I just posted this on a forum where they were talking about the sustained attention that is required of reading books and whether we are losing that ability, or whether it was always small minority who ever had it. Some comments included the value of reading fiction vs non-fiction and one commentator mentioned reading “The Idiot” on the subway and studying Dostoevsky in school.
I just finished “The Idiot.” I thought it was amazing. I am also reading two of Orlando Fige’s histories of Russia, “A People’s Tragedy” and “Natasha’s Dance.” They are excellent. With new insight into the Russian people and their history, I am planning on re-reading “The Brothers Karamazov” and I am already halfway through “Anna Karenina” right now. I have never understood people who read only fiction, or only non-fiction. Culture is history too. And certain books and authors transcend a particular culture and become a part of history. More people attended Tolstoy’s funeral than the Tsar’s. Who thinks that they can really understand (or appreciate?) that historical fact without reading Tolstoy? Some artists do a better job of understanding their time than the historians do. Incorporating both into your study provides a fuller understanding. “War and Peace” is on my shelf, but I would not approach a full appreciation of that book until I study the history of the Napoleonic wars, so I plan to study the history first and then study the art and culture that came out of that history so to understand myself, as a human being, better. Fiction and non-fiction -again, I don’t understand how you can separate these, or understand one without the other. And for those who don’t care about fiction because it is not true, I would argue that the truth that is captured so well in “The Death of Ivan Ilych” – a profound, universal truth about life and death – is a far more important kind of truth than the names and dates of history found in non-fiction. Non-fiction is a form that cannot touch the true desires and passions of the human heart the way “fiction” can when it is done at its best. Shouldn’t love of history include love of the human spirit which breathes life into that history? Fiction at its best captures that human spirit in action. The world and all its history – including cultural, technological, civil and military – is breathtaking in scope, depth, nuance, and pathos. These are just a few things that reading has to offer. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. If we don’t take the time to reflect on life – on its history (expressed in non-fiction) and on its meaning (expressed in art and religion) – then we risk leading lives that more resemble the lower animals than that of the fullness of the human being. Reading, whether fiction or non-fiction, offers edification. Those who choose to cut themselves off from this due to some prejudice against a category of book are the silliest of fools.