I love this article from the Harvard Business Review! It’s another article documenting the neurological, psychological, and social benefits of reading fiction. There have been several such over the past few years.
I love that we’re beginning to accept reading fiction as something that’s good for us on a deeper level than just entertainment and escapism (not that entertainment and escapism aren’t valuable in-and-of themselves!) Complex fiction builds empathy, connection, social intelligence, and theory of mind. It boosts creativity, both for new ideas and for problem solving. It improves our ability to grapple more productively with the complexity of the world we live in.
I love that businesses are beginning to realize the value of having employees who are educated beyond the requirements of job training.
And it’s not just reading fiction which presents these benefits: it can come from powerful storytelling in any format. Oral stories, theater, movies and television, music, visual arts. All of it, so long as it’s complex and nuanced. Stories are how we know who we are, how we’re both the same and different from one another, and how we relate to our world.
But this article also frustrates me. This is where I turn into a curmudgeon and tell you all:
I want to talk about reader burnout. I think this is something a lot of readers deal with but I find that being a librarian makes it worse.
I’m a voracious reader. I always have been. It’s a core pillar of my self-identity.
But there are times when I just don’t want to read, sometimes for few days and sometimes for couple weeks or more. I feel guilty about this. Readers read, right? Reading is a good thing and we should all do more of it, right?
I didn’t used to feel this way. I used to read as much as I wanted, when I wanted. And that was that. It was all good.
Some of this sense of guilt started when I became a librarian. As a librarian, I feel a professional obligation to read as widely as I can. It’s part of my job to understand the reading landscape so I can help guide patrons through it.
A lot of this pressure to read more started when I began tracking my annual reading a few years ago. Tracking reading is something a lot of librarians do. I hadn’t ever thought to do it until I saw how popular it is on library Twitter and the librarian blogosphere. For many people, it’s a useful thing.
I recently got to read an advance reading copy of Conversations from the Edge by Joy Ward, a collection of interviews she conducted for Galaxy’s Edge magazine since 2014. I spend a lot of time thinking about SF—what it is, how it works, why I love it (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). It’s wonderful to hear SF writers talk about the genre and how they see it.
There were two quotes about science fiction in this collection that particularly struck me: one from Nancy Kress and one from Connie Willis. (This is an ARC so apply the standard disclaimer that the accuracy and page numbers of quotes might change.)
From the interview with Nancy Kress in which she talks about how science fiction gives her a big canvas to work with:
Why didn’t I list storytelling as the characteristic that makes us unique?
Why did I end up with something as depressing as “we’re the only animals who sometimes hate ourselves?”
Storytelling is built into the most basic functioning of our brains. It’s how memory works. It’s how we make sense of the world. For something so deeply embedded in us, it can’t be something entirely unique to us—it must be based on antecedent mental abilities in the animal world. So, as with so many things, storytelling is a unique expression but not unique in its essential nature.
In third grade, I wrote an essay about it for class. I went through my whole childhood assuming that would be the path I followed, right up until I started high school and discovered theater. I don’t regret turning away from cosmology to follow the theater path, just as I don’t regret leaving theater to become a librarian, but some days I find myself melancholy over the loss of what could have been.
I’ve long been fascinated by the question: How do you know when it’s time to move on?
For example, my dad spent over 20 years—my entire childhood and into my college years—working at a state university. When he decided to leave, I asked him how he knew it was the right time. There were several factors at play but mostly, he said, it was because he didn’t feel like there was anything new to learn there. Every year, there had been something new to do, something new to learn: a new position, a new committee or task force of some kind, a new challenge. But after 20+ years, he’d gone as far in the organization as he could go. There was nothing new.
I thought about this when I made the decision to leave theater. I’d gone to college with the goal of working professionally in theater in a big city. I did that for over a decade. But I knew when it was time to stop. There were several factors at play—the manual labor of tech work was taking a toll on my body, nonunion freelance work meant I had no health insurance or retirement plan—but mostly it was because I’d reached a point where I needed to take the next step on the career ladder, and move up into technical director and production management roles. But I didn’t want to. In truth, I was a few years past the point when I should have made this transition but those jobs had no appeal for me. In part, it was because TDs and PMs don’t typically run shows, and running shows was what I loved. But if I’m honest… The thought of taking on that much responsibility, the idea of being in charge, filled me with dread.
In the early afternoon on August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse traversed the United States from Oregon to South Carolina. In Kansas City, morning storms cleared and blue sky opened just in time to view the event, from the first sliver of moon shadow through totality. It’s the only total solar eclipse I’ve witnessed. I’m struggling to put the experience into words.
I started studying astronomy in 2nd and 3rd grade. In 3rd grade, we had to write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up and the title of mine was “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Cosmologist.” Space was my first fascination and my first love.
I’ve seen partial solar eclipses in person. I’ve seen images of total eclipses and they’re beautiful. Astronomically speaking, eclipses aren’t that rare or complex. They happen pretty often, simple mass body physics.
So I expected the total eclipse to be spectacular, gorgeous. I expected it to be cool and interesting. I expected to be fascinated by it and by the effect it had on insects and animals. I expected to completely geek out over it.