“I call it FICTIVE INTELLIGENCE. It’s my name for the kind of understanding that can only come from reading fiction. It involves sustained concentration, greater empathy and an ability to see beyond the quick [sound bite] to the many various forces that have contributed to the situation: the “accumulation of many small advantages”—or in some cases, disadvantages. The bigger picture, over a longer period. All the subtle shifts and their gathering consequences.”
So wrote author and musician Joe Craig in an impassioned (and clearly eloquent) post on his blog yesterday, a post which I encourage you to read in full. In reflecting on his recent attendance on a national librarian conference (presumably in the UK, where he’s based), Craig has composed a smart, heartfelt, and far-ranging piece on the connection between reading fiction and feeling inspired to be, do, and know more in life that is itself inspiring. To be sure, a certain amount of what he expresses you sort of know already, or sense, or have even expressed yourself in slightly different terms… but there’s something about how he captures these ideas and then extends them that’s really special.
As an example, here’s an idea that particularly hit home for me:
…the world cannot be explained and all its problems solved by tweet-length explanations. We need longer, deeper, richer understanding. We need brains that have been trained by reading novels.
Why did this notion, and for that matter the entire post, strike a chord? Because with its stress on “longer, deeper, richer understanding,” I happen to hear validations of fannish reading and free-choice reading generally. It’s through these practices that young people develop the motivation (though not necessarily the ability) to
- stay with a text over a long period of time
- read the same text repeatedly, or engage in partial re-reading
- read for nuance—the things that are hard to summarize
- make critical distinctions between characters, authors, and even themselves at different points in their careers as readers.
All of these skills are key, as far as I see it, to the development of individuals and societies. In fact, my only addendum to Craig’s insights would be to include book-length nonfiction narratives, as I believe they can also afford us opportunities to appreciate the subtleties of how time and its idiosyncratic confluence of events can shape the lives of individuals, families, communities, and nations.
In any case, who helps foster a lifelong love of this approach to reading? I’d argue that above all it’s librarians, and especially school/youth librarians. Indeed, the idea of libraries, at least in the modern sense of the open lending library, is predicated on the individual patron selecting books for pleasure reading. That’s why the librarian’s role is fundamentally different from that of the English teacher, despite the presence of classroom libraries, the latter’s emphasis on independent reading both outside of and inside school, and so on… because, simply, our current model of curriculum is still based upon the idea that, for the most part, all students read all the same titles that a given class is “to cover.” So inevitably it’s top-down reading selection that occurs as a result, with department chairs, librarian and ELA professional groups, awards committees, book critics, and professional development authors and journals all having a role in helping decide what gets chosen for kids and teens.
On the other hand…
…we have the unruliness of pop culture, a realm where there are few obvious taste-makers and gatekeepers, and which is thus hugely appealing to young people. There they get to plunge into new worlds and then stay underwater as long as they like (if I’m not mixing too many metaphors)… with no grownups telling them to come up for air—that is, move on to the next book.
Certainly there are “pop” readers who go for series and genre fiction, and consume it voraciously. And of course Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You convincingly made the case that even the junkiest of junk culture can grow our intellects.
The simple, three-act structure and formulaic, briefly-sketched characters of most Hollywood flicks, and the decided lack of empathy (one of the key benefits of fiction that Craig cites) in most blockbuster video game releases gives one pause…
Aren’t such media artifacts ill-suited to prepare young minds for critical, civic-minded, and big picture engagement with the real world?
Maybe, but I’m not so sure, and in fact I instinctively distrust this apparent dichotomy. That could be why one of my favorite movies is Sullivan’s Travels, which vividly demonstrates the value of “escapist” entertainment.
So maybe that’s the amazing, challenging, but deeply inspiring job of the youth librarian: to spark not only engagement with the cultural forms that attract young people, but re-engagement with the real world, the one that Craig so powerfully explains as benefiting from the participation of such readers, and fans, of fiction.
No, I didn’t post anything upon the passing of Maurice Sendak a few weeks ago despite the fact that he was a central figure of my childhood imagination. There just seemed to be little to add to all the stirring and touching eulogies that were published at the time. Yet now that I think about it, this tension between escape into the unreal and transformative engagement with the real is perfectly, mythically, conveyed by his work. When Max disappears into the forest of his mundane bedroom and sails to the land of the Wild Things, it’s clear that he needs to. But let’s also recall that he comes to tire of his sovereignty in the world of imagination, and so also needs to return to the real world, renewed and self-assured. In a sense, his journey is both the “Hero’s Journey” and, ideally, the “Fan’s Journey.”
…which would, in turn, make the librarian who knows kids like Max a kind of wise mentor or shaman, someone who can guide young souls in the cross-navigation of the worldly and the imaginary, ensuring that they don’t become depressingly mired in the former or hopelessly entranced, and thus lost, in the latter.