I have several friends who read voraciously, but do not read fiction. Vasari said that in every picture, painters portray themselves, and the same is true in literature. It is easy to believe that a factual author produces factual work, but it is actually very rare for anyone to manage objectivity, and those who write about their beliefs and perceptions even more rarely. A work of fiction and a work of alleged fact are portraits of their authors.
Fiction is a remarkable arena. It is not simply the telling of amusing stories to wile away idle moments - though it can be reduced to exactly that. Great fiction is an examination of ideas. It is a gymnasium for the mental muscles, just as good factual writing is. Somerset Maugham opined that the greatest psychologists are writers of fiction. He was probably right. Cervantes, Rabelais, Dickens, Hardy, Thackeray, Trollope, Eliot, Ibsen, Huxley, Hesse, Kafka, Camus and Orwell all contributed immensely to the comprehension of humanity, as have many others. In reading their work, we meet them and hear their conversation, and we are asked profound questions about our own approach to the world. And our approach to the world may ultimately be the most important thing about us.
My friends believe that they are serious-minded. There is a certain austerity to their uptake of stories from books of history rather than fiction. An assumed nobility of aim. They will not waste their time with imaginings when they could instead be consumed by statistics. I challenge anyone of this disposition not to be moved and challenged by Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – in its original rather than its multiple popular forms. Putting aside the beauty of expression, Swift meets all sorts of human convictions head on, and, given a touch of humility, anyone will benefit from meeting this great man, and considering his deep doubts about our species.
I could point to the origin of many scientific hypotheses through the pages of literature, or the spread of important ideas, but most importantly the great story reaches the heart and illuminates the mind in a way that few books of fact ever can. The answer is to read both.