Sometimes, I feel like I spend most of my life trying to escape from physical reality. As a kid, I was one of the bookworm types, devouring volume after volume with an insatiable hunger. I immersed myself in a world of fiction, meeting and falling in love with characters who I felt were even more alive and real than I was. I yearned for people and places who didn’t even exist. I was moved to tears and made to smile by words on a page. With every visit to the library, I lived a hundred more lives.
I enjoy genres that are generally considered “escapist fiction”, such as fantasy, romance, and science fiction—anything that’s wildly different from my typical day in the life. However, especially as I’ve grown older, I found myself surrounded by the notion that escapist fiction is inferior to more “serious” literature. It felt almost like a guilty pleasure, nothing more than a source of casual distraction and entertainment. Now, I’m discovering that the value of genre fiction comes from the subjective truth it reveals.
After I reached a certain age, my parents started pushing me to read more nonfiction books. They told me that the fiction I preferred was too frivolous and lacking in any useful real-world knowledge. This led me to view reading for pleasure as a waste of time and something to be pushed aside in favor of more “serious” pursuits. In my sophomore literature class when we were asked to introduce ourselves with our favorite book, I said I didn’t have one. I did, but I was too embarrassed to say Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series instead of something like Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Over the years, and especially over the course of the pandemic, I’ve realized that fiction doesn’t need to be reminiscent of real life to be valuable. There’s a common misconception that escapist fiction is far removed from reality, but I would argue that it is simply a different kind of truth about another aspect of reality.
As a computer science major, I’m constantly viewing the world through a logical lens. If I follow the rules of programming and implement everything correctly, the returned output will behave as desired. On the other hand, literature occupies a very different realm; it’s subjective and open to interpretation. When my technical classes are causing me grief and stress, I’ve found myself gravitating towards literature as a place of comfort. I think studying a field in STEM while enjoying fiction has allowed me to see more clearly and appreciate the coexistence of physical reality and fictional truth. While computer science and science in general is focused outward on the world around us, fiction holds a deeper internal truth.
Part of the reason I find myself so enraptured by fictional characters and worlds is because I see parts of myself and my reality reflected in them. I love the feeling of reading a string of words that somehow perfectly encapsulates a particular feeling or experience that I wasn’t sure anyone else had ever felt before. I keep a collection of quotes that have punched me in the gut and left me breathless when I read them. Some of my favorites are: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good” (East of Eden, John Steinbeck), “But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything, what a waste” (Call Me By Your Name, André Aciman), and “He is half of my soul, as the poets say” (The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller). It’s a very human tendency to relate things to your personal experiences, and there’s beauty in the way that fiction allows you to discover these connections on your own.
Fictional ideas and characters have changed the way I’ve approached my personal growth in life. For example, I’ve always had a lot of unresolved resentment towards myself for letting my identity be shaped by other people’s perceptions of me, so when I met Helene Aquilla from Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series, I was enamored. With all of her flaws, and even though it’s been years since I first began the series, I still conjure her up in my mind and think about her glorious character development when I’m convinced that I’ll be stuck in this version of myself forever.
Escapist fiction can also serve as a mirror by creating worlds that we can revisit at any time. Every few years, I reread the entire Percy Jackson series and become obsessed all over again. It’s my number one comfort series. Even though I already know the entire plot, I still find myself hanging onto every familiar word, reliving the same feelings I felt the last time I read about Annabeth and Percy falling into Tartarus together. Even more exciting is discovering all the new emotions and reactions I stumble upon with each reread because each time I’m reading the story from a new perspective. It’s like the height chart on the wall of my childhood room with dozens of pencil marks telling the story of my growth. In the same way, rereading my comfort books measures my personal growth throughout the years as I come back to the same world. It helps me discover more about who I am and how I fit into this world.
For me, the value of escapism in fiction comes from its ability to make you think and feel in ways that keep you in touch with your inner reality.