Books are one of the greatest inventions in human history and is considered a “complete” invention, in that it cannot really be improved on any further. Books provide us with knowledge, stories, advice and wonder. The Laurentian Library in Florence, designed by Michelangelo, symbolises this by having a dark entrance lead in to a bright, Pantheon-like library to suggest that books are the key to enlightenment.
Why do we read? Non-fiction books are normally clear in their purpose: they provide objective (for the most part) knowledge in various fields, ranging from history to science. But what about fiction? How can reading fiction enrich our lives, when it is the product of imagination?
When we are in school, we are taught how to critically read fiction. We scrutinise a piece of literature so that we can decipher the motives of the characters, understand symbolism and uncover the hidden social criticism that the author may have intended to portray. We learn to analyse a book, rather than to enjoy it.
But this is not the intention of the author. Unlike non-fiction books that attempt to provide answers, most fiction books don’t try to hide some truth or a deep, meaningful answer. Instead, they are meant to be a journey.
A journey is different from a quest in that there is no specific goal or a mission. All you have to do is wander around, take in the sights, feel emotions that arise in response and expand your inner horizons through reflection. You may even learn something new, whether it is a historical fact, an observation about people, or more about yourself. The point is, there is no “right way” to read fiction; you can enjoy it however you want, without any expectation or judgement.
A writer does not hope for their book to teach one answer to every reader. Everyone has different world views, past experiences and values, so they react to a given situation in variable ways. You could recommend a book that you love to a friend, but they may experience the book in a completely different way. They may not even enjoy it. But that is okay, because the purpose of fiction is not so that it can be enjoyed in one, formulaic way. It is meant to teach us how different we all are.
A good work of fiction tells the story of how an individual or a group of people navigate through a specific scenario or life in general. We get to peer into their thoughts and emotions, while wondering how we would act if we were in their shoes. It teaches us empathy by showing us that people think and act differently to us. We can learn from the characters’ developments how we can tackle our own life problems or worries. It provides a safe environment for us to explore our inner psyche, our insecurities and traumas.
Lastly, remember that just because you travelled to a place once, it does not mean that you know the place. You might have only looked at the key sights and missed how the locals live, or maybe you were not even aware that a certain area existed. Much like this, what you take away from reading a book can be quite variable. The more you immerse yourself, connect with the characters and reflect on the book, the more it will add to your life. You might also find that the second time you read the book, your experience is very different because you have matured or have new problems to deal with.
Now, think of a book that you loved reading. What made the experience so enjoyable? What thoughts or feelings did the book inspire? How did it add to your life?