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Fiction tells truths beyond information

Published: Friday, Oct. 5, 2012 5:00 a.m. CST

(MCT) — Fiction or nonfiction?

That is the question.

Is it nobler to fill your mind with so-called informational text or to take arms against the sea of facts and say, “Just tell me a good story, dammit”?

Or — to put it without the Shakespearean cutesiness — which is more important, fiction or non?

As Diane Rado reported in Tuesday’s Tribune, that question is playing out lately in states across the country, including Illinois.

Under new curriculum standards, grade-school students, who for decades have been nurtured primarily on fiction, are being put on a reading regimen that’s half nonfiction. By junior high, even more nonfiction.

By high school, 70 percent nonfiction.

In with the fiber of facts, young citizens! Out with the cream and sugar of made-up stuff!

Teaching kids to read and analyze nonfiction is a good idea. There’s a vast world of words and ideas beyond “The Hunger Games.”

Students should be taught to read a news story, a political opinion piece, a Wikipedia entry, a biography, a set of instructions.

I am the first to admit that reading Nancy Drew did not prepare me for understanding the manual that came with my smartphone.

And students need to learn how fiction is different from nonfiction, even if a generation strenuously schooled in this distinction spells the demise of the memoir industry.

But there’s an irksome undercurrent in the fiction-vs.-nonfiction debate, and that’s the suggestion that fiction is primarily distraction, diversion, the dessert, not the meal.

Not that those who are pressing for more nonfiction in schools are saying that. Not exactly. Clever teachers, now and always, use fiction and nonfiction to illuminate each other.

Those are the teachers who know that if you want to understand, say, the history of American race relations, it helps to read some “real” history as well as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Those teachers also probably understand that the novel is likelier than the history text to burn itself into a reader’s mind.

In the push toward nonfiction, there lurks a notion that information is more valuable than invention, that nonfiction is the truth and fiction just a fantasy.

If you like to read fiction, as I do, you’ve probably had this argument.

“Fiction?” some fiction hater scoffs. “Who has time for fiction?”

The fiction hater is often someone who nevertheless has infinite time for yet another pointless analysis of exactly what Mitt Romney meant when he said “47 percent.”

What the fiction hater tends to underestimate is the power of a well-told story. Stories are our best teachers. Facts without story are like Scrabble letters that don’t make words.

Good nonfiction writers know this. Show me a great nonfiction writer, and I’ll show you someone who has read a lot of great fiction, someone who has learned that communication involves something more mysterious, more musical, than mere information.

I recently read a novel and a short story collection by the Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz, who, incidentally, just won a MacArthur genius grant.

While reading, I Googled the Dominican Republic. I remember almost nothing of what I read on Wikipedia. But I remember the fictional stories — the feeling of the Dominican Republic, the feeling of being an immigrant child — as vividly as if I’d lived them.

That’s what good fiction does. It tells truths beyond the facts. It accesses the recesses of your mind in a way that no information text ever will. It helps you to care.

Fiction has plenty of fiber.

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