Why read fiction?

We must make more time for fiction if we want to imagine new possibilities – for ourselves and our region, says Durham Book Festival chief executive Claire Malcolm

Why should you make time to read fiction when there are so many other demands on your time? You should make time for reading because there are so many other distractions and demands. Reading is an open window through which you can temporarily escape, without going anywhere.

Reading has done many things for me. As a child from a working class background and the first one in my family to go to university, books alerted me to the possibilities outside of my own world. Both my parents and my two nanas read a great many books, all borrowed from the library or from a small, unofficial circulating library of dog-eared Catherine Cooksons that we owned.

My own reading began in our local library with picture books and the Famous Five and then moved onto Agatha Christie and Stephen King. I remember very vividly the day our local librarian said that I could now venture into the adult section of the library. Lacking any knowledge or guidance I read randomly through the fiction section. These adult books alerted me to how the middle classes lived and often perplexed me with their psychological ideas and complex families and relationships. The lives these characters lived were so interior, so magical and so unlike my own. They allowed me to imagine different possibilities for my future and showed me how they might be achieved.

Photography by o5com under Creative Commons licence

Photography by o5com under Creative Commons licence

Now that I run a writing agency and spend my working and private life surrounded by books I still read for the same reasons: For inspiration, for guidance, for knowledge and for sheer unadulterated pleasure.

Cheeringly, scientists and researchers have now proved that reading is good for us, and for society. Reading fiction helps promote empathy and develops our brains to understand others, it improves our educational chances and in low-income families children that are read to, and who read are more likely to be socially mobile. In summary: Reading makes us happy and it helps to make us better humans.

Our shared reading culture has never been stronger, reading groups grow and online GoodReads and Book Tube are enabling readers to share the books they love. Digital isn’t a threat to reading; it’s just another way of feeding the interest.

Back in the analogue world I’m deliriously happy to be overseeing the giving away of 3,000 copies of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, as part of Durham Book Festival this October. My dream is that the gifted books set off many reading journeys like my own for the recipients.

To end, some recent things that I’ve learnt from novels: Sometimes it’s just not possible to recover from childhood abuse (A Little Life); anthropology is an art as well as a social science (Euphoria), the Jimmy Savile scandal is much bigger than the man at the centre of it (In Plain Sight), and what it felt like to lose your son in WW1 (Greenbanks).

That is why I read.

Claire Malcolm is chief executive ofNew Writing North and Durham Book Festival, which runs until17th October at venues across Durham City and County Durham. You can follow her on Twitter.

What have you gained or learned from reading fiction? Tell us in the comments section below – by clicking on the little speech bubble.

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One thought on “Why read fiction?

  1. “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot” – George Eliot, “The Natural History of German Life”, Westminster Review July 1856

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