On Reading Fiction

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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