Everyone knows that fiction isn’t real (except people who like Glenn Beck). It’s imaginary. Nothing described in The Lord of the Rings, The Count of Monte Cristo, or a college football player’s academic transcript, ever actually happened. Unlike something that is real and factual, like Star Trek, none of the characters you know and love exist or have any impact on this world. All of their thoughts, dreams, adventures, fears, and loves, exist entirely in your head as little electrical impulses. They simply do not exist. Stories are just mildly entertaining diversions which serve no real purpose beyond amusement, like Santa Clause or radio carbon dating. Novels are just silly fabrications that smart people with fancy educations can never seem to shut up about, like climate change and gender equality.
So why do so many people spend their time writing fiction? I mean, it’s not even real.
Circles. Circles are why fiction is important. “What the hell are you talking about, Magnus?” I hear you asking, as you quickly run and purchase my large and interesting new novel.
A circle is a mathematical abstraction. There has never been discovered or created a perfect circle. We can talk about a perfect circle using equations or Euclidean definitions, but we cannot draw one, we cannot build one, and none has ever been found. We can only draw wobbly shapes (even if they are microscopically wobbly, they are wobbly) which approximate the abstract notion of a real circle. In fact, circles do not exist. So why do we care about circles? Circles are incredibly useful for understanding our world. The mathematical ideas behind a circle are part of the invisible source code of our (supposedly) real universe. If humans had never thought of the circle, we could never have thought of the wheel, or fire, or Euler’s number, or the sine function, or microwave popcorn, or space travel, or Netflix. A circle is a work of fiction which improves our lives just by existing in our minds. Our ability to understand a non-existent circle expands our horizons, inspires us to consider new ideas, and drives engineering innovation.
A novel is an intellectual abstraction. Nothing in a novel is real. We can talk about the story using words, or pictures, but we still know that it never happened. We can make movies in which a novel is acted out by real people, but this is just a wobbly approximation of the ultra-realistic grandeur contained within the pages of a novel. So why do we care about novels? Novels are incredibly useful for understanding ourselves, and the world we live in. The ideas and feelings which underpin a novel are a part of the invisible source code of our psyche. If humans had never thought of the novel, we never could have understood justice in the light of To Kill A Mockingbird. We never could have considered authoritarianism in the light of George Orwell’s 1984, or his lesser known sequel 1986, about the dangers of hair spray and shoulder pads. No tears would have been shed for Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, and the idea of star crossed lovers who would rather end their young lives than be torn apart by political rivalry would never have come to life at the hands of William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. Although, we might have been spared Twilight… but it is worth the sacrifice of a few disjointed semi-abusive love stories between a cannibalistic hipster and his anti-feminist girlfriend who he secretly wants to eat for dinner.
Writing is to thinking as karate is to moving around. Writing is a sport in which your intellect, your heart, your imagination, and your animal instincts must run in formation, leaving in their wake these cognitive linguistic brain-movies we call novels.
So what of reading? Why should I bother “wasting” the better part of an afternoon absorbed in the tale of a magic boy and his magic boarding school? If you do not read novels, then everything you know about life, everything you know about people, philosophy, love, courage, decision making, temptation, and joy, can only come from your own experiences (or from history books, 99% of which are about violence and debauchery; a limited, if significant ingredient of the human experience). This creates a tiny palette from which to draw your conclusions and only a few spars of lumber with which to construct additions to the intellectual and emotional house in which you spend your life. Those of us who read novels, however, will stroll through a thousand lives and a hundred thousand different experiences as we sit there with our nerdy noses nuzzled nicely near nuestras novelas. As the highly respected weirdo George R.R. Martin wrote, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, […] The man who never reads lives only one.”
Magnus Von Black is a best selling author* and lead guitarist of the most underrated band in the history of bands that have tutu-wearing science-fantasy authors as their lead guitarist.
* New Dork Times** Best Seller’s List for three consecutive months.
** New Dork Times is an imaginary digital newspaper I publish in my mind for myself to read about myself and the things I do. It’s great.