The debate on the Common Core’s mandate that schools put less emphasis on fiction and more on “informational books” is an odd one. I get a lot of my information about the world from fiction, even from pulp fiction (mysteries, sci fi, etc) I read “information” when I want “information”–google or otherwise. I don’t read history books for information, but to get insight into another way of seeing the story–a plot with characters. I read books on education for the same reason. I often pick up some new facts, but they rarely stick. When I need “a fact” I go back and search for it. But then I have a poor rote memory–alas. But anything that’s very well-written by a wise person–regardless of category–widens the world for me. Even empathy requires both entering into a character’s life and feelings, but is aided by the context the author provides and the context that the reader brings with him/her. This isn’t a neat division. But I will agree that fiction plays a powerful role in the development of empathy–just as make-believe play does. Maybe it’s even why some people avoid fiction–because it only works if one lets go of oneself enough to imagine the other. It can be uncomfortable and painful–it’s quite rational to avoid it. What’s more interesting is why so many people can’t put a good story down.
For me a good novel was in many ways an escape, although it has had an affect on how I envision other people’s situations. It wasn’t my intention but it can’t seem to help but do so–although perhaps conversation with others adds to it, as one realizes that you haven’t both actually “read” the same book the same way. Part of it is that we sometimes avoid noticing things in the book that we want to avoid, or misread. But it’s also because we bring ourselves to the book and read it through our own history and knowledge. “Close reading”, which is also much promoted these days thus also serves a purpose; but it would be sad if we only picked up books when we were prepared to turn it into a study.
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