Futility of Fiction? I think not. Why do you read? Escapism or Something More?

June 19, 2015

There are so many reasons to read and I don’t believe there could ever be a wrong answer to the question. But, I have to admit to being a bit taken aback by a conversation I had with my son. So much so, I still think about it two years later. I don’t tend to share much of my personal life online, but this ties so much with reading that I decided I wanted to share, and see what draws other people to books.


The Librarian’s Retreat by Jeremiah Morelli

So, here’s a quick version of the story. A couple of years ago my youngest son (then age 8) was debating me the merit of fiction. He was against it, and even still often acts like reading fiction is a chore. He’s a highly intelligent and wonderfully quirky child who loves to learn, he loves books, they just tend to be non fiction, closer to encyclopedias than stories. His reasoning to me was “What’s the point? I read the story, when it’s over I’m done and there’s nothing left. I’ve not gained or learned anything.” I was a bit aghast. Especially since we were in a book store, surrounded by wonderful fiction when he was explaining to me how pointless it was. He was describing what he saw as the futility of fiction. He made his points very calmly, but also quite adamantly. He was mystified as to what a person could truly gain by reading a fictional story other than a brief moment of entertainment.

As I tried to keep my composure from this quite unexpected expression of what I felt was almost insanity, or potentially willful ignorance, I tried to figure out where I went wrong as a parent to have him so misguided. I know he was only 8, still young with much to learn in life, but I still could not fathom how he had become so under informed on the value of fiction. I started reading to my boys as soon as they came into our lives, way before they could even understand the words. I’ve come to terms with this exchange, and I have taken it as a cue to look for more ways to teach him the meaning in even some of the lightest fiction at times. As a parent, I’m not sure if I could have done much different. I suspect he was bound to have to learn this lesson in his own way. And what’s important is what we do moving forward, not what may or may not have taught him to appreciate fiction at a younger age. Or at least to not question it’s merits beyond the surface level entertainment value.

To me there are so many wonderful life lessons that can be wrapped up in an engaging story. And part of the beauty of it is it can plant seeds of ideas for kids without them even knowing it. It can present examples of how to interact with peers, how to handle difficult situations, it can show you what is really important for true happiness. It can show them that just because a person is grown up, that does not make them infallible. Part of the beauty of these lessons buried in fiction is that they are lessons that can be learned even when you are looking for nothing more than a good story to escape into to. They are lessons you may never realize that you have absorbed.

fantasy-reading-suggestions-1600x900I honestly think I read for escapism at times, and other times I enjoy getting a different perspective on life. I really enjoy books that have some underlying commentary about current politics or issues. I think I can find some value in pretty much any book I enjoy, whether it is breaking boundaries, or just presenting an old familiar fun story with a slightly different twist to keep it fresh. And without a doubt, there is no right or wrong reason to read. Any reason is a wonderful reason.

But this has me wondering what other people look for. My son seems to have come around and enjoys reading for the sake of the story as well as for learning explicit lessons. What about you? What are your favorite or most common reasons to read?

(And as an update, my son is currently reading The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander and is absolutely loving it! He is quite enthusiastic about it, and I have asked if he might be interested in sharing his love for the book on my blog. He’s 10, that may not happen. But I think if could be fun. And I love that he has found joy in fiction no matter what his reason for reading it is. Don’t get me wrong, I love that he loves his non-fiction books so much, but it does make me happy to see him also appreciate a fictional story.)


  • Tammy @ Books, Bones & Buffy June 19, 2015 at 8:51 am

    I read because I love stories. That’s pretty much the basics. It may be escapism, and if there happens to be a life lesson (one that doesn’t beat me over the head) then great. And I do love learning new things too. Some of the best fiction has opened new worlds that I might never experience in real life. And I’m not talking about fantasy! On another note, I love how smart your kid is. Great story:-) I have two teenagers that would rather do housework than read a book, so consider yourself lucky!
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    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) June 20, 2015 at 3:23 pm

      he he … we’ll see how long it lasts. Right now playing video games tops his priority list, but given the choice between reading non-fiction and doing chores, I know for sure he’ll pick the book 🙂
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  • Aeriko @ The Reading Armchair June 19, 2015 at 10:30 am

    Through fiction, we’ve all lived numerous lives, we’ve traveled to foreign and imaginary lands, we’ve had experiences we wouldn’t otherwise. But, I understand that there are people who only read non-fiction (in fact, my boyfriend is like that).
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    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) June 20, 2015 at 3:24 pm

      It is interesting how different people are drawn to different types of books. But, happily there’s something for just about everyone out there 🙂 Your first sentence reminds me of the GRRM quote – “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only once.”
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  • Lynn June 19, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Reading is such a wonderfully unique experience for everyone. I think I inherited my love of reading from my dad and so I read the books that were available on his shelves. As a result I read a lot of classics and I love that – I don’t tend to read any classics any more but that’s because I’ve moved on and that’s one of the things with readings – it evolves and changes as you do. I don’t know if I read for escapism or not but I do know that when I read, and it’s a book that I’m loving, I do actually escape – really escape. I’m there. That’s why adaptations are so difficult for me and for other people – they’re somebody else’s vision not yours and it might not be how you imagined. My husband doesn’t read a lot and when he does it’s non fiction – it’s still reading though so it’s all good.
    Lynn 😀
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    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) June 20, 2015 at 3:27 pm

      Yep, my reading patterns and preferences have definitely changed quite a bit over time. I always loved horror growing up, then didn’t read much for a while. Then I read predominantly non-fiction, particularly political books. And now, well. I like the fun books, but still can see value in them.
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  • DJ (@MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape) June 19, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    My college roommate was not a reader. When he did read, it was strictly non fiction. He could not fathom why anyone would read fiction or anything like sci-fi/fantasy; he was convinced it was a waste of time, and you could learn nothing from it. I told him one day, “You know not every fantasy book is harry potter or has elves and dragons, right? I actually haven’t read a book with an elf in it, since I was in elementary school.” He looked at me totally baffled and had no idea.

    What I found very funny, was at the same we were having this conversation, he was almost done watching the whole LOST series in under a month (and loving it), loved Batman Begins, and would play video games for 2-3 hours a day. Yet, when it comes to a book, it was suddenly a waste of time unless he was “learning”.

    Anyways… Personally, I read because I like to escape; because I like the act of reading a book itself; and because I like learning.
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  • Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum June 20, 2015 at 12:37 am

    What a great post. Gosh, if my kid asked me what the point of fiction was I don’t know what I’d do. Goggle at her, I suppose. In this scenario, I guess I’d probably ask her, do you like watching movies? And maybe explain that books are like movies for a lot of people but it’s a story you take in through words rather than moving pictures. Either way, you have a sharp boy there, because I don’t know if there’s a “point” to fiction either. Other than the fact it’s enjoyable, and like you said, escapism. That’s good enough for me, but I do know a few adult friends in my life who read strictly non-fiction because if they’re going to read something they want it to be informational, and I definitely see the reasoning behind that too.
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    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) June 20, 2015 at 3:37 pm

      he he … ummm, he actually usually chooses to watch documentaries. Although, he definitely has some shows/movies he enjoys. He is a bit more open to fiction in that form than books. Of course, my older son would never, ever choose a documentary, so he gets exposed to what ever his brother puts on (like Dr. Who). So, he’s coming around. And I actually think there are things he could learn from what is typically considered escapist type reading. Really just want to make sure he doesn’t look down on people reading fiction.
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  • nikki @bookpunks June 21, 2015 at 12:43 am

    If he had been just a little bit older when he said that you could have had a hell of a debate/conversation about the way that nonfiction books also contain narratives and stories and being inflicted upon something like history also can result in something not unrelated to fiction. But glad to hear he’s found some fiction worth reading. 🙂
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  • Danya @ Fine Print June 23, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    This is such a great post, Lisa. I don’t know what I would have done in your position…probably just goggle, like Mogsy said. But hey, at least your son’s a reader! Many of the kids I work with *despise* reading, fiction or otherwise. Before university I would have said that I read mostly for escapism, but an English degree doesn’t include many books that feel like an ‘escape.’ I guess I read for fun and entertainment, and then I read to experience life through someone’s else’s eyes. To gain a new perspective by reading about someone in a different time, place, or someone with a different identity from my own. I actually read a really interesting article a few years ago talking about how psychologists have suggested that people who read fiction generally have more empathy than people who don’t. I don’t know how true that is but it made a lot of sense to me.
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