Recently I've revised my opinion of the value of fiction over non-fiction books. In the past my thinking was that fiction was mostly worthless - perhaps a lowly three on the ubiquitous 1 to 10 scale (10 being the best/top/most valuable). My reasoning: the writer of fiction could manipulate and concoct any situation or events to drive the reader to his line of thinking, all possibly based on false, unreal scenes in the writing. Hence it was totally unreliable compared to non-fiction. Some modern fiction I read in the 1970s and 1980s supported this thinking. That writing was a waste of time.
[By the way, I always excluded potboilers like the mystery, spy and murder writing of people like Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming and Le Carré: those are read for fun, not learning.]
Mrs. B and some friends have battered away at that old prejudice for a couple of years. And then a few lectures on philosophical thinking of David Hume and Richard Rorty on matters of empiricism and pragmatism made the point convincingly that one must read "good" fiction" to understand the minds and feelings of others and also situations that one cannot experience with one's own senses. This thinking made sense to me, as my prior experience in reading Uncle Tom's Cabin supported it. To reduce the risks of being mislead by a fiction writer, the suggestion was made for me to just read older, established, well-regarded fiction. And I tried it, using suggestions of H. L. Mencken and some friends to make my selections.
Over the past two months, I read four books by winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature written before World War II and a few other well-regarded works. Of books by Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win that prize, I read Main Street, Babbitt and Elmer Gantry. Prior to these, I read the classic American novel, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. I also read a collection of short stories by Joseph Conrad. Finally, I just finished Buddenbrooks by renowned German writer and Nobel laureate, Thomas Mann.
I now hereby, publically and unequivocally, state that I was wrong in my low valuation of fiction. All these works were very, very good and believable and helped me understand much about culture and experiences of peoples in different times and places and social settings. I'll raise the value of fiction to a 6 for now. Next on my list: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, all in audio book form for the iPhone/Pod.
By the way, my qualification on sticking to only old, established and well-recognized fiction stands.
Word of the Day
"Omphalophysite" - noun [$10,000]; a Mencken word
Omphalophysite is pejorative word from the Greek-based combining form, omphalo- meaning navel, boss, hub. Hence an omphalophysite would be an ivory-tower intellectual with no practical experiences who focusses on his navel (metaphorically) aka obscure core fields. A synonym might be a pedant.
Sentence: (from The American Language by H. L. Mencken, page 63 top referring to attempts to bring American into harmony with English) "To the latter, the humorless omphalophysites of the American Academy of Arts and Letters address themselves periodically, and with great earnestness."