I finished ‘The Kite Runner’ by Khaled Hosseini recently, in less than three days. I finished the entire first part in under two hours, from midnight to two am, when I casually selected something to read as I could not fall asleep. Those two hours whizzed by without me even noticing. Indeed, I didn’t move at all that whole time – my physical body might as well have been nonexistent – instead I was focused intently on nothing else but the next page, my eyes frantically scanning each line in order to move the plot forward in order to find out what happened next.
THAT is what I call reading. It’s a perfect example of an engrossing page turner that makes you care for the characters within, and ties your emotions to theirs. It’s hard to put down. Even when you do, you spend the interim thinking idly about the characters, about the world, about how you would do things in their place or how they would do them in yours. The book has a magnetic pull over your thoughts, and whispers to you seductively in your free time the same way video games used to do to me back in middle school.
It’s not impossible for nonfiction books to do the same, but it’s much more difficult, as the authors have to play by the rules of reality, and reality is generally not as interesting as imagination. The Kite Runner is a magnificent example that straddles both worlds, in that all the ethnic groups, national events, and sentiments displayed in the book are real things, even if the concrete events it portrays are not. Historical fiction is a special genre in that way – it can take reality and embellish it in a believable manner.
Because of the Kite Runner, I learned about Pashtuns and Hazaras, where Kabul is, about the tradition of kite fighting, and that Afghanistan was a mostly normal place before 1979. My knowledge of a Persian friend’s traditions like tavla and communal smoking strengthened my understanding of those same pastimes as depicted in the book. My conception of Afghanistan beforehand was that of a typical American’s – a war torn land filled with people who lived lives diametrically opposed to our own. But while reading Part 1, it sounded similar to the suburban life I know, with a few cultural changes, like inviting everyone you ever knew to your birthday party or going to the market to haggle over kebabs.
Look at all the positive things that came out of this little made up book. Firstly, it entertained me to a degree not often achieved by other works of art, in that I literally lost myself in its pages. Secondly, it taught me facts about a culture that I had next to no knowledge about. And thirdly, it made me emphasize with people who are normally displayed to me as enemies burning american flags in caves. I realize that the actual characters in the book never existed, but Khaled Hosseini did base all of them off of experiences he actually had, given that he had a life similar to Amir’s in many ways.
THAT is the power of fiction. I know many people who claim that reading fiction is a waste of time- that you cannot learn anything from it, that you would be better off spending your precious attention on learning something you can use in your life, like a skill or knowledge base. Those are all great things, and I am all about self improvement and learning. But fiction can do those things as well, along with a mental hook more powerful than any self compulsion you could whip up. It illustrates the real world in ways that the world cannot – a well written narrative puts you right there next to the characters, in their heads. You are tied far more intimately to the characters than you ever could in a movie or other art form, because you are actively involved in creating their world inside your head
A strong imagination is be the most important thing that fiction brings, with which to illustrate that world. That same imagination can be used to think creatively, to visualize ways of thinking out of the box that others cannot, or simply to improve your own writing, as you have more examples of prose to draw on. Don’t dismiss fiction. If you do, you’re just reading the wrong books.