Of Made up Deaths and Real Feelings, Is Reading Fiction Good for You?

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Article by: Lesalon Kasaine

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Let’s start from the most known and then work up to the least known. Fiction entertains. It gives an escape path from reality, a good thing when we need to eclipse life’s everyday pressures. That’s the known. But could there be more reasons why anyone, regardless of the chosen career path, should pick up a fictional story and immerse themselves into it?

In the T.V. show Game of Thrones adapted from A Game of Ice and Fire by author George R.R. Martins, death keeps striking when least expected. But what wowed me, elicited a chuckle out of me even, were the comments of rabid fans on social media. The fictional deaths hurt them. Pulse actually ranked these deaths from the most tragic to the least tragic.

I remember seeing my mother’s eyes well up over a fictional character’s death in a soap opera. I also remember getting really ticked off when the main protagonist in Jeffrey Archer's The 11th Commandment died. His name was Connor Fitzgerald. It’s easy to fall in love with Fitzgerald. He takes the reader through intense and dangerous missions masterfully brought to fruition with unbelievable ingenuity. Sadly, this CIA’s most bad-ass assassin who has another life as a normal family man dies. The reader envisions Fitzgerald, this genius creation in a novel, sprawled on a hospital bed with a bandaged bullet wound, the cruel stare of death on his pale face as his soul seeps out of his body. This hero who completes dangerous missions including using a hotel room as a sniper’s nest to take out a presidential candidate in Colombia, this wonderful family man in whose home readers are ‘ghost’ observers as he earnestly loves his wife and daughter, dies. Now that hurt me, gave me a mouthful of curses, and my pain was genuine. Spoiler alert machine bleeping. The writer then, chapters later, pulls a bedazzling stunt, much to the readers relief, Fitzgerald is alive!

These scenarios prove right a lesson I picked up from veteran novelist Peter Ochsner back in 2017 when we did a book reading at Lang’ata Women Prison, that though a fictional death is unreal, the feelings it stirs are real.

Why does fiction evoke emotions such that readers are sincerely hurt when a beloved character dies? Psychology and neuroscience explain that readers of fiction do not read to be informed. They read to experience emotions, to escape their own lives and to be inspired. The facts of the fictional world are irrelevant to their own lives, but the emotions they elicit, the ideas they generate, and the time spent away from the demands of their own lives are important.

A fictitious death can hurt because while reading, the mind processes the writings so that imagination is ignited. The mind and heart then react to what has been conjured up in imagination. That’s how powerful fiction is.

Fictional books have more than once sunk into the condemnation of being unproductive, those reading religiously scoffed at. What we may not fathom though is that fiction fuels imagination.

In his book, How to Be a Genius, John Woodward explains that it’s the right part of the brain that’s responsible for imagination. Human beings are visual creatures. We think in images, conjuring pictures of our thoughts in our heads. Look around. Every invention you see; from businesses, vehicles, phones, clothes, books, systems, buildings; all started as imagination from someone's mind. What reading fiction does is that it makes movie wheels turn in our minds and we see and experience what the writer has created. Fiction pushes us to exercise the right part of our brains responsible for imagination. Medical News Today marvelled that imagination is an incredibly useful tool that if tapped into can help human beings also overcome fear and anxiety, by making the body and mind react to what is being imagined.

Some other benefits of reading fiction include breeding empathy, as stories put us in the shoes of characters thereby fostering understanding; creating divergent thinkers who can solve puzzles; and disengagement from life’s pressures. Divergent thinkers who can piece together a puzzle are made when we read suspenseful works of fiction. For instance, while reading Kinyanjui Kombani’s Den of Iniquities, my brain kept trying to go ahead of the writer and piece together what was happening, predict an end game. I then enjoyed thumbing on through the pages to see the writer’s end game. That’s a good exercise for the brain. The ability of fiction to disengage the mind from stressful thoughts also has the capacity to help you sleep better. An article by Sleepadvisor, on why reading before bedtime is important, explains the relationship between books and sleep.

If imagination helps humans be inventive in whatever profession and create solutions, if it gives the power to overcome fear and anxiety, build empathy and provide healthy exercises to the brain; and if reading fiction ignites the imagination, then you tell me; is reading fiction advisable?