“I don’t have time to read fiction…”

It was an unlikely locker room conversation to begin with… two guys talking about what books they were reading while they stripped their sweaty gear off after a workout. Any book discussion gets my attention, so I tuned in. The reading habits of guy number 1, let’s call him Mr. Hirsute, seemed pedestrian and mainstream: he said he’d just finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and was now reading The Help. I think he may have also mentioned The Hunger Games. The response of guy number 2, let’s call him Mr. Baldaz a’Coot, drove a cold hard sword through my heart. “I don’t,” he said, “have time to read fiction.”

I felt like grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. I felt like taking a large novel, Don Quixote for instance, and whacking some sense into his hair-free cranium. What does that even mean, he doesn’t have TIME to read fiction?

He told Mr. Hirsute that he was currently reading Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs (called, in a fit of naming appropriateness, Steve Jobs). Now, I haven’t read Mr. Isaacson’s book, and what follows should by no means be taken as a critique of that work. It may be one of the best biographies of this or any century. The point isn’t that Mr. Coot should not be reading biographies. The point (implied, at least, by his snarky remark) is that he believes reading fiction is a waste of time. He sees it as mere entertainment. Frippery. Pointless time wasting. He doesn’t have time to waste. Other people may. Let them read fiction. He will focus his mind and sharpen its faculties on non-fiction. Non-fiction will make him a better, wiser man. A more knowledgeable man. A man equipped to take on the 21st century, and all its weird ways.

Now, I’ve got nothing against non-fiction. I read it myself. I’m reading two non-fiction books at the moment. (I’m also reading at least two novels and a couple of short story collections). In the past few months I’ve also read The Swerve and In The Garden of Beasts. I enjoyed them both. Learnt a lot. Time well spent. And I will continue to read non-fiction, because although I’d rather be reading fiction, I think minds work best when they are exposed to a wide landscape of thought.

However, as a writer, I take exception to Mr. Coot’s implied criticism of fiction. Writing is a daily struggle to get to grips with the human condition and unearth some sliver of truth about it from the everyday pile-ups of our lives. Story, as my friend Sue Reynolds reminded me recently, is what makes us human. To be human is to craft a narrative for ourselves and the seemingly meaningless stream of sense impressions that barrage us in what we call life. If you don’t have time to get to grips with the human condition Mr. Coot, you’ve lost the plot of your own life.

Is this the special pleading of the specialist? The tortured bleating of the increasingly irrelevant? Or do you agree that in crafting (and immersing ourselves in) narrative, we capture something essential and integral to our nature as homo sapiens?


8 responses to ““I don’t have time to read fiction…”

  1. I think it depends what you are trying to achieve with your life. For Mr Coot, perhaps his sole purpose in life is to acquire wealth, in which case reading fiction would be a waste of time.

    I take your point about there being some benefit to us as human beings from telling (and hearing stories), that in some way we grow as people etc, but I this misses something. For some of us reading stories, listening to music etc is the end in itself, it’s what makes life bearable; they help us through the day; they make life worth living.

  2. I think that’s exactly what he was meaning: I don’t have time for it because it won’t be *useful* to me (that is it won’t further his goals of wealth and/or power).
    Of course, I agree that the arts (dance, music, poetry, literature, etc.) enrich our lives in many ways, and engage that part of us that is not fed by the purely mercantile, and I think part of the reason for that is that it helps others to reach us, and us to reach others. If we want to decouple the debate from stories for the purposes of demonstration, isn’t it astonishing that a long dead composer (such as Mozart) can reach across cultures, languages and time to stir the heart of a modern listener?

  3. I personally, have no time to read books whatsoever. Thank god for audiobooks. If it weren’t for audiobooks, I would have never experienced Don Quixote, A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserable, The Counte of Monte Cristo, not to mention all the Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell books, etc.

    That being said, I have learned just as much about life from Fiction as I have from Non-Fiction.

    I have had a lot of people say that you shouldn’t listen to audiobooks, but I say “Thank God for Audiobooks”. It’s the only thing in the world that makes cleaning out the refrigerator exciting. It makes laundry less monotonous and pulling weeds fun.
    So the next time you encounter someone who refuses to read fiction, don’t knock him upside the head with a book, play one for him. It’s far more effective.

    • Good point. In another life I had a long drive to and from work every day and audiobooks saved my sanity (well, some might argue with that). Some days I actually hoped for traffic snarl ups so that I could keep listening.
      And don’t worry. I wouldn’t actually have bounced a book off the top of his head, he was bigger than me 😉

  4. My most favourite thing is to listen to an audiobook whilst knitting.and drinking a glass of wine. There isn’t enough time to do all the things I like in one day but it helps that it’s possible to combine all three. So when you publish you’re going to have to record your book too, k?

    • Actually, I’ve already recorded it, because the easiest way to spot clunky sentence construction and wooden dialogue is to read it out. If it turns into ashes in your mouth it needs fixing. Still I doubt my home-made copy is professional enough to stand the test of the clatter of your knitting needles. 😉

  5. It’s better than people who say they don’t *like* fiction. Or reading. Say WHAT?! People are weird.

  6. Yup. People ARE weird, which gives us plenty to read (and write) about. So long may the weirdness continue…

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