It’s that time of the year again, when our elected representatives head off on holidays and newspapers are groping for copy. The result is the standard ‘What are our politicians’ holiday reads?’ where our pollies nominate the books they just haven’t had time to get to during the year. The Age managed to move with the times by recognising that summer is also a time for catching up on missed TV, so it combined reading and viewing when it braced our gallant parliamentarians in its ‘What your politicians are planning to watch and read this summer’ article on Sunday 28 December, available online here.
These articles appear like clockwork at this time every year, and every year I notice the same extraordinary patterns. As in previous years, almost every book nominated is non-fiction. History, international relations, economics, biographies and, yes, politics, dominate the reading lists put up by our chosen few. They’re, good, weighty, worthy tomes, no doubt with many pages, printed on both sides.
What troubles me is the almost total absence of fiction. While I have no reason to doubt that Clive Palmer is going to whip through War and Peace, as he nominates, only two fiction titles really get a gong: The Narrow Road to the Deep North and The Game of Thrones (despite the fact that there is actually no book of that title …). Two fiction titles, seven non-fiction. This is actually an improvement on previous years when no fiction titles were deemed worthy of inclusion.
This concerns me. A wealth of recent research has established firm connections between reading fiction and establishing and maintaining a sense of empathy. Empathy. That vital capacity to feel what another person is feeling, to see things from another’s situation, to feel what another is feeling. Fiction has the immersive power to put a reader into unfamiliar circumstances in ways that no report, inquiry or white paper ever will. Through fiction we can feel the pain of the dispossessed, the anguish of the bereaved, the joy of the welcomed, and we can feel this in a way that affects us deeply. We are moved by fiction.
So it disappoints me to see that our politicians, the ones who need to be in touch with other lives, are eschewing fiction. I’d like to see them read more stories. It might help.
By the way, out of a total of nine titles mentioned by our politicians, only two of them were Australian books. Make of that what you will.