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On Reading Fiction Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Monday, 09 August 2010

A  former student, out of college a couple of years, working in Rockefeller Center, wrote to me. She had noticed that “few of her friends read fiction.” The reason, she suspected, was because of the cell phone. It demands constant and immediate attention.

An article in the Washington Post depicted high school students spending the summer at the Delaware Shore. A young man stated that he would not be caught on the beach without his cell phone so that he could talk to his friends back home. Summer vacations at the beach were once meant for swimming, reading fiction, and escaping the routine of back home.

Subsequently, I have asked several random student friends about this observation on cell phones and reading. One told me that her new cell phone was “driving me nuts,” because of the amount of attention it required.

David Brooks (NYT, 8 July) noted a study showing that students who live in homes where there are actual physical books do better in school. Something important hovers around touching a book, actually turning its pages. I would never read a novel online, yet I know, word for word, it is the same text. Somehow, weightless things seem, well, exactly that, weightless. Gravitas needs weight, even in fictional stories that never happened in the noonday sun.

Of course, the world is now full of Electronic Books. Universities will soon be mostly online. We won’t need actually to “attend” them. Most books today are first in electronic form anyhow. Few classic books are not now found on some web site.

So I guess many things could also be found in a paperless world. But the initial point was about the nature of the newer forms of communication. Every third person we meet walking down the street is talking to someone else on the cell phone. This instrument gets ever more classy and compact. It combines the radio, the computer, the television, the movies, the camera, the clock, and weather forecasts all in one. In the old days, we would ask someone with a watch the time. Today, he pulls out his cell phone and takes a photo of us with the time emblazoned on it.

But the issue posed by my student-friend, I think, is a good one. Do we need fiction in addition to the reality of constant communication? Why so? What sort of reality impinges on us when anyone can call us, or we can call anyone in any place or time of day or night? I suppose this ability was implicit in the almost obsolete telephone, or perhaps even in the written letter.

Brooks, recalling Marshall McLuhan, called his column, “The Medium is the Medium,” not “The Medium is the Message.” In other words, does this instant communication obscure or foster reflection, insight, and knowledge of human living, of what is 

The poet and the fiction writer are not merely substitutes for our not talking to our friends wherever they are, whenever we want. So when people spend time on immediacy in place of fiction, are they closer to understanding the reality they live in? We can doubt it.

On Facebook, evidently the issue is who we want to be our friends, the faces we select. It has long been suspected that if we have no time for ourselves, we will have no time for others. We do not mean here those who think highly of themselves, but those who, with time, reflect on everything. They take time to distinguish and separate things out. If we are constantly communicating with our friends in that immediacy that the cell-phone provides, we will, I suspect, rapidly become superficial.

We will not have taken the time, as C. S. Lewis once said, to live other lives than our own. Books allow us to do this vicarious living, especially fiction. To be sure, we have good and bad fiction. Yet, I recall Rudolf Allers once saying in class that we should constantly be reading fiction, even bad fiction, for we will almost always find there scenes of human reality that we would not notice otherwise.

But why is not talking to our friends constantly on the cell-phone a superior form of human communication? “No one reads fiction,” my friend wrote. They are busy with sending and answering. The air is full of such communication.

I was in the university library the other day with a visiting friend. I said, “The library more and more seems like merely a storehouse for books.” People in the library are on their computers and cell-phones. Novels are assignments, not pleasures.

“Reality is stranger than fiction?” Today, I suspect, the opposite is true. The message is not in the cell phone. Talking means having something to talk about, not just talking and talking.


James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
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written by Brian, August 10, 2010
I love how a Kindle advertisement stretches alongside this article, enticing me to cave. I will not.
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written by Joe, August 10, 2010
Fiction is fundamentally about morality and moral outcomes. From the ancient Greeks to early Updike, fiction provided illumination (from below or above) on the features of moral tradition and culture. We now live in an age of inverted morality - an assertion that can be fortified by example if required. The illumination of inversion becomes ironic at best. Truth is in shadow. Fiction has lost its compelling purpose and has become just more floating debris on the current breaking wave. All is vanity. But hey! I write fiction so this is probably just sour grapes.
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written by Joe, August 10, 2010
The upside, father, is that except for the clacking of computer keys and the occasional misbehaving child, libraries housing classic fiction in book form are so much less crowded these days making for much easier accessibility.

For example, I just took out Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain," which according to the index card had last been checked out in 1984. The librarian told me, however, that they switched to computer circulation records in 2000 and at least one other person had taken the book in 2005. From 1973 to 1984, interestingly, this seminal work of fiction had been checked out over a dozen times -- an anecdotal indicator of the decline in reading great literature.

With all the inane posting, chatting and texting going on, the library books are gathering dust, but for those of us who require a steady diet of fictional sustenance, the choices are plentiful. I don't have to worry that "David Copperfield," "Moby Dick," or other classics won't be available as was the case years ago when one had to get on a waiting list.

As for Mann's masterpiece, inasmuch as it may take me a month to get through it, I'm sure an extension will be granted by the library because there will be nobody else waiting for it -- not, at least, for another five years or so.
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written by Emina Melonic, August 10, 2010
What a beautiful essay by Fr. Schall. This reminded me of my studies at Chicago. When I was there, I wrote my thesis on Flannery O'Connor and prof. Wayne Booth was my advisor. It was prof. Booth who introduced me to the Aristotelian idea of friendship and how fiction, books are in essence our friends. Aristotle wrote that "without friends no one would choose to live, though he has all other goods" (Ethics, Book 8). Keeping with this tradition, prof. Booth wrote that "the quality of our lives was (and is) said to be in large part identical with the quality of the company we keep" ("The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction," 172). Continuing Fr. Schall's brilliant thought, who are our friends and how do we spend our time? Do we have reverence for books (and more importantly good stories) and do we yearn to learn what can they tell us? If our "friendships" are based on pleasure only and as Fr. Schall writes, superficiality, then how do we expect to grow, either intellectually or spiritually? In the end, this is not just about reading. The problem is not only about whether we know who Shakespeare or Goethe or Dostoevsky is. Fiction takes us outside of ourselves, into the community, into the recognition of human family. Something a cell phone communique will never be.
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written by Brad Miner, August 10, 2010
This is not a dissent, just an observation based upon a coincidence. Tomorrow afternoon, my younger son and I will load up my car with ten large boxes containing at least 300 books and take them to the Strand in New York City to sell. I was chatting on the phone with Fred Bass, who runs the Strand, and he remarked that selling such a large number of books must mean I'm cleansing my soul. Actually I'm cleaning out my attic office, but I take the point. What's interesting to me is what I'm keeping: anything autographed; most of my theology and Church history (including all of my Schalls); and the handful of great novels I cannot imagine not being able to lay hands on whenever the spirit moves. These books and some wall photos of a few of their authors make the office a less lonely place than it otherwise would be.
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written by Lisa Nicholas, Ph. D., August 10, 2010
One of the best literary arguments I have read in support of reading books of all kinds is Ray Bradbury's _Fahrenheit 451_ -- although too often reductively considered to be a polemic against "censorship," that view ignores too much. I think Bradubury's novel is really an apologia of liberal education, as well as book-reading generally.

With specific reference to reading "literature" in the strict sense (fiction & poetry), I believe that this kind of reading is the most potent because it feeds the moral imagination in a way that other kinds of books ("nonfiction") cannot. Plato knew this, which is why, in _The Republic_, he has Socrates make his biggest philosophical points by the use of parables ("myths") and "beautiful lies."
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written by T.D., August 10, 2010
A few months ago, I was standing at a busy subway station, waiting for my bus home from work. Tucked under my arm were a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s “Thank You, Jeeves” and a fat binder of materials for a class I was taking. (Wodehouse, by the way, makes for absolutely fantastic bus reading. He’s so funny that by the time I arrive home, I’ve invariably forgotten all about any workday stress.) As I waited, a gentleman about twenty-years my senior (I’m 29) walked up to me and said, “I didn’t know anyone your age read Wodehouse!” Eyeing the binder, he added, “Is this a school assignment?” When I told him that it was for pure pleasure, he gave me a quizzical look and then said something to the effect of, “Good for you! I didn’t know anyone from your generation still read for fun!” We got to chatting, and it turns out that the gentleman is a history professor at a local university. He lamented that very few of his students can put two coherent thoughts together on paper, and he’s realized that it’s because so few people read anything other blogs or Twitter. Most people don’t even read the newspaper anymore; they read quick snippets from RSS newsfeeds. And as we chatted, we observed that very few of the roughly 200 other commuters – and none of the commuters my age – had books with them. Most of them were occupied by gadgets, and few of those so occupied looked composed or even connected with their surroundings.
I don’t think, however, that the cause of unpopularity of reading is specifically the cell phone so much as it is the ubiquitousness of technology in general, and not so much instant communication or gratification as much as it is constant distraction. Literature worth reading requires imagination, reflection, undistracted thought, etc. Who can delve into the realm of imagination if hours of television and movies have already provided you with mental images of the antics of Bertie Wooster or of Elizabeth Bennett’s classic refusal to Mr. Darcy’s proposal, for instance? With the constant beeping of e-mail alerts, who can really give enough attention to “Les Misérables” to understand Hugo’s moral points in the first place, let alone reflect on them? Technology isn’t bad, of course, but it has gotten to be so pervasive in our lives that our abilities to imagine and to devote attention to any one thing have atrophied. We can’t even seem to be fully present to each other, so how can we be present to a novel? We’re techno-gluttons, and because we’re filled to satiety with technology, we’ve allowed our taste and appetite for real mental food to dull.
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written by Michiganian, August 10, 2010
I think part of the problem is in the attitude people take to fiction. It's not seen as something enriching or appreciated for being able to stretch your heart and mind. The only books generally looked to for inspiration are shelved under "Self-Help" in bewilderingly large book stores. I think it's common for fiction reading to be consigned to "unproductive" scraps of time and used as a distraction lest there be a moment when someone isn't doing something.

Reading Fr. Schall's article and the comments sparked relief that there are other people who look at fiction and stories in general as food. It seems we are rare.

These thoughts could stand further development, but, ironically, I don't have the time.
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written by Robert Ormsbee, August 12, 2010
Re: On Reading Fiction...This article intimated an effectual and resultant"superficial knowledge" from occupied cell-phone and electronic media activity. I wholly agree. Our world is existentially more complicated than the abbreviated, thoughts and opinions, so expressed on Facebook and in texting and airy cell-phone conversations. These media consist mostly of short-hand-like quips and two- or three-word phrases--intended mostly for agreement or disagreement of inane posts featuring incomplete and/or inaccurate information...as with "the blind leading the blind."

As for "fiction" I do enjoy and appreciate the good stuff. However, I'm not inclined to search for it; so then, I don't often read fiction. I find that often, fictitious stories in print, movies, TV and video...tend to politicize and propagandize the personal opinions and views of the producers. This modern "trend," I feel, falsifies "reason and truth," and discolors the common good of society; and it certainly impedes human development and progress toward things of genuine goodness. Indeed, we live in "The Age of Misinformation."
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written by Robert Ormsbee, August 12, 2010
P.S. I cannot afford Kindle, or I'd probably have one. Concerning friends...I'm a 74-year old loner. I do have a large extended family (somewhat too modern for my interests and companionship) and I still have many acqauintances...but I have few friends, and less time to gregariously "be friendly." Reading for "knowing" is precious to me.
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written by Mark, August 13, 2010
The corollary of children who have actual books in their homes doing better in school is that the seemingly unstoppable drive to convert more and more instruction to electronic formats will produce more poorly educated students.
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written by Allen Roth, December 07, 2010
Like Brad I sold some books at the Strand, but unlike him I bought some too. Currently I am reading The Free Fishers by John Buchan. I am finding this 1934 novel interesting, exciting, and entertaining. Good fiction travels through time.

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