Why We Read Fiction

An instructor once told my class that A Confederacy of Dunces is among the best leadership books ever written. Huh? Really? I raised my hand. “I’ve read Confederacy and that’s nuts.”

Have you read this tome? If you’re from New Orleans, or ever been in a book club with someone from New Orleans, then you have. Otherwise, this obscure, Joycian ramble may have escaped your notice. A work of fiction, through and through, I couldn’t see why anyone would consider it to be about leadership. Leadership books are most often found in the Business section of the book store, and in the Dewey Decimal system under General Management.

Can leadership be learned from fiction?

The Marine Corps clearly thinks so. Orson Scott Card’s wonderful Ender’s Game has been on their reading list for years. The Navy seems less sure. None of their Essential books are fiction, although the Recommended list includes the classic Starship Troopers and Master and Commander. Retired Admiral Stavridis is famous as a voracious reader, and recently cited Generation of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov as one of his favorite books.

Stepping back, we should consider why we read fiction at all. We can read it to entertain us, to unwind, to engage, to delight. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, author Azar Nafisi proclaims that, “what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth”. Truth can be illuminated in fiction more clearly than truth can be found in reality. A non-fiction biography of Admiral Lord Nelson might tell us of his battles with Spain, his affair with Lady Hamilton, his final words and Hardy’s kiss.

Only in his fictional alter-ego of Horatio Hornblower do we learn about the fear experienced on the eve of action, the embarrassment caused by the lack of fortune, the calculated statements designed to endear the crew to their captain, the sick dread of watching a man before the mast taking his punishment at the cat o’nine tails.

We learn from Hornblower that our fears are not unique, that our doubts can be overcome, and that we too can learn to lead. Other fiction reveals other truths. Other shades of truth are illuminated by the fancy of the author and by our reactions to the characters.  Perhaps we learn more about the human condition by imagining how we might feel if we were in their situation and by filling in the gaps of their own musings.

What leadership lessons have you learned from fiction?