Reading Fiction

This post was originally written after judging a “Public” debate at a tournament last year. Having recently gotten several questions about Public debate form and style, I think I should probably re-post this as a short sample case. This is a simple, definitional-fact case, gussied up with a lot of pretty and congenial talk to build rapport with the judge(s).

This house believes that reading fiction is useless.

Of course, through a lens of existential autonomy operating within a de facto absurdist framework, nothing is particularly useful. People simply reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead won’t necessarily get more use out of it than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would get out of being read. So that’s part of what we want you to keep in mind as we explain our position: it is up to the individual person to add value, or usefulness, to their activities.

By way of resolutional analysis, we’d like to point out that the resolution is using the word reading, which indicates an active, present-tense verb. It is the actual process of reading. It is not learning to read using fiction. It is not reflecting deeply upon and writing analytical essays of fiction. It is nothing more than reading fiction. And we’re going to talk about why merely reading fiction is useless.

So our initial point of contention is that merely reading is useless, regardless of whether the matter is fiction or non-fiction. If valuable action or thought follows the reading, then the individual may attribute use to that, but specifically to reading there is no particular use. After all, what use is there in reading any particular thing? The matter of the printed word never amounts to more than, as Hamlet summarized it, “Words, words… words.” Now it would be right to say that I’ve put Hamlet to use here, but it was not the reading of Hamlet, but rather the employ of Hamlet — and this distinction is important because far more people have encountered Hamlet, read Hamlet, been subjected to the tragedy of Hamlet, than have used it to construct an argument in a debate. So the point here is that reading is not the same thing as gaining use of, and as long as that distinction is clear — which, through an existentially autonomous lens it should be — we’re clearly looking to the affirmation that merely “reading fiction is useless.”

But through that lens of existential autonomy, you — being a well-read jury of critics — may be thinking “But I don’t read anything that I don’t intend to put to use!” and I do not doubt it. But consider what you read: do you read high-literature in order to gain enlightenment? Or do you read bestsellers to stay engaged in popular culture? No matter what your ultimate reason is, what the ultimate use you put the book to is, chances are that you don’t merely read any random fiction that happens to have a compelling cover, by which you know you should not judge the book. And this goes back to our point: that merely reading arbitrary and random “fiction” is useless. Even our bookworm friends that do buy any random tome that strikes their fancy admit that thtere is no more value in their reading habits than killing the time that would be passing with quiet futility anyway. Surely such fine critics would be at least honest in the scope of their limited amusements, and cede to affirm that the mere act of reading fiction, for nothing more than the sake of reading fiction, is useless.

This reminds me of a story one of my friends told me. A while back, the book Infinite Jest (by David Wallace) was quite popular. The book is a thick and difficult tome, but people were buying copies and presumably reading them. Well one guy bought it. And read it — all 1100-plus thick, twisted and convoluted pages of it. And when he tried to discuss the matter of the fiction with the other people who had been packing around or casting knowing nods towards their copies of Infinite Jest, he found that he was the only one who had actually read the book: everybody else had given up a couple of hundred pages in and was merely posing as if they had made it through the mammoth lump of fiction. And so, being foiled in what he hoped to achieve after reading the book, it is amusing — at his unfortunately illustrative expense — that reading the fiction wasn’t ultimately valuable to him, or even transitively valuable to any of his classmates that merely nodded and winked their way past it.

And thus we affirm that reading fiction is useless. The mere act of reading doesn’t contain any particular use. Some people may be able to assign value to reading, but not to something that they would merely and dismissively describe as fiction. And beyond that, the ex post facto value of the reading cannot be genuinely determined until after the fiction is read, not as a matter of the reading.