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.