Monday, January 11, 2010

Why Read Fiction?

By Carol Dorf for Talking Writing

Very Short Stories 
We wait in the car. My middle-school daughter picks up a book I've left on the back seat and starts reading "Bad Manners" from Microfictions by Ana Maria Shua: "If your chicken champignon takes off, leaving a trail of sauce on the tablecloth in its wake, don't blame your guests. You can't expect such an exquisite dish to tolerate your table manners." This is the entire story, and the punchline of a joke as well. My daughter reads several more of these stories aloud. I ask her what she thinks of them. She says, "Some are funny, some are disturbing, and all very, very strange."

The End of Fiction
Last year, 7th grade. It's back to school night. The English teacher, Ms. No, tells the parents the students won't be reading fiction in class because the academic reading skills students need to develop are found in nonfiction. They are permitted to read fiction for their Accelerated Reader program, where every book is assigned point values and students answer a set of questions to prove that they have understood a book. In this system, Jane Austen's Persuasion (19) is worth less points than J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (44).

What they read for class is a short series of persuasive essays mostly about the potential damages caused by drugs or vandalism.

Over the course of the year, they never have the opportunity to discuss a novel with their classmates, and if they choose to read all nonfiction that is just fine.

Death in Fiction 
Recently, a friend in my daughter's book group sold the girls on reading Going Bovine by Libba Bray, a book in which a 16-year-old boy with mad cow disease takes a road trip with strange companions in search of a cure. Most of the adults saw the book as a trip through the character's consciousness, while most of the girls saw it as an actual journey, perhaps with some magic to smooth over the rough parts.

Reading Going Bovine brought to mind Passage by Connie Willis, a sea journey through the consciousness of a dying woman. In both of these books, the reader keeps hoping for the dying main character to solve the mystery and find a cure. Each complication in the plot prevents success. As in Orpheus' journey to the underworld, these characters cannot find a way back to the world of the living. By the end of the story, the reader accepts the inevitability of death.

What we learn from fiction is to live in someone else's world. The extreme case of this is when the main character is dying, but many books (think of Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or  Virginia Woolf's Orlando) take us away from our comfort zone. How many of us have actually spent time talking to a 93-year-old circus performer, a teen with Asperger's, or a person who changes both time periods and gender? We meet them as readers.

I feel a bit sad to be rewriting this old argument for the pleasures of reading, but given the functional approach to education our children are living with, returning to some of the basic pleasures of reading is essential. We all crave story and to understand the lives of others. I hope next year the children in that teacher's class will spend time arguing over a story, trying to get their friends to read their favorites.


  1. Carol,
    Amen, amen, and amen. One of my clearest childhood memories is of the first time a book moved me to tears. It was *Flowers for Algernon* by Daniel Keyes. I was in elementary school, home with the mumps and I remember my mother wiping the tears from my swollen face.

    When I was older, I became a volunteer at a section of Danvers State Hospital for mentally and physically handicapped children. Who knows, perhaps the seed for that work may have been planted by Charlie, the book's main character.

    Reading fiction today takes me to both new and aspirational places. As a motherless daughter with two brothers and two sons, I am a sucker for any book focused on relationships among women.

    My older son has always been a reader. The younger, at age 23, is just now discovering its delight. I've often wondered if the difference was in their schooling. Ater all, we read to them both. The younger son,however, received a more MCATs-oriented education that was very different from the way his older brother was taught.

    As parents, we have to keep fighting and raising this issue. Some things, like the lessons we learn from fiction, can't be allowed to fall by the wayside -- they are just too important to our development as human beings.

  2. I have many opinions, and most of them have to do with the use of Accelerated Reader from grades 5 through 12. ~ A former school librarian


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