Let’s speak frankly for a minute: if you don’t read fiction–or worse, if you read bad fiction–you are short-changing yourself.
You could be missing revelations into human nature, behavior, and nuance that you might not otherwise be able to observe.
Further, you might be limiting your ability to empathize, to understand, and shift your perspective. If the only perspective you ever know is that of your own, and those immediately around you, how can you ever hope to “care” about people who are more distantly removed?
Citing us to recent examples, Charles Hill argues, in his 2011 book “Grand Strategies,” that literature has always, at least until the late mid-twentieth century, played a role in the lives of powerful men (and women) as they have grappled with the events and issues that defined, inspired and guided their lives and decisions. To mention just a few:
- Alexander the Great was said to sleep with, under his pillow, a dagger and the Illiad
- Mao, who burned countless books in the Cultural Revolution, memorized a library of texts, includingThe Outlaws of the Marsh
- John Adams read Thucydides (in Greek), as well as Swift, Shakespeare, and Cervantes
- Frederick the Great studied Homer’s Odysseus for guidance on how a prince should act
- Abraham Lincoln read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
- Laurence of Arabia, whose own Seven Pillars of Wisdom reads like an adventure, carried Malory’sMorte d’Arthur.
- John F. Kennedy was known to have carried a copy of The Prince with him in his breast pocket
Statesmen have looked at literature not only as another source of strategic insight but as a unique endeavor. Of all the arts and sciences, only literature is substantially and methodologically unbounded. Literature’s freedom to explore endless or exquisite details, portray the thoughts of imaginary characters, and dramatize large themes through intricate plots brings it closest to the reality of “how the world really works.” This dimension of fiction is indispensable to the strategist who cannot, by nature of the craft , know all of the facts, considerations, and potential consequences of a situation at the time a decision must be made, ready or not. Literature lives in the realm grand strategy requires, beyond the rational calculation, in acts of the imagination.
Indeed, one might question that person who says that he does not read fiction at all, whether they have the flexibility or imagination necessary in moments when decisions are difficult or inarticulately gray. Will they find themselves unable to shift as needs, facts, and issues change, to rigid and brittle at the decisive moment?
I’m not sure. I can only speak for myself: I read fiction for two reasons–first, and foremost, I enjoy it. Second, and perhaps more important, I read fiction to understand the world and to expand my mind. Human experience is too vast and diverse for me to experience and understand, at least not in one lifetime.
But I want to. I want to understand the life of the pauper and the President, the wife and the widow, the long dead and as yet unborn. Reading, especially great fiction, enables me to expand the scope of my views, experience lives I might not otherwise, and grow my imagination.
“Grand Strategies” by Charles Hill, focused on the literature and statecraft looks like a fascinating and interesting look into the ages, into history, and I look forward to reading, and rereading Dante, Twain, Defoe, Shakespeare, and “Publius” (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay) with that perspective.
- Grand Strategy — By: Peter Robinson (corner.nationalreview.com)
- What the General Knows That the President Doesn’t — By: Peter Robinson (corner.nationalreview.com)