There have been many people in the past ten or so years who have either implied or straight out said that they think reading fiction is a waste of time. I don’t think they were exactly condemning fiction, just letting me know that they felt a certain level of guilt when they spent time or brain energy reading a novel. As a to-do list lover, I understand that feeling to some extent. Even so, I still confidently say, “Literature and stories have changed my life for the better.” It could take hours to fully flesh out this statement. I think there’s plenty of research to show how valuable reading quality novels is (like this article about readers being empathetic or this one about reading fiction to improve brain function), but I’m not going to argue on that kind of scholarly level today. Instead, I’m going to give some concrete examples of wisdom I’ve gathered from literature. These are pieces of wisdom I’ve gleaned recently and long ago that I’m actually putting into practice in my everyday life right now.
1. Hungry boys need bread and butter.
I have a five-year-old boy. I am not lying when I say he is always hungry. I’m not sure what I would think about this as a mom, having only grown up with girls in the house, if this conversation from Anne of Avonlea between Anne and Davy (who is six) hadn’t stuck with me:
“Anne, I’m awful hungry. You’ve no idea.”
“I’ll get you some bread and butter in a minute.
“But I ain’t bread and butter hungry, “said Davy in a disgusted tone. “I’m plum cake hungry.”
“Oh,” laughed Anne, laying down her letter and putting her arm about Davy to give him a squeeze, “that’s a kind of hunger that can be endured very comfortably, Davy-boy. You know that it’s one of Marilla’s rules that you can’t have anything but bread and butter between meals.”
Well, if even Marilla can admit that little boys must have something to eat between meals, then I guess it’s a fact. Let them eat bread and butter! (or something equally wholesome).
2. Get your work done in the morning.
D.E. Stevens has many practical and plucky characters in her books (and I like or love them all). I read The House on the Cliff a couple of weeks ago, which featured as a side character the delightful Mrs. Chowne (whom I have irreparably paired in my mind with Mrs. Patmore). At one point in the book, the main character finds Mrs. Chowne up very early and asks her why, and Mrs. Chowne replies, “I like getting up early on a nice bright morning. The work gets done much quicker if it’s done early.” So true. Anytime I make a to-do list, if I don’t get the majority of it done before lunch, it typically doesn’t get done, or if it does, it takes a dreadful amount of time. I don’t know how to explain this, except that Mrs. Chowne is simply right.
3. A little time away from children can help you love them more.
There’s nothing like feeling completely smothered from morning til, well, morning, that makes me grumpier. Especially in those years when there’s a newborn needing me all night and a toddler or two adding to the neediness all day, I feel like something in me is going to crack. But once everyone is (mostly) sleeping through the night, sanity returns. As Kelly Corrigan writes in The Middle Place, “I wake up with Georgia just inches from my nose, urgently notifying me that Claire is ready to get up. I always love them best first thing in the morning, having forgotten something critical about them in the night, something gorgeous and utterly lovable.” After a good night’s sleep when nobody wakes me up, my children’s eyes seem more beautiful, their skin more exquisite, their voices like music. That’s the light at the end of the tunnel during the all night-neediness years.
4. Tidying up a sickroom will make the sick person feel better.
Near the beginning of Little Women, Jo goes to visit Laurie for the first time. He has been housebound with a bad cold for a week and needs some cheering up. When Jo comes in, she looks around and sees that the room Laurie has been confined to during his sickness is nice, but definitely in need of her help. She says to Laurie,
“I’ll right it up in two minutes, for it only needs to have the hearth brushed, so,–and the things made straight on the mantel-piece,so–and the books put here, and the bottles there, and your sofa turned from the light, and the pillows plumped up a bit. Now, then, you’re fixed.” And so he was; for, as she laughed and talked, Jo had whisked things into place, and given quite a different air to the room.
Having been under the weather myself for the last three weeks, I can tell you that this made up piece of fiction is absolute gold. Even if you are the sick person and you can only make your bed before you get back into it, just doing that will lift your mood. A few days ago, I undertook to clear all the junk out of the corners and along the walls of my bedroom in a burst of energy. Even though I had to spend more time resting later, I felt a peace about me that wasn’t there when the room was cluttered. Something to remember for the next time you or a loved one is sick. (On the other hand—I have certain loved ones who would be straight up annoyed if I came to visit and started cleaning the bedroom. Know your sick person…though sometimes it’s a risk I’m willing to take…).
5. Don’t Think Too Hard At Night
This one might be the best. It’s from a children’s book with a not-so-wise-sounding title: Bing Bong Bang and Fiddle Dee Dee. There’s a lot of good stuff in it, though, for kids and grown ups. Here’s the part I hope to remember until my dying day:
“The morning is wiser than the evening. And the light is better, too.”
How many times have you been lying awake with a problem or worry running circles in your mind, and it’s actually gotten better thanks to your nighttime thinking? Or have you had an argument at night that didn’t only get worse the more you talked? Personally, this has never happened. Problems or disagreements stretch at night like scary black shadows, but in the morning, they are once again just the size of the thing they really are and they can actually be dealt with. Maybe you’re getting the idea that I’m a morning person, but I think this is pretty much universal–problem solving and argument resolving are daytime events.
Have I made my point yet? Sure, this wisdom is always true, whether it’s put down in black and white nonfiction or told in a story. When it’s in a story, though, it has a way of etching deeper into my mind and proving its worth. That’s why I don’t think fiction can ever be called a waste of time.