In Praise of Fiction

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While skirting the headlines of the local paper last week, I was delighted at a little gem tucked away at the bottom the front page. The article chronicled a London theater group’s attempts to determine if being exposed to Shakespeare would increase milk production in a herd of dairy cows. The Changeling Theatre Company performed scenes from The Merry Wives of Windsor for Friesian cows at a Kent dairy farm.

“We selected scenes from the play we felt to be lyrical and relaxing,” said Rob Forknall, artistic director for the group.

Milk production was found to increase by four percent. It is believed that exposure to the Bard’s work relaxed the cows, therefore boosting milk production. I’ve never read Shakespeare to bovines, but I can vouch for the relaxation effect of a good piece of literature. Stories soothe the wild beast. And, um, the more placid, cud-chewing, lactating one (apparently).

When I was a girl, there were no books in my home. When money is tight and the library too far away, Dr. Seuss takes a backseat. There was no toddler lap time with eyes focused on colorful pages. No picture books with single words to jump start my reading skills. No sing-songy poems to capture my attention. No books. But there were plenty of stories.

At night when my mother tucked us in, she would always give us a bedtime story. Mostly, she offered well-known fairy tales—Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs—but sometimes she would spin her own. These were always the favorites. She was an animated storyteller—changing her voice with each character, giving sound effects where indicated. My brothers and sister and I would cocoon together in the dark, eyes wide with the wonder of pages of pictures turning in our heads.

That is where my love for story began. I learned to read with Dick and Jane in the first grade. But the decaying school I attended those first years of grammar school had no library. Still no books. Then, the summer before my third grade year, that old school building was condemned and the kids from our hollow were transferred. The first time I entered the library at Adamston Elementary, I was astounded. The walls were made of books and books and books and I had never seen anything like it. That library is where I found Nancy Drew, traveled to Narnia and The Island of the Blue Dolphins. It’s where I first experienced A Wrinkle in Time and spied my first Little.

That library was a place for a shy girl from an impoverished family to find new friends. Reading opened up the world for me. I learned about other cultures and other ways of life while nestled in  a small country lane in West Virginia. It connected me to the world in ways that simply were not available to me at the time. Reading showed me possibility.

I have carried my love of a good story with me through the years. There are few things I enjoy more than spending a free afternoon  with a well-written novel. But a good story is more than a warm fuzzy feeling. It is widely regarded that reading fiction helps develop imagination in young children (and probably adults … know anyone who can use some improving in this area?). Some maintain that reading novels is a more engaging way to improve vocabulary and thus improve scores on standardized tests. There is much documentation of the benefits of reading fiction for stress relief and improved mental health. Research by psychologist Raymond Mar found that fiction readers have better social skills and more empathy than those who purport to only read nonfiction. One study even suggests that reading fiction can change our personalities.

A well-crafted story reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. It’s the reason humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Stories help us make sense of the world and understand who we are. As researcher Keith Oatley says, … fiction is about possible selves in possible worlds. Anyone who has ever been swept into an imaginary world and emerged to find himself changed in some way understands this very well.

Reading fiction enriches the way we experience life. We are, after all, each writing our own story in the way we live our lives. As for me, I plan on bringing some Shakespeare along the next time my phobic son has an orthodontist appointment. I just won’t make it MacBeth.

This article first appeared in variation at The High Calling.

Summer is for Reading

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Summer is for reading. For as long as I can remember, this has been true. Falling into a good story makes deliciousness out of the longest of days, especially when it’s too hot to do much of anything else.

A couple weeks ago I asked my husband, “Why doesn’t it feel like summer?” He shrugged and I pondered. After much thought, I realized I hadn’t been reading much fiction. I resolved to change that, because, after all—for a grown-up—summer is a state of mind.

There are sooo many good books waiting for my hungry eyes to devour, but not just any book would do. To step fully into summer, one needs the kind of book that will feed the heart, sing into the spirit, and whisk you away to a different world. I asked my friend Kelli what she would recommend—because Kelli is one of those people who is always growing, always learning, and being with her makes me feel young and happy. She always knows the kind of things that will sing into my spirit. Do you have a friend like that?

Well, Kelli recommended not one, but four books! A four-book series called The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson. “Are they good?” I asked. “They are so good,” she said, “that I can’t think about them without crying a little.”

Sold.

I was already familiar with Andrew Peterson’s music (thanks to Kelli and the Rabbit Room) and I knew I was in for a treat. Have you ever listened to Andrew Peterson’s music? It’s so lyrically rich and real. When we were going through the darkest parts of Jeff’s depression, this album in particular sustained me. And this song wrote deep things in my heart. If you aren’t familiar with his work, I can’t recommend it enough. Since I love his lyrics so much, I knew I would go gaga for his prose.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The Wingfeather Saga is technically a series for kids—young readers who devour chapter books (you know the ones). But in my experience, I’ve found these books to be the best for instilling wonder into the grown-up heart. This saga is the story of a family—the Igibys—who are caught up in an epic tale of dragons and dark creatures and good verses evil. The Igibys include three children: Janner, Tink, and Leeli, and their mother and grandfather. They live in a land ruled by evil but in their hearts is a memory of a time when goodness dominated the land. This is the story of their journey to restore that goodness and of all the things they learn about themselves and the world along the way. It’s pure beauty. I couldn’t put the books down, turning page after page until (in disappointment) I finally finished the last book. And then I had to wait a while before starting to read something else, because the characters were still so alive in my mind. The characters had become my friends along the way and I began to miss them even before I read the last word. Does that happen to you too? I felt sad that my boys are too old to read through these books with them. I wanted to resurrect read aloud at bedtime. But they wouldn’t go for that.

Another fiction book I’ve read recently and loved is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I’m embarrassed to say it’s the first of his works that I’ve read. Gaiman came to the West Virginia Book Festival back in the fall and I was amazed at the response to his presence among my peoples. Who is this guy? I asked my nineteen-year-old son. He’s a guy, he said. You’re probably too old to understand. So when some folks in my writer’s group were raving about his stuff I asked, “If you were going to read just one of his books, which one would you recommend?” The Ocean was it. It was another page-turner. Gaiman’s prose is beautiful and graceful and he weaves a world that instantly drew me in. If you love stories with elements of fantasy while still remaining rooted in this reality (maybe I should say, the fantasy is so well-done if feels like reality), you’ll enjoy this book tremendously.

Currently, I’m reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. I’m almost done with this book and the contrast between it and the above Gaiman selection has been an interesting thing to behold. Not many authors can effectively pull off long stretches of exposition and inner dialogue, but Berry is one. He paints a picture of small town America before, during, and immediately after the Great Depression that made me long for a simpler time. He manages to place ideas about farming and war and progress strategically into the characters’ stories in ways that made me think, and think hard. But also, his leisurely way of describing nature and human nature is a delight. A familiar to his lovely poetry (here’s my all-time favorite, and I share another favorite at the end of this post), I was expecting to fall in love with his prose. And I did. Wendell Berry’s writing is the full package.

Also on this stack you’ll see Gillian Marchenko’s Still Life: A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression. While this book is most definitely not fiction, I’ve been balancing out reading it in-between all the lovely stories described above. This is because it’s been a hard book for me to read. Marchenko describes living with Depression in such a real and heavy way that sometimes I find I’m holding my breath as I read. Our family is still recovering from the most recent episode of Depression and the pain of it remains close. If you’ve ever loved someone who has Depression, this book will help you understand what goes on in the mind and body of that person in new ways. This is a brave and much needed telling from the eyes of Depression.

I have another stack of other nonfiction books I’m reading this summer, but I’ll save that for another time. In the meantime, remember this: Summer is for reading. What’s on your summer reading list?