Why should anyone want to read novels and short stories about people who never really existed, the things they never really did, and the problems they never really had?

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This question calls for a matter of opinion more than an objectively correct answer.  My own view is that there are a number of reasons why someone might want to read books or stories about completely fictional characters.

First, people might want to read such works as a means of escape.  For example, imagine that you have a job that is very stressful.  You might want to read fiction as a way of allowing you to escape from that stress.  Reading about the fictional adventures of pretend people could serve this purpose.

Second, people might want to vicariously live lives that are not available to them.  Imagine that you are a man in today’s world where there is little opportunity for men to engage in activities that make them feel very physical and masculine.  In such a situation, you might want to read about cowboys or soldiers or other sorts of men so that you can imagine what it would feel like to live a more “manly” life.

Third, you might read fiction because it allows you to consider various aspects of the human condition.  The previous two reasons for reading fiction apply more to popular fiction than to literary fiction.  This third reason, by contrast, applies to literature.  In works of literary fiction, authors are typically trying to explore the ways in which human beings act in various situations.  If you are interested in human beings and their natures, you might want to read fiction as a way to enjoy someone else’s (the author’s) views on human nature.

Fourth, you might read fiction for its artistry.  Again, this applies mostly to literary fiction.  You might read Hemingway, for example, because you enjoy the way that he paints pictures in your mind even though he uses very short and simple sentences.  You might read because you like the way a particular author uses metaphors and other figurative language.  This is similar to the idea that you might watch a particular filmmaker’s work because you like the way they use camera angles and lighting.

All of these are common reasons why a person might want to read works that are wholly fictitious.  Some people might think this is a waste of time, but there are clearly many factors that can make reading fiction very rewarding. 

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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As you clarify it, that is a really interesting question you pose, William Delaney. I can think of three reasons: themes, ways to be and culture. Themes, if the literature is well written, make an impression on the reader even when not a student of literature and not attuned to the fine points of "theme." Sometimes profound and wise life lessons can be learned from literary themes. Take, for example, a particular theme related to Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

While it is buried under more attention getting themes, like the irresistible one of the "superman," it should not be overlooked that Raskolnikov has a penchant for rescuing strangers from burning buildings, both figuratively and quite literally, which presents the theme of noble though excessive self-sacrifice: Self-sacrifice vs. Self-preservation. This propensity for self-sacrifice costs Raskolnikov his livelihood, his objectivity and, ultimately, his health and sanity. It can be argued that reading and discerning this theme in early adulthood might spare a lot of noble but naive people from similar unintentional self-destruction through excessive self-sacrifice at the expense of self-preservation.

Ways to be and culture are closely tied together, so, briefly, learning that men and women behaved differently to each other in different eras can and should dispel popular notion that Americans, as they are now, are the way people have always been and how people are meant to be. Notions like non-working wives and "real men" could not stand up under the magnifying lenses that earlier and other cultures throw across the vision of contemporary America. Development of education would have to fall under serious scrutiny when American childrens' cognitive and memory development are viewed against that of children in other cultures and eras.

In summary, then, breadth of life and understanding--developed through literary themes, characters' portrayal of ways to be and ways for cultures to be--are some reasons why non-literary men (or women) should read literature. [This concept can also be developed from the other direction, what to stop being, as is the objective in The Farming of Bones.]

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"Books transmute life into truth." It has been observed that without William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov, people would not know how to interpret life. How often, as Emerson observed, do people recognize their own thoughts in those of great writers, who simply have formed thoughts in magnificent ways and given them life for the rest of us?

Fictional people are, indeed, real; they are simply composites of many human characteristics. For instance, who has not recognized King Henry VIII or even Richard Nixon in some of Shakespeare's plays, and the family hypochondriac in that family in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard? The characters of Charles Dickens are often so real one suspects that they may walk off the page. (Some of us have worked for Scrooge, had to deal with the likes of Thomas Gradgrind from Hard Times? So often the reader learns history in visiting the classics such as the Greek plays and legends.

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chrisyhsun | Student, College Freshman | (Level 1) Salutatorian

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The “novels and short stories about people who never really existed, the things they never really did, and the problems they never really had” can be summarized as the genre of fiction works. Despite the people, events, and issues not being “real” in the practical sense, they are reminiscent and applicable to the people, events, and issues we may face in everyday life. Fiction gives readers a space to think about different issues from different points of views without being directly engaged. Additionally, fiction gives readers a space to relax and disengage from the issues of their own lives. Among the more fantastical parts of fiction such as fantasy and science fiction, readers can escape the mundane nature of their own lives and let their imaginations run.

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acompanioninthetardis | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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Thats a really good point and this leads to opinionated answeres. Im just going to say that if we were to follow that same logic then why do you watch tv shows about people that never really existed things that never really happened and problems they never really had. 

For some people they read books to entertain themselves to look at different possibilities a persons life can take them in when they are put in a situation. Some people do it to learn more about what they would do if they were put in a situation the main charecter was in. Others do it to realize and kinda put themselves in other peoples shoes people who may go by a different name but may have gone through similar problems that the main character went through and the readers may want to experience that to be able to simpathize with similar people better.  

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that yours is an excellen answert, as far as it applies to people who like to read fiction or to watch drama. But I was mainly thinking about the many people--men especially--who cannot understand how anybody could take an interest in people who don't really exist and in problems they couldn't possibly have, since they aren't real people. Some men really cannot comprehend why others take an interest in imaginary people and imaginary situations. Incidentally, I am not one of those men--but I think I can understand their point of view. They are realists and very much goal-oriented. If they read any fiction at all, it is usually of the escapist type, and they never can develop good taste in creative literature.

Thank you for answering my question. 

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