At Literary Commentary, D.G. Myers engages Victor Davis Hanson’s question: Why read fiction anymore? He agrees it teaches one self-mastery, and contrasts this with a more common self-affirming method of reading.
I was wary of this answer, at first—not because I don’t agree with the idea of fiction leading toward self-mastery, or reading toward betterment of self, but because I’m skeptical of the need to find a “use” for reading, for literature, or for art. This is not to say that I don’t believe art and literature are goods and work, with their audience, toward the betterment of society (through the betterment of individuals, typically). I do. But when defenses of literature, or reading, or art fall back on the utilitarian, they’re in trouble: art as a societal good is not, I suspect and worry, a particularly effective argument from that framework.
Myers, however, elaborates on the idea of fiction as an ethical and social good as well as I could hope to:
Hence reading is self-mastery, because the self (and its affirmations) are held in check while the author (and his structures of thought) are fully attended to. True diversity in literature would be to read authors in circumstances as different from our own as possible, because we might then imagine ourselves as different than we are — not the creature of circumstances, but their master. Reading is fundamental, all right: to a person’s ethical development.
Literature offers, in Marilynne Robinson’s words, “the illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls.” It is a turning toward and standing silent—listening—the act of allowing another subjective individual to take, even temporarily, priority over oneself.
But if you’re interested, I encourage you to read all of Myers’ piece.