In Praise of Reading and Fiction

Last October, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize for his writing about the political power struggles of Latin America. In an article following the award, The New York Times called Vargas Llosa an “anti-totalitarian intellectual whose work covers the range of human experience, whether it is ideology or eros.”

This week, the acceptance speech the author delivered, titled In Praise of Reading and Fiction, was made available in print. Its topic, while perhaps “not surprising,” “presents a big argument,” says critic and professor Alan Cheuse.

That argument? Why fiction is valuable.

Vargas Llosa certainly does not write exclusively in fiction. But works of imagination are the ones which the author treasures most. He considers why this is so and recalls:

I learned to read at the age of five in Brother Justiniano’s class at the De la Salle Academy in Cochabomba. I remember clearly how the magic of translating the words in books into images enriched my life, breaking the barriers of time and space.

Furthermore, the author believes that fiction has helped his country and others embroiled in political and military conflict imagine themselves into a different way of being. “Without fiction,” he declares,  “we would be less aware of the importance of freedom in making life livable.”

Curiously, the same year that Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel, the American novelist Philip Roth won the International Man Booker Prize. However, Roth is now claiming that he no longer reads fiction. In an interview with the Financial Times of London, Roth said,

I don’t read it (fiction) at all. I read other things, history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did. I don’t know, I wised up.

As Alan Cheuse points out, Roth is hardly the only novelist or fiction writer to turn up his nose at what was once his craft. Tolstoy and Chaucer, among others, also renounced their former livelihoods. But it is their fiction we still read, and what makes those authors immortal.

Where do you stand? What role does fiction play in your life? Is it still meaningful or, like Roth, do you feel that fiction has outlived its usefulness?

Before you make up your mind, follow Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s advice: “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”