Joie De Vivre: A Case For Reading Fiction

More often than not, when I talk to people about what they read, I’ll hear something to the effect of “I only really read nonfiction. If I’m going to invest the time in a book, I want to get some tangible take away.” This makes me sad.

Given my proclivities as a child and young person, my advocating that people read more seems hypocritical. As a child, I didn’t like to read. I liked watching TV, playing GI Joes or Ninja Turtles, and watching TV. My father, who grew up a voracious reader hated it and once punished me for getting in trouble at school by having me read a book. I love that book to this day. In college, the switch flipped. As a double major in Political Science and Philosophy, I had a ton of reading assigned–dense, complex reading. I actually did it. For my electives, I opted to take courses in literature and English, because the books assigned were enjoyable novels. Most of my classmates didn’t do the reading; I read everything. 

After graduation, I still read a lot. I started every day of my job search period by reading some interesting book, not finding a job. I stayed engaged in philosophy and politics. I also received recommendations for fiction that lead me to some new interesting authors. I’ve never been the fastest reader, but I always try to keep a couple books going at a time. Usually something hard and objective, something more philosophical, and something fictional or story based. I’ll admit, getting a job and a life has meant that I don’t read as much as I would like, but I keep at it. 

A couple notes before I get into the actual topic of this essay. First, I have tried to use an electronic reader, in my case a Kindle. The practicality of having multiple books held in one sleek object was great. The Kindle saved space on my dining room, coffee and bedside tables to be sure. But, I just couldn’t stick with it. I like real books. I underline some, flip back pages, and concentrate better on a page than a screen. Mostly, I just like the feeling of an actual book. Second, reading is reading; listening is listening. While listening to an audiobook is certainly nothing to be critical of, compared to the myriad of other ways of spending your time, it’s listening, not reading. Does it feel easier than reading an actual book? That’s because it is. If you listen to an audiobook in the car because reading an actual book would take your attention dangerously away from the road, you’re acknowledging that you use more attention and are more engaged with actual reading than listening. If I say I’ve read a book, I’ve read it. If you listen to a book and say you’ve read it, that doesn’t count…in my book.

The statement “Nobody reads anymore” feels like I’m either an old man saying “kids these days” or a school librarian crafting a pitch for the next book fair. From an intellectual standpoint, I don’t think I have to make much of an argument. I think everyone knows that the next set of Nobel prize winners will have an office full of books rather than a browsing history strewn with TED Talks and Netflix documentaries (probably worth noting that the people giving TED Talks and making Netflix documentaries also have offices full of books).

The issue I’m taking up is perhaps even more fringe. Of the people who read the occasional book, no one seems to be reading any fiction! In order to be a big picture thinker, people read Sapiens, and maybe bulk up their intellectual cred by reading Homo Deus as well. In order to start winning at every turn in their career, people grab Crushing It or the Four Hour Work Week. In order to gain some insight into their emotional health, people read Daring Greatly or The Power of Now. All of these are great books to read, they actually come from a great tradition of nonfiction literature that addresses these topics, but they’re not the only books to read. 

I actually think there’s an argument to be made that reading fiction would make you a better producer of things. I could argue that engaging your imagination in a creative sphere for prolonged periods of time would allow you to problem solve in a more effective manner. I am not really interested in making that argument, but I just want to note that it could be made.

Joie de vivre is a french phrase that translates to “the joy of living.” If you don’t intrinsically know what the phrase is alluding to, the situation is worse than I thought. Joie de vivre connects to the actions in life that give us joy simply unto themselves without additional attachment– dancing to your favorite song, eating an exquisite meal, or simply enjoying a walk in the sun can all evoke a joie de vivre. The act has no aim outside of the joy you feel for experiencing life in that moment. When I read fiction that resonates with me, I am experiencing joie de vivre. 

One of my favorite authors is Haruki Murakami. He has written a  number of novels and collections of short stories that I’ve seen classified in the science fiction, fantasy, or mystery genres. While some stories start off in seemingly mundane ways, things usually get weird. The twists, turns, and developments often take jumps that bend the mind to fully understand where the story is going. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure that I get it. If you were to ask me my favorite books that he’s written, I would tell you Kafka on the Shore and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. If you asked me what those two books were about, I’d struggle to give you a coherent answer. That said, I do not waiver in telling you that I love those books. When I sit down to read some Murakami, I just settle in to read some enjoyable writing–I enjoy his rhythm; I enjoy his characters; and I enjoy it not needing to even make sense all the time. I simply enjoy the ride’s ride.

Am I a better coach, manager, or partner for reading Murakami? Fittingly, I don’t know. I may not be. I could have used that time learning new business strategies and mental configurations for a winning mindset. I could have learned some factual history that would give me conversation material for my next cocktail party. Instead, I spent that time imagining and interpreting; anticipating and judging; shifting and positioning. I may not have advanced anywhere, but I appreciated the ride. That gives me joy.