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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Don’t forget fiction on assigned reading list

Published: February 8, 2013
Section: Opinions

Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society, has changed its admissions criteria to include mathematics and foreign language classes as requirements. The organization should also add literature to its new class requirements. Here’s why.

Encouraging a diverse range of academic study, grounded in the liberal arts model, not only introduces us to new scholastic interests, but also strengthens our ability to understand complex and simple problems in our chosen majors.

College professors in history, political science, sociology and social policy classes assign a mountain of reading at the beginning of each semester, with some asking students to read more than 200 pages a week for a single class. The reading, nearly exclusively non-fiction, often echoes the hallmarks of scholarly writing: thesis statements, evidence documented by facts and credible quotations, verbose paragraphs and balanced, cautiously, fairly framed opinions. The best professors manage to distinguish their reading list by assigning relevant books with high quality writing.

But as readers, non-fiction writing can only get us so far. That’s because writers in the social sciences are taught to carefully trace their arguments, document them with sources and avoid unreasonable judgments.

But fiction, free from the restraint of acceptable standards, is often found easier to produce great writing—writing so specific that the reader understands by relating to personal experiences, not thinking about external ones.

I have always enjoyed writing, but throughout middle and high school I found fiction useless, boring and inapplicable. Listening to English teachers preach about the hidden meanings and literary devices employed in classic works held little appeal. Not until my high school offered a journalism class my senior year, did I truly enjoy English class.

In college, after three and a half years of reading hundreds of non-fiction pages each week, I realized what I now missed, four years after high school. Good fiction writing. Not complicated writing with long-winded sentences and fancy metaphors, just good writing.

I found it in Chad Harbach’s 2011 novel, “The Art of Fielding.” Harbach, an editor at the journal n+1, a magazine of politics, literature and culture, who spent 10 years writing his first novel, chose college baseball as his setting.

The cover sells this as a baseball novel, but it’s the pages inside that make it a book about people and self-doubt—the transformation from incredible confidence to unshakable doubt. Friendship, love, ambition, personal fulfillment—these are the topics of Harbach’s writing. Baseball is merely the metaphor employed to describe them.

Passages like these make the book difficult to put down, without picking it up again the same day.

“Only two balls were hit to Henry. Both times he double-clutched and made a soft, hesitant throw. Instead of rifle shots fired at a target, they felt like doves released from a box,” Harbach writes and continues, “The distance called for a casual sidearm fling—he’d done it 10 thousand times. But now he paused, ­double-clutched. He’d thrown the last one too soft, better put a little mustard on it—no, no, not too hard, too hard would be bad too. He clutched again. Now the runner was closing in, and Henry had no choice but to throw it hard, really hard, too hard for Ajay to handle from 30 feet away.”

Yes, the subject of the passage is baseball. But more broadly, it’s a paragraph about self-doubt, about hesitant decisions and second-guessing and over thinking.

Passages such as these make it impossible to close the book and not think about it. That’s what good writing does. It forces you to understand through relation, to understand without being told what to think.

I don’t mean to say that good writing can’t appear in non-fiction. Of course it can. But it’s extremely difficult. To do so, one must be an avid reader of good fiction writing.

While college students should be encouraged to read for pleasure, the reality of competing demands between school and extracurricular activities, between hundreds of pages of non-fiction and club meetings is that we won’t. Professors reviewing their reading lists should consider deleting those couple of scholarly writers who, despite their clear intellectual gifts, struggle to communicate them clearly and replace them with the novelist who can.

Incorporating more fiction into our non-fiction curriculum will strengthen the possibilities that await graduates of a liberal arts program. And next year, Phi Betta Kappa could consider adding one more requirement: classes that assign literature.