The Role of Fiction in the Democratic Process

I talk a lot about the democratic mission of public libraries. I believe in it deeply.

However, if we believe that the core purpose of a library is to promote a well-informed democracy, it leads to an essential—and rather uncomfortable—question:

Why do we spend so much time and money maintaining popular entertainment collections if our duty is to provide materials that support our patrons’ involvement in our processes of governance?

What exactly does a library’s popular fiction collection have to do with promoting informed democratic elections? How does easy access to movies and TV shows serve to educate voters? *

I come from an entertainment background. My sense of the value of entertainment is different than many people’s.

  • In our busy, stressed-out world, entertainment is essential for our health and well-being (provided we don’t take our indulgence too far). Healthier, happier people are more likely to be involved in their community.
  • Popular entertainment can help us face and explore issues and problems in our society in a way that rewards us, rather than adding to our burden of stress.
  • And we know that a life-long love of reading correlates powerfully to life-long academic and career success.

All of this influences how we take responsibility for ourselves, our neighbors, and the world around us. For me, though, the connection between popular fiction and process of democracy goes deeper.

I’ve read extensively in the world corpus of political theory, philosophy, ethics, theology, and morality. I’m well-informed of history.

When elections come along, I make an effort to research the issues and the candidates, to know where each stands and how well their position on any given issue matches my own.

This body of knowledge allows me to analyze the choices on the ballot in meaningful ways. The understanding I gain from reading works of philosophy and politics, ethics and morality, provides a needed illumination to reveal the deeper layers of significance within each choice. Understanding history gives me a useful perspective on what works and what doesn’t.

This knowledge helps me to define how well each option measures up to my personal values, and to see which choices are best poised to try and create the kind of society that I would like.

But ultimately, the choices I make come down to my personal sense of right and wrong. And my sense of right and wrong doesn’t come from a corpus of philosophy, or some body of political theory.

My sense of right and wrong comes from my parents and my family, from my community. And more:

It comes from watching Star Wars as a kid, and Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. It comes from the science fiction novels I started reading in 3rd and 4th grade.

All the history and philosophy and politics and ethics and theology that I’ve read over the years have evolved my sense right and wrong, helped it to become more complex and nuanced. Personal values grow and adapt over time, and everything we read and see and hear has an influence.

But fiction has the power to move me in ways that nonfiction rarely can. Fiction speaks to my heart on a level that nonfiction rarely does.

Stories exert a far greater influence over our core values than facts. We are storytelling creatures—stories are the fundamental language of our minds and our emotions.

Facts, statistics, and theories are essential tools for us to assess our personal values. As we attempt to actualize our values in our communities, they inform us whether we succeed or fail, whether or not our strategies are working.

But at the moment of personal choice, standing in the voting booth, Yoda has more to do with it than Aristotle for me. The influence of Big Bird precedes the influence of Thomas Jefferson. The teachings of Hari Seldon swayed my beliefs before I ever encountered the teachings of the Buddha. In meaningful discussions, I’m as likely to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Voltaire. Harry Potter matters to me in a way that Marcus Aurelius never can.

Fiction matters. Even popular fiction has a role to play.

* — There are larger issues here that I’ve declined to address:

  1. Our cultural assumption that popular entertainment is intrinsically exclusive of substantial meaning.
  2. The assumption that a popular fiction collection must come at the cost of a well-rounded nonfiction collection.

Neither of these assumptions are valid.

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