morning reading of The New York Times added more fuel to the fires of my internal debate. (Who knew this topic had such a hold on me?) Jhumpa Lahiri writes in “My Life’s Sentences,” “In college, I used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page.” I remember the joy of reading a passage that seemed to stick a fist into my chest and squeeze my heart, stopping my breath and causing blood rush to my head as new ways of looking at the world flooded my brain. One passage in particular, from Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale, helped me thirty years ago navigate from the teeming insanity of adolescence into early adulthood. I cite it here, drawing from a favorite site of mine, Goodreads:
“To be mad is to feel with excruciating intensity the sadness and joy of a time which has not arrived or has already been. And to protect their delicate vision of that other time, madmen will justify their condition with touching loyalty, and surround it with a thousand distractive schemes. These schemes, in turn, drive them deeper and deeper into the darkness and light (which is their mortification and their reward), and confront them with a choice. They may either slacken and fall back, accepting the relief of a rational view and the approval of others, or they may push on, and, by falling, arise. When and if by their unforgivable stubbornness they finally burst through to worlds upon worlds of motionless light, they are no longer called afflicted or insane. They are called saints.”
Reading that passage today transports me back to that time in my life when imaginable futures seemed so real and attainable and yet laughable to elders. I did harbor a secret hope that I could be a saint.
The very next article I read provided the context and scientific basis for an argument that fiction may have a neurological effect on improving our social interactions. Annie Murphy Paul writes in her piece, “Your Brain on Fiction,” that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” A week ago Friday, I was at a meeting where I had the opportunity to talk to Chief Human Resource officers from several Fortune 500 companies. When I asked them what they wanted from our graduates, they responded almost uniformly that they wanted candidates who could operate well on a team, who had a broader understanding of the world, and who had a social and emotional intelligence that enabled them to work in a changing and challenging environment. In workforce circles, these are called non-cognitive skills, described by James Heckman as “aspects of character” that include “traits such as personality, health, mental health, perseverance, time preference, risk aversion, self-esteem, self-control, preference for leisure, conscientiousness, and motivation.” Some of these traits are developed, according to Murphy Paul’s article, by fiction.
I reflexively defend the value of the liberal arts as a product of a liberal arts education and as believer in the value of a world beyond my equally beloved economic analyses of the rational actor. As I said, my faith in fiction has been flagging as decrepitude and pragmatism creep into my daily life. This morning’s reading has reminded me of the joy a well-written passage can awake in me. It has also given me the scientific ammunition that is increasingly important in defending the value of those parts of our mission served by literature – so much so that I will return to reading Infinite Jest with renewed enthusiasm and joy.