Why Fiction?

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction.  3 or 4 a year, out of 1.5 – 2 books a week.  And when I’m reading one like I am now, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, I usually have to stop in the middle and read a novel before continuing.

Bryson is extraordinarily entertaining, for a writer of non-fiction.  This book tells of the development of home life as we now experience it, from architecture to technology to cooking styles and use of spices.  Just the sort of factual capsules that people are always forwarding you emails about or posting on Facebook — along with those omnipresent pictures of cats.

We love our little snippets, don’t we?  Like that line from The Big Chill (which I don’t remember exactly) where Michael, who writes for People magazine, talks about trying to make his articles the length of the average shit.

The perfect segue into one of the quaint and curious facts that Bryson presents.  What is the cleanest surface in the average household?  It is the toilet seat, because it is disinfected so often.  By comparison, your counter tops, kitchen sink, and dishcloth are the germiest.

‘Tis said that truth is often stranger than fiction.  I mean, what fiction writer can compete with facts like that?  And then there’s the little voice off in the distance complaining, “Yeah, and every time I do, like when I create an ingenious way of keeping the space shuttle cool during re-entry by using liquid hydrogen, you bitch at me for being an idiot who writes REALLY BAD writing” (4/9/13 blog post).  We just can’t win, can we?

How can we compete in the world of tweets, Facebook, and the Internet?  How long has it been since anybody forwarded you an email with a nice piece of fiction with the subject, YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS! (OK, about three quarters of the political emails that a few of THOSE friends forward are fiction.  But you know that’s not what I meant)

Some wag said that fiction is the world like it should be rather than the way it is.  So I can retreat from the harsh reality of the real world into a fantasy world where the kitchen counter is cleaner than the toilet seat.

I attended a lecture by Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution, during which he answered the question “Why Fiction?” the best.  He was talking about creation stories compared with the widely accepted scientific description of the origins of the universe and the Big Bang.  And how the scientific explanation does not REPLACE the creation stories, but that they work together to explain the event.  “Day Language” and “Night Language,” Dowd calls them.  Day language, the language of our logical left brain, tells us what and how.  Night Language, the language of our emotional (and usually illogical) right brain, tells us why.

Night Language is the language of fiction.  Which at its best, answers the question, “Why?”

OK, OK: in addition to being a great way to escape.  Still, I think we still have a place in the age of social media.

toilet seat


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