A Sci Fi Free, Slow Book Manifesto? Not So Fast

Yesterday, The Atlantic posted an article by Maura Kelly in which she advocated for everyone to read for at least 30 minutes a day. It’s a beautiful call to action. It’s just a shame she tried to steer readers clear of sci fi, fantasy, and other non-literary genres, even going so far as to use science to try to justify her snobbish and misguided argument.

Specifically, Kelly began her argument by saying

In our leisure moments, whenever we have down time, we should turn to literature—to works that took some time to write and will take some time to read, but will also stay with us longer than anything else. They’ll help us unwind better than any electronic device—and they’ll pleasurably sharpen our minds and identities, too.

She summed up her idea by paraphrasing Michael Pollan, saying, “Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.”

While Kelly makes an exception for using an e-reader, she stresses that non-literary books should be avoided. Why?

By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details.

She then goes on to refer to one study that said reading stimulates your brain and another that said reading a story by Kafka stimulated your brain more than reading a summary of the story. She then cites two psychologists who believe reading fiction helps us hone our social skills.

I’m all for reading. I’m usually working my way through several books at any given time, and I wish people would read more. But I go nuts when I see this sort of dismissal of “non-literary fiction,” i.e. sci fi, fantasy, horror, westerns, etc. First off, Kelly’s cited studies do not distinguish among genres of fiction. Second, the idea that sci fi and fantasy do not play with language, plot structure, and images is ludicrous. The words robotics, genetic engineering, deep space, and zero-g were all invented in sci fi. Ever used the phrase “newspeak”? Sci fi again (although 1984 has probably moved into the “classics” category now, despite the genre fictions origins). Did she not read The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi? How about anything by China Mieville? Talk about mental stimulation.

And don’t get me wrong. People should read the classics. Books that remain in the public conscious for hundreds of years do so because they are smart, wonderful, beautiful things. Read the classics, learn from them, and grow as a person because of them. But the idea that classics and only classics can provide stimulation is nonsense. I would put the best of sci fi and fantasy against the best of literary fiction any day of the week. I think Kelly should too. Perhaps she should rephrase: “Read books. As often as you can. Aim for the best in every genre.”