For as long as I can remember, I have preferred reading non-fiction to fiction.
When frequenting libraries and bookstores in bygone years, I’d push my way past anything with a plot and head straight for the how-to section. There, I was certain to find a book on some topic that piqued my interest: art or apologetics; bread baking or bricklaying; cross-stitch or computer programing; music or manners or mathematics.
Why would anybody want to read something pretend, I wondered, when they could read something practical, instead?
Non-fiction, to my youthful mind, meant education: exercising your brain and learning something new.
Fiction meant entertainment: vegging out and being amused.
Non-fiction was worthwhile. Fiction was a waste of time.
Or so I thought.
It was not until I met and married my husband that I began to realize what a wealth of knowledge this mindset was causing me to miss, for much wisdom can be gleaned in the pages of those novels, short stories, and literary classics I had hitherto been avoiding.
There simply are some lessons in life that can be communicated more effectively through storytelling than by any other means.
Perhaps that is why Jesus taught in parables — so that his tales and the truths hidden therein would be remembered and pondered for generations to come. He understood that a well-told narrative has the power to influence others in a way simple admonition or instruction could never accomplish.
This potential — this ability to impact a reader’s life and change it for the better — is something all good fiction shares in common.
And so, thanks to my husband’s encouragement and his hearty endorsements, our entire family has chosen to incorporate a little fiction into our daily reading diet for many, many years now. And the benefits we reap from this practice are myriad:
We Gain Positive Role ModelsWho can read about the unfailing loyalty of Samwise Gamgee, the steadfast integrity of Atticus Finch, or the selfless compassion of Peeta Mellark, and not be moved? Fiction allows noble character qualities to be showcased in a way that inspires readers to cultivate the same virtues.
We Are Exposed to Negative ExamplesConversely, fiction can exaggerate loathsome qualities in a manner that makes us want to distance ourselves from even the slightest hint of such behavior. Think of the treacherous duplicity of Fernand Mondego, the all-consuming avarice of Ebenezer Scrooge, the savage brutality of Jack Merridew. Within the pages of literary classics like The Count of Monte Cristo, A Christmas Carol, and Lord of the Flies, we can learn from characters’ shortcomings and witness the far-reaching effects of their vices, without compromising our personal safety or morals in the process.
We Learn Valuable Life LessonsMothers the world over warn their children against running with scissors or other sharp objects, but reading what happens when Rubin Pritchard tries to hightail it to the river with an axe in hand will drive the lesson home like no amount of scolding could ever do. Good fiction provides a wonderful opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others and to see the laws of sowing and reaping in action.
We Enjoy Shared ExperiencesAs Katherine Mansfield has observed, “The pleasure of reading is doubled when one lives with another who shares the same books.” Our family has certainly found this to be true, which is why my husband and I both continue to read aloud to our children long after they grow too big for our laps. Sharing such stories in the quiet of an evening with a fire in the hearth is a bonding experience unrivaled by television or movies. We usually spend 30-45 minutes listening to Dad read each evening, but when the book is particularly riveting or suspenseful, the kids will beg for “just one more chapter” — then another and another. Our read-aloud record is five solid hours, from 7PM until midnight, with the children bringing water to their father between chapters so that he wouldn’t lose his voice.
We Expand our VocabularyReading has always been an effective way to augment an impoverished vocabulary, and fiction reading — with its rich language and varied descriptions — is particularly well-suited for this. With the advent of electronic readers, smart phones, and online dictionaries, it is easier than ever to look up unknown words. When reading aloud to children, it is a simple matter of pausing long enough to clarify words or phrases which may be unfamiliar. Our receptive vocabulary (the words we understand when listening or reading) is normally much larger than our productive vocabulary (the words we use in speaking and writing), but with repeated exposure, we are able to grow both lists. Reading good fiction makes the process almost effortless.
We Brush Up on our HistoryI got my first taste of historical fiction reading Bodie Thoene. I (vaguely) remember studying World War II in junior high and high school, but those classes couldn’t begin to cement in my mind the names and dates and events involved like Thoene’s Zion Covenant series did. Similarly, GA Henty has really helped history come alive for our kids. Well-written historical fiction provides a wonderful way to view past events from a fresh perspective.
We Improve Reading ComprehensionThe skill required to follow the plot of a novel from beginning to end is exactly the skill needed to perform well on the verbal portion of the SAT, ACT, GRE, etc. With rare exception, the more fiction a person reads, the easier comprehension becomes, and the better he’ll do on standardized tests. Practice, as they say, makes perfect. One of our children shared my penchant for reading non-fiction, but when at age 15, he missed passing an English Composition CLEP test by two points, his father suggested he read two chapters a day of fiction (any fiction) for six months, then retake the exam. He did, and without any other study or preparation, he passed it easily, increasing his score by a whopping 25%. His dad knew that what he needed was to get so drawn into a story that he couldn’t put it down — something not likely to happen with the technical books he’d been reading.
We Expand our HorizonsStories from or about other parts of the world can do much to broaden our outlook on life. The multi-cultural literature offered by Sonlight Curriculum has been great for helping our family see beyond our own backyard. We highly recommend the titles they carry, many of which I am convinced we would never have found on our own.
We are Spurred to ActionI remember first reading Charlotte’s Web in second grade, then swearing off bacon for years afterward. Fiction has the power to not only influence public thought and opinion, but to challenge and change our practices, as well. Consider, for instance, the public’s response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Legend has it that when Abraham Lincoln first met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he greeted her by saying, “So you’re the little woman who started this big war!”
As you can see, time spent reading good, engaging fiction is far from wasted. Have you experienced any of these benefits from your own reading — or discovered other blessings not mentioned? Please leave a comment below and let me know. And if you know of a novel that is particularly worthwhile, I’d love to hear about that, as well!
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