Disliking fiction

Another thing I found interesting in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was the character Christopher’s description of why he dislikes reading fiction.  When I posted about the theory of mind explanation of autism, I said that the description of children on the autistic spectrum as not engaging in imaginary play didn’t seem to apply to me.  I played make-believe a lot as a child, both alone and with my brothers– we would go outside and imagine that we were exploring another planet (with our pets being the aliens) or build Lego castles and mount attacks on the enemy, for instance.

But back when I was first learning about Asperger’s syndrome, I came across the idea that one of its traits is a lack of connection with fictional or imaginary things like stories.  For example, one (admittedly not rigorously scientific) online quiz for evaluating the likelihood of having Asperger’s includes the following items:

— When I’m reading a story, I can easily imagine what the characters might look like. (with the answer DISAGREE indicating that one is more likely to have Asperger’s)

— I find making up stories easy.  (expecting the answer DISAGREE from an Aspie)

— When I’m reading a story, I find it difficult to work out the characters’ intentions (expecting AGREE)

— When I was young, I used to enjoy playing games involving pretending with other children (expecting DISAGREE)

As I said, I don’t think I have much difficulty in these areas (except for “making up stories easily,” since that involves writing, and my few examples of fiction when I was assigned to write it in high school are hideous!  I hope any copies are buried somewhere deep!  🙂  )

But the character of Christopher, the narrator in the novel I read (who is, of course, himself fictional) had an interesting explanation for why he dislikes fiction in general, and it actually made me realize that I do have some hangups of my own about reading.  (I’ll get to them later.)

“I do not tell lies.  Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person.  But it is not because I am a good person.  It is because I can’t tell lies.


“A lie is when you say something happened which didn’t happen.  But there is only ever one thing which happened at a particular time and a particular place.  And there are an infinite number of things which didn’t happen at that time and that place.  And if I think about something which didn’t happen I start thinking about all the other things which didn’t happen.

“For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milk shake.  But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea I start thinking about Coco Pops and lemonade and porridge and Dr Pepper and how I wasn’t eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room and Father wasn’t wearing a diving suit and so on and even writing this makes me feel shaky and scared, like I do when I’m standing on the top of a very tall building and there are thousands of houses and cars and people below me and my head is so full of all these things that I’m afraid that I’m going to forget to stand up straight and hang on to the rail and I’m going to fall over and be killed.

“This is another reason why I don’t like proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.

“And this is why everything I have written here is true.”

There are a lot of interesting things I can identify with in that reasoning.  One of them is being very concerned about what is the truth and what is a lie.  This can really be a painful subject for people with autism (and is something I can probably post about later); we can have a lot of trouble with the idea that there are times when culture expects you to lie, or at least not tell the entire truth.  The rules can seem to change in every situation, such that it’s not possible to keep up with them.

Now, I do understand that there is a difference between lying and not speaking every single thing that is on your mind.  As a sinful human, a great deal of the things on my mind are better off not being spoken!  It’s possible to really hurt someone with careless speech, even if you are saying things you believe are true.  I believe that’s why the Bible says to speak the truth in love.

Telling a fictional story is not a sin either, or else Jesus sinned when he told parables like the story of the two brothers in my first post.  Interestingly, I do remember reading that there have been some Christians who believed that all of the parables Jesus told had to have really taken place somewhere at some point in history, because Jesus wouldn’t tell a story that didn’t actually happen!  I don’t agree with that point of view; one of the neat things about the Bible is that it shows God speaking to people through all sorts of genres– laws, history, poetry, proverbs, personal letters, and stories.  (Perhaps one reason he did this was because he made people so diverse.)

But anyway, there are other more subtle things that do give me difficulty when it comes to telling the truth.  One reason that job interviews make me terribly anxious is that they make me feel like I have to portray myself as someone that I’m not– to hide any possible weakness and only present the positives, and to act as if I’m sure of myself when really I’m not that confident.  A lot of the guides for being prepared for an interview seem to give that impression, as if you’re trying to fake the interviewer into hiring you.

Another interesting thing about Christopher’s view of fiction is that it seems to trigger a sensory overload.  Elsewhere, he explains that his mind remembers everything he sees, as if he’s storing it on tape.  The real world has more than enough to stimulate his mind; thinking about all of the things that could or might be opens up the floodgates to an infinite number of possibilities.  And the infinite is terrifying (at least, I’ve always found it to be).

I don’t have that sort of photographic memory, but I can identify with the feeling that Christopher is talking about.  Oddly enough, I have found that it is nonfiction that seems to evoke this sort of reaction from me, though.

Ever since I was in college (and maybe during the later part of high school), I honestly haven’t done much reading outside of what I was assigned to read in class.  I was a bit surprised to realize this, since I used to read a lot as a kid.  Now, most of what I read is either in astronomy magazines or on the Internet.

When I tried to think about why this was, I realized that one of the things that keeps me from reading is being overwhelmed at the amount of information that is out there– more than I could hope to absorb if I spent the rest of my life reading.  When I think about reading a book about a topic, whether it’s history, politics, science– whatever– I find myself discouraged by the fact that when I’m done reading, all I’ll have is one author’s point of view on the subject.  How do I know that there isn’t another book expressing the complete opposite position?  And if I read them both, how can I know which one is right?  They will both be appealing to information that is outside my knowledge.  I could very well be biasing myself worse the more I read.

I’m sure this reasoning sound foolish; I know that reading nothing certainly doesn’t help me stay less biased– in fact, logic says that the opposite would be the case.  But there is still a feeling of hopelessness and being overwhelmed with the amount of information that is out there.  How can I know where to start?  I’ve seen a lot of online arguments about topics like religion or global warming or history, and often one side will say, “You need to read Book X and deal with the evidence there before I will be convinced of your argument.”  The other side, of course, will say “You need to read Book Y and deal with the evidence there,” and nothing ever seems to get settled.

I also have trouble because I feel that I have to apply whatever I am reading about to myself, which often makes me guilty or sad, whether I’m reading nonfiction (where I wonder what my responsibility will be to act on what I’ve read) or fiction (where it’s very tempting to compare myself to the characters because I don’t have a very firm grasp on what is “normal”).

Interestingly, in both my and Christopher’s cases, the difficulty with fiction seems to be not a “lack of connection” as it is often portrayed but actually a connection that is so strong and intense that it is overwhelming.

I do think it would be good for me to read more, whether I’m reading fiction or nonfiction.  Some have suggested that reading becomes easier the more you do it, so maybe it doesn’t matter if I think the reading is doing me good or not at first.

And, of course, I do enjoy some reading– just as the character of Christopher likes mystery novels despite his dislike of other novels.

I’d be interested if anyone else has experienced these sorts of difficulties with reading, and what you do about it.


  1. Nathan,

    This is so interesting. I need to read this book. In common with you, I often feel at a loss reading or listening to political things. Not enough time to sort through every speech or piece of legislation, and pretty sure that every news source has at least some degree of bias. Fiction, though, is a world of escape for me. I must avoid too much of it and be very careful of what I start to read because it is almost impossible for me to stop reading, no matter how badly written or inappropriate.

  2. Thanks for your comments! It’s interesting to hear that I’m not the only one who struggles with the volume of information out there. I think that if Christopher’s one exception to not reading fiction is mystery novels, mine might be science fiction; it can definitely be an escape for me– an imaginative story can really preoccupy my thoughts (which can be good or bad).

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