Which Is Better to Read, Fiction or Non-Fiction?

One of the silliest questions we can ask when it comes to good reading is this, “Which is better, fiction or non-fiction?” Nevertheless, different people clearly have difference preferences when it comes to reading fiction and non-fiction. Some people read almost all fiction while others read almost all non-fiction? What does this tell us about the predisposition of such individuals?

In addition, there are those who enjoy reading almost nothing but fiction for years, and then discover that they have an unexpected thirst for the kind of pleasure that comes from reading non-fiction. And of course the opposite is also true. Some people who have spent their lives reading fiction, including novels, short stories, poems and plays, suddenly discover a new interest in reading philosophy and history, along with the physical, natural, cognitive and social sciences.

To add to the complexity and confusion, there are genre bending books that offer an ambiguous blend of fiction and non-faction. The general public get upset and feels deceived when an author purports to be writing non-fiction (nothing but the facts) and is found out to be embellishing his accounts with fictional elements.

Reading a balance of fiction and non-fiction is probably the best solution, although this is easier said than done. Most of us read, if we read at all, to satisfy certain needs, whether for pleasure and delight, amusement and escape, information and knowledge, wisdom and insight. The world of imaginative fiction includes literature of every kind, and by extension we might also include the imaginative worlds of music and the arts. The world of expository non-fiction includes philosophy, history and the sciences. It would be too simple to cast this difference in terms of right brain and left brain hemisphere dominance, but it is not an irrelevant factor either. There are mutually complementary advantages to imaginative and discursive forms of feeling and thought, perception and judgment, even if many persons become fixated on one at the expense of the other.

It seems to me that the German ideal of “Bildung” (that I wrote about in the previous blog) speaks to the need for balance between the intuitive and rational, emotive and cognitive, expressive and reflective, synthetic and analytical aspects of human knowledge and experience. Both fiction and non-fiction are required in order to cultivate the whole person. The humanities arts, sciences and technologies can all thrive in a mutually respectful and symbiotic relationship. There is no need for a dichotomy between “the two cultures.” The German educational ideal of Bildung as personal and cultural development and the American educational ideal of Pluralistic Pragmatism may be two complementary approaches to developing the full spectrum of our human potential.

In an age when reading, whether fiction or non-fiction, are endangered species, killed of by the plethora of electronic media, we should be thankful that some people are reading at all, whether fiction or non-fiction. But the best arrangement seems to be to balance the reading of fiction and non-fiction, and transcend the old cultural divide between the poets and the philosophers, literati and historians, artists and scientists. The perennial quest for fullness of being and human flourishing requires a full spectrum approach to thoughtful and creative inquiry. And of course this need not exclude the additional media and communication resources of radio, TV, movies and the world wide web, even though an excessive dependence upon these do tend to make the old fashion reading of books, printed paper books, an endangered species.

Which is better, fiction or non-fiction? It’s like asking, which is better, the right wing or the left wing of an airplane. Hopefully, those who hope to soar on wings of imagination and reflection, knowledge and wisdom will use both front wings, along with tail wings, flaps and a rudder to steer their airplane to distant lands. And hopefully they will have a reliable landing gear installed in their airplane for safe landings. All that remains is to have a sane and sober, responsible and experienced pilot, for without this even the reading of fiction and non-fiction can offer no guarantee that we will not get lost over the sea or crash land our plane into a mountain. It is not only the reading of fiction and non-fiction that matters, but what we bring of our own fully sentient and reflective humanity to creative encounters with good books. 

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