Over dinner in California last summer, a friend of a friend said to me (somewhat condescendingly), “I don’t read fiction. It’s a waste of time.” At the time, I refrained from getting into an argument, mostly because arguing over Peking Duck is a very sad thing.
However, I couldn’t disagree more. Especially when working abroad, works of fiction are directly applicable to my life.
Some of it is directly applicable to understanding development scholarship. While I am in Honduras, I am reading a number of books on development theory, including the very prominent (and excellent) The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly. Easterly opens each chapter with a quote from Great Theorists of the past, including this one, from chapter 2:
“It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it is true” – Bertrand Russell
Of course, he could have just as easily inserted this one:
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”
That’s Sherlock Holmes, from A Study in Scarlet (Part 1, chapter 3).
Another book on development theory is Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, which discusses the widening global income gap and the necessity or targeting development interventions to the billion people in the world who he describes as being “below the income ladder,” in countries that have not yet mobilized their economies by taking advantage of globalized trade. A prime example of this is failed states (think Somalia) and states that have been devastated by civil wars. Nations torn apart by civil war usually lose decades worth of infrastructure improvement, which cripples economic development, As Collier says,
“Civil war is development in reverse.”
“The opposite of war isn’t peace; it’s creation.”
Fiction can do so much more than relate to theories. Fiction broadens our horizons and allows us to experience the world as others do. When Wilson drifts away from Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away, we relate to his desolation and loss. When Marius sings about the “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables / where my friends will sit no more” in the Broadway adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, we feel the pain of losing friends to war.
For me, though, the most powerful moment are the small ones, in which authors somehow reveal something about their readers. In a favorite book of mine, I was devastated when a character who had been keeping a diary in miniscule, cramped handwriting (so as to maximize the pages of his single notebook) finds one morning that he has run out of ink. In another novel, a young woman tells the main character, “I’m not all that afraid of becoming someone else. What scares me if the thought of never being able to return to the person I am now – and even forgetting who that person is.” These moments unlock small, evocative terrors and teach us about ourselves.
I can’t think of something that feels less like a waste of time.