As it has for so many people, the pandemic has prompted some changes in my life, and one change in particular may prove surprising to some of my librarian friends and colleagues: I’ve resolved to only read the books I really want to read.
You see, I am an avid fiction reader. But I must confess that I have always been self-conscious about my reading tastes. As a librarian and reader’s adviser, I always believed that I had to read serious nonfiction and not just fiction to be good at my job. And in retirement I’ve had a hard time shaking that feeling, even though so much of what I have learned in life I've learned from reading novels.
Apparently, I’m not alone. Nancy Pearl, the most notorious reader in our profession, shares similar feelings of angst over her fidelity to fiction.
“I belong to a book group that has met weekly for the past four years, where we each talk about what we’re reading that week,” Nancy told me recently. “There are people in the group who mostly read nonfiction. And even though I’ve spent my life, or at least my career, assuring people that the definition of a good book is a book that you, the reader, enjoy, when it’s my turn to talk I’m always a little embarrassed. I find I still preface my choices by saying apologetically, ‘Oh, my book this week is just a mystery.’ Or, when I’ve finished rereading Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy for the umpteenth time, I feel I need to add that Heyer not only invented the regency romance but that she was a terrific social historian as well. No matter how many times I tell others not to feel apologetic about the books they read, there’s still part of me that does it too.”
When I was library director for Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) in Ohio, I would dread the weeks leading up to my annual January appearance on a local public radio show to share my top book picks of the previous year. Knowing I’d be joined by the book editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the owner of Mac’s Backs bookstore in Cleveland Heights, I would let anxiety drive my holiday reading. I should have spent the holidays with what I love: a delicious menu of mysteries, contemporary literature, and magical realism. Instead, I always found myself cramming nonfiction books to catch up.
In fairness, it was during those holiday nonfiction binges that I discovered many wonderful titles such as Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. So it isn’t that I don’t like nonfiction (I do). But, looking back, my life was 50 weeks of fiction and a desperate two-week binge of nonfiction so I could present as a well-rounded reader.
Why, though? There is an undeniable force in fiction that promotes compassion, empathy, and understanding. As young children, we are surrounded by story and encouraged to relish the rich, imaginative worlds created in picture books and to lose ourselves in the chapter books that are read to us. And it’s through these stories that we learn to read and learn to love reading, which is foundational to our broader learning and education. So what if a reader like me wants to remain in the world of fiction—that’s not a bad thing, is it?
Turns out, it isn’t at all. In fact, according to Richard Restak, my new favorite scientist (sorry, Anthony Fauci), a healthy love of fiction is actually, well, healthy.
Restak is clinical professor of neurology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and the author of more than 20 books on the human brain. I came to know him after reading his most recent book, The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind. And at the top of his list for supporting memory health as we age: reading more fiction.
“My conclusion about the effect of reading fiction came from my experiences with patients,” Restak says. “I noted that as they aged, they tended to avoid fiction, because they had difficulty remembering the characters, places, and actions.”
But rather than avoiding fiction as we age, we should actually lean in, Restak explains. Research shows that reading complex fiction with multiple characters and situations can actually lead to cognitive gains, precisely because it forces one to pay attention to character, plot, setting, and language, all of which provides vital exercise for the brain and helps with memory retention. Historical fiction related to one’s life experience may especially help support memory, as the easiest memories to retain are those connected to an image or emotion. “But it is not necessary to overdo that,” Restak stresses. “A simple plot with half a dozen or so characters can be also very stimulating.”
Speaking of memories, I vividly recall a popular statement emblazoned on T-shirts and tote bags at past library conferences: “So many books, so little time.” As I look to my own reading future, I am reassured that reading all the fiction I want is time well spent. But, as the slogan suggests, time can be hard to find in today’s frenetic, connected world full of distractions and responsibilities, and reading a good novel for many probably seems like a luxury.
Making the time to read fiction is important, though, Restak says. And he practices what he preaches. He really did make time to read fiction as he toiled in medical school and residencies, he says. And amid his busy research and writing schedule, he still sets aside time to read novels.
“I have always prioritized time for reading fiction,” Restak notes. “When in medical school, I read The Alexandria Quartet in the evening just before bedtime. Sometimes I could only manage part of a chapter and sometimes just a page or two, but I kept at it and finished that work.”
Recently, Restak read The Count of Monte Cristo with his wife—and enhanced the experience by listening to the audiobook as well. “I find that an audiobook is good for writing and maintaining an active writing career,” he points out. “While you are listening to the book, you can envision how the author probably wrote it in terms of paragraphing and punctuation, and it is easy to check these things by looking down at the book while listening to the audio version.”
Furthermore, Restak acknowledges that libraries and librarians have, and have always had, an important role to play in keeping people reading. “I think there is a role for libraries in motivating older people to become readers,” he adds.
So there you have it, doctor’s orders: read more fiction. Make time to read more fiction. Have a patron who only wants to read fiction? Go ahead, indulge them. And why not mix in some audiobooks to enhance the experience? This is one doctor's prescription I am happy to have, and one librarians will be eager to fill.