4. Why Read?
There are many reasons for reading fiction, most of them bad. The worst is probably a sense of duty, the idea that somehow you ought to read fiction in a way that it isn’t so necessary to watch TV or listen to your iPod. Doing this, you gain nothing, bore yourself and mentally mangle things worth more than mangling. Almost as bad is reading in order to know what everyone else is talking about. You devote evening after evening to the latest winner of the Booker, Orange, Costa, Betty Trask, Somerset Maugham or whatever prize and come away feeling that you’ve never read anything since Pride and Prejudice in the Fifth Form. The ugly side of this coin is reading so as to have read more than the people around you. It only works because they feel guilty about not having read all the books they ought. If you want to bully your friends, there are less time-consuming ways of going about it.
Good reasons are pleasure, curiosity and trust in the book to create a new curiosity.
Those apply equally to much else, but fiction can do one thing others can’t. The writer of fiction can be able to have the kind of nebulous, historically determined collective unconscious of which each of us is a unique part – like a Venn diagram of billions – send its charge down through his pen and onto the page. Freud wrote that all of his theories were prefigured in the 19th-century novel, and it is habitual for discoveries or advances in the study of the human to appear in fiction first. For example, when the idea gains widespread acceptance that the language of therapy and the opening of the private sphere have become the traps they were intended to spring, people reading David Foster Wallace will ask themselves, hang on, when was this written? I don’t want to suggest that the writer is no more than an amanuensis. This charge is refracted by passing through his ego and it is his skill that draws an ever greater force down onto the page.
If you want to know that actually looks like, read fiction.