On Reading Fiction

All forms of desire have their natural enemies and I find that nothing saps my desire to read fiction like the Internet does.

I just finished reading Kevin Hartnett’s essay “When I’m in the Mood for Fiction,” and it has definitely got me thinking (the quote above is from that essay). Are there times or circumstances when I prefer to read fiction over non-fiction? In general, I read both fiction and non-fiction, and my response to the question would be something mundane: after I read a few non-fiction books in a row, I want to experience something more imaginative. But that almost seems like a cop-out, and I don’t really have a good answer. Hartnett’s essay hits the nail on the head:

The more I’m engaged with life—and particularly with other people—the more I want to read fiction.  At the peak of a wedding reception or in the throes of a night out when the crowd has given itself over to celebration, I often want to sneak off and read a novel. It’s a contradictory impulse, to want to retreat into a book at the precise moment I am most enthralled with life, but such are the circumstances we live by.  What I’m after, I think, is a kind of synergy that can only happen when I approach a novel while my body is still charged with the feeling of being present and alive.

This thinking does seem contradictory, but I think it makes sense. When you’re on a roll or on an emotional high, you want to keep it going. Fiction provides this outlet, or in this case, extends it. When you’ve been reading news or get sucked into politics, perhaps it’s more difficult to get “into” fiction. Then again, the critic in me knows there are others who will chime in as follows: after a long day of reading the boring on the Internet (see Hartnett’s quote at the top which began this post), the first thing you may want to do is unwind with fiction. Interesting how I turned that around, right?

I don’t think there’s a black-and-white answer for me, but I do agree with this point:

At the same time, several of my most memorable encounters with fiction have taken place when I’ve been my most alone.

I should mention that at the moment I’m reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is what the Washington Post Book World cited as Japan stuffed “into a single fictional edifice.” Which begs this extracurricular question: are there degrees to fiction? Can something be more fictional than something else?

I don’t have all the answers, but I’d like to close with this (I say it because it’s true for me): non-fiction stirs the mind, but fiction—well, it stirs the soul.


Questions for the reader: what do you think of Hartnett’s take on reading fiction? Do you agree with him? When do you prefer reading fiction over non-fiction? Can you even pinpoint your mood or a set of circumstances, or is the answer something vague (like my answer is)?

5 thoughts on “On Reading Fiction

  1. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and when I do, it is mostly some interesting articles on the net or something work-related.
    So for me, the question is not when I am in the mood for fiction or non-fiction, but: when am I in the mood for a traditional piece of fiction or something experimental? The same feeling that is described here – feeling an urge for fiction after reading some non-fiction – is what I get when I have read one or two traditional works of fiction. I am drawn to something experimental, e.g. the works of British experimentalist B.S. Johnson (excerpts from “The Unfortunates”: http://bit.ly/azMwCt) or what I have just finished reading – David Markson’s “This is not a novel”, which is a very demanding tour de force through the worlds of writing, art and music (excerpts here: http://bit.ly/aIqzvF).

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