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Is Fiction An Addiction?

James Wallace Harris

Staff Writer

James Wallace Harris is a retired computer guy. Jim dreamed of writing science fiction in his social security years, but discovered he loved writing essays more. Life is short and novels are long. He’s written over a thousand essays for his blog Auxiliary Memory. Jim wrote about science fiction for SF Signal before it folded, and now for Worlds Without End. BookRiot gives him the opportunity to write about all the other kinds of books he loves. Finally, he has all the time in the world to read and write, but he never forgets poor Henry Bemis. (Who also found time enough at last, until an evil Twilight Zone fate took it all away.) Twitter: @JimHarris28

As a lifelong bookworm, it’s disturbing to question my love of stories. Fiction, in the form of novels, short stories, television shows, movies, plays and idle fantasy, comes just after air, water, and food in my list of vital needs. Growing up, my alcoholic parents dragged me and my sister from state to state, in a restless quest to overcome their unhappiness. Yet, I had a happy childhood. Why? Because I discovered the wonders of make-believe at age four. Fiction is my heroin, capable of dispelling all pain and loneliness. Looking back, I realize how much I exchanged real life for story life. I’ve known about this dependency for a long time, but I maintain my habit. It’s probably too ingrained to stop now.

At some point we must ask ourselves if fiction is junk food for our souls. Too much of my lifetime has been consumed in make-believe. My friends talk about what they do, I talked about books, movies and television shows. I even prefer hanging out with other addicts, by being in four book clubs. When I die, and my life flashes in front of my eyes, a huge chunk of what I see will be me staring at a book, television, or movie screen. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. Is it an addiction? I think it is. Can I imagine my life without fiction? Yes. Would it have been better? That’s hard to say, but amazing to contemplate.

Obviously, some of us prefer imagined realities over actual existence. Is that a weakness? I don’t know. Fiction is creative. Fiction provides endless artistic permutations. On the other hand, don’t we often use fiction as a substitute for what we can’t find in life? Or more depressingly, does fiction mask the symptoms of a condition that needs to be cured?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe some novels are among the most beautiful creations in the multiverse. But don’t we also have to be honest, and question all of what we read? Haven’t you ever worried about binge TV watching, or questioned why you’re reading the nth novel in a never ending series? And if we psychoanalyzed our favorite genres wouldn’t it reveal what we truly want?

Do we actually prefer imaginary life?  Or do we shoot up fiction when we can’t find companionship, romance, sex, love, wonder, mystery, thrills, travel, or adventure in our mundane lives? I have many friends, been married 38 years, lived in a lot of places, worked many kinds of jobs. Strangely, when I look back, I often recall stories better than real events. For example, I remember more characters I discovered in books while attending K-12 than classmates. And I still hang out with many of those characters.

I’ve followed the space program since Alan Shepard’s first sub-orbit flight in 1961, and I’ve seen a Saturn V and a space shuttle take-off, but I find more wonder reading science fiction. I’ve rode horses, slept under open skies, shot guns, worked with cattle stringing bob wire fence and stacking hay bales, but I prefer watching old westerns on TV. Many times I’ve done things which could have gotten me killed or jailed, but now prefer excitement at the movies. I’ve had hitchhiking adventures, but now read Jack Kerouac. Maybe fiction is my current substitute for being young. At 64, I’d rather read about doing than do. Is that sad? Or just an indicator that my addiction is complete. Maybe, it’s only laziness and I should do more.

This is a strange topic to bring up on Book Riot. It’s like hanging out with your drinking buddies and asking, “Are we alcoholics?” But more interestingly, is fiction a negative or positive addiction? I’ve always considered stories a way to model reality, making it a cognitive tool for understanding a complex existence. I believe fiction is a negative addiction when we use it as a substitute for living, but a positive addition when its a communication tool for comprehending each other.