When I’m in the Mood for Fiction

September 30, 2010 | 12 3 min read


covercoverMy appetite for fiction comes and goes and recently it’s been hard to find. It’s no coincidence that during this period in which my bookmark has not moved from page 87 of Emma I’ve been feeling a little like Ishmael at the beginning of Moby-Dick, possessed of the urge to step into the street and begin knocking people’s top hats off. I have a hard time enjoying fictional characters when I’m feeling dreary towards the people who inhabit my real life.  When I think about these recent months, and other times in my life when fiction has held less appeal, it occurs to me that a yen for fiction is something like my canary in the coal mine, an early indication, when it’s ebbs, that something else is wrong.

Over dinner the other night I asked my wife Caroline to describe what moods, for her, correlate with a desire to read fiction. After a moment she said, “When I’m feeling stimulated, I like to read fiction, and when my life feels sterile, I don’t.”  This rang true to me and I think it captures one of the essential paradoxes of fiction and art more generally: that to engage it requires a withdrawal from life, but to appreciate it requires a deep immersion in that very same thing.

I was feeling sterile last week on a night when I spent hours working at the very tedious task of formatting a long outline on the computer. It was the type of mind-numbing process we’re all familiar with, and by the end of it I felt like a very thin man with a very narrow outlook on the world.  As I tried to fall asleep that night, I found that my whole life felt like one large unimaginative outline: Bullet points for the errands I needed to do the next day, bold 14-point headings for the things I hoped to accomplish over the next five years.  In this limited state of mind, the idea of reading fiction was not just unappealing—it was completely incomprehensible—in the same way that aspiration must make very little sense to a cat.

All forms of desire have their natural enemies and I find that nothing saps my desire to read fiction like the Internet does.  This is partly physiological—too much time at the computer withers my brain—but it’s partly dispositional, too.  After the last round of primaries a couple Tuesdays ago, I spent an hour reading articles about the Tea Party. When I came up for air I was in an explicitly present-tense state of mind where anything written more than an hour ago seemed to be based on a world that had already been subsumed.  Novels, which require a willingness to attend to more enduring themes, don’t hold up very well by this perspective.

Politics as a whole has a fairly degrading effect on my fiction drive. It’s not just that it’s depressing to watch the way Congress operates—it’s that it’s depressing in such an unredeemable way.  Fiction can be depressing too, of course, but there’s something intrinsically optimistic about the process by which tragedy and frailty are turned into art.

There’s no similar silver lining when reform legislation gets gutted by special interests, (even writing the term “special interests” I can feel a requisite vigor drain from my body), or the country slides deeper into another foreign quagmire.  One friend I talked to about this said that he had the opposite impulse, that he inclines towards fiction when he can’t bear to look at the world anymore. I get this, but I also think that the impulse to create fiction, and to read it, derives from a fundamentally hopeful place—in which life is interesting enough to write about and meaningful encounters remain possible.  If it is ever known that the world is sliding irretrievably into ruin, I don’t think I’ll be reading a novel on the way down.

The more I’m engaged with life—and particularly with other people—the more I want to read fiction.  At the peak of a wedding reception or in the throes of a night out when the crowd has given itself over to celebration, I often want to sneak off and read a novel. It’s a contradictory impulse, to want to retreat into a book at the precise moment I am most enthralled with life, but such are the circumstances we live by.  What I’m after, I think, is a kind of synergy that can only happen when I approach a novel while my body is still charged with the feeling of being present and alive.

coverAt the same time, several of my most memorable encounters with fiction have taken place when I’ve been my most alone. In January 2008 I spent a month in Florence, South Carolina volunteering on a presidential campaign. The days were long and tiring, but it was exhilarating to feel like I was midstream in history. Late at night I’d return to the attic bedroom where I was staying in the home of a local resident and I’d read Anna Karenina until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I’ve rarely had so clear a view of the outline of my own skin as I did then, reading about Anna’s fall and Lenin’s angst in a house where everyone else was asleep, in a town where I didn’t know anyone’s last name.<[1]

During that same conversation a few nights ago Caroline said “When I have a lot of space in my life I want to read fiction.” Space, she continued, is not the same thing as emptiness, and it doesn’t take a mountaintop or a weekend with no plans to find it. By space I think she meant both a sense of where she is and an awareness of the contingency that sprawls around her. These are the eddies in our days where fiction takes hold, the quiet of our apartment after our son has gone to sleep, the afterglow of making love, when we know that we will be moving on, but not quite yet.

Back | 1. I realize this story might seem inconsistent with what I said above about politics having a degrading effect on my appetite for fiction.  In this case I think the important distinction is between passively observing the problems with the world, and actively working in support of something I believed in. The latter disposition, wherever it strikes, is a good one for reading fiction, I think.

(Image: Human highway, image from pagedooley’s photostream)

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at growingsideways.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. Right now I am reading, zilch. I have a novel by a hometowm author I am having a hard time getting into. I may be the only person in the world who can’t seem to get past page 23 of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”.

    My genre tastes teeter from one side of the spectrum to the other. I can read the latest commercial piece and devour it in days unable to stop. Actually, the more I think about it, I read mostly commercial fiction. I often sit and want to read more literary stuff, you know the smart books. But once in the store I gravitate to the latest Nicholas Sparks cry fest or some murder mystery.

    I read to pass the time of the real life around me on the El to work. I read to escape the family unit, I read to remind myself that life is fiction.

    I’ve decided to read “The Bridges of Madison County”, again. It’s inital simplicity always gets me. I need a good book that begs the question, what would I do?

    This weekend I will be away for a writing event. I will have the latest Nicholas Sparks with me. And I can’t wait.

  2. I quit my job a little over two years ago and moved to the Rocky Mountains for two reasons: to enjoy the outdoor life (hiking and skiing mostly) and to read quality fiction. One could fairly say that I have largely disengaged from life–or at least the adult life I led for 25+ years–but this has not at all diminished my desire to read fiction. I love having the time to read slowly, time to read multiple books at one time, time to savor and think about what I am reading, time to reread books, time to do all the things related to reading that I never felt I had the time to do before. I feel like the luckiest guy alive.

  3. I find the urge to read fiction is the urge to connect deeply, to engage. It is the same mood, whether it be manifest toward real people in this world, or imaginary folk in others. It satisfies the same need.

  4. I’m completely dependent on fiction to escape my daily commute. I find the experience of being engaged in a good book vastly preferable to being engaged in the experience of spending forty-five minutes on the F train.

  5. I live to read. I do other things but nothing except working with/being with animals brings me home to myself as reading does. I knew a woman some years ago who half-kidding said she wished she could go to prison for a few years so she could be in her cell and read. I have always worked just enough to pay my quite modest bills and put a small amount aside every month–I semi-retired in 1997 in my early 40s so I could read more. It is one of the best decisions I ever made. Money cannot seduce me, or knock me off track. People say time is money. I say money is money and time is time. Give me time.

  6. Maybe you should try something a little less boring than Jane Austen or Tolstoy, if I had to read Emma or Anna I would be disengaged from fiction too.

    Pick up Freedom or anything by Lydia millet.

  7. I have just seen Nicholas Carr ( on Slowtv) talking about his new book The Shallows…. He talks about deep reading about about how the internet is rewiring our brains: Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) tells Gideon Haigh, @WheelerCentre http://bit.ly/cH9VxU

  8. I can completely relate to this, especially since I too am very engrossed in politics and current events in general, all of it usually online.

    I think back on my youth and even high school and remember how much fiction I read in and out of the classroom. It boggles the mind, because for a while now I’ve been reading almost none. I may read 1-2 fiction works in a calendar year, that’s all. In that same time, I will read maybe 5 non-fiction books, countless articles online, many issues of The Atlantic, Columbia Journalism Review, etc.

    Sometimes I worry about this personal trend. Do you worry as well or are you just observing this behavior in yourself somewhat disinterestedly?

  9. If I ever came to a point where I found that reading fiction wasn’t a big part of my life, I would be concerned. And while I dont think that’s going to happen, I anticipate the next couple decades when I’ll be in my 30s and 40s and raising kids will be busy ones. I could imagine how opportunities to read fiction would become limited when I’m wrapped up in so much present-tense activity. But I hope not.

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