One of the many reasons I love working at the Hero’s Journal is that, as a “nerdy” company, I can claim reading fiction is business research. But even when I was working as a corporate marketer, I would read fiction. And not just on my lunch breaks, or in my car—I would read fiction at my desk, and encourage everyone I knew to read fiction too.
It’s not just because I like fiction, or find it entertaining. I actually think fiction is important, and offers us something that nonfiction cannot. That’s because fiction has one huge, distinct, overwhelming advantage: it’s not limited by reality. Real life is hard. It’s complex, nuanced, and hard to understand. Any attempt to understand real life events is limited by your ability to figure out what happened, your perspective, and your memory. And that’s if you were there—most of the time, we’re trying to piece together real stories from somebody else’s broken memory, trying to triangulate what really happened.
Fiction isn’t limited by that, which makes it a powerful tool. In fact, if you go back thousands of years, people weren’t writing down history. They were writing stories, archetypal adventures and myths that played out absolutes against each other and taught powerful, practical lessons, the kind of lessons that only fiction can teach.
Today, I want to share 7 of my favorite works of fiction and some of the lessons I think they can teach us in the 21st century.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
On the surface, the Hitchhiker’s Guide is a viciously funny sci-fi romp across a lighter side of our galaxy. But underneath the jokes, absurdism, and spaceships is a real work of genius, a reflection on postmodernism, nihilism, and what it means to live out your favorite stories. Douglas Adams doesn’t offer a solution so much as an approach: the ability to not take what is happening so seriously and embrace the improbability of life in the 21st century. From ripping into intellectualism in the form of the ultra-smart and ultra-depressed android Marvin to poking fun at meta narratives with the Ultimate Improbability Drive, the Hitchhiker’s Guide provides a meaningful way to fulfill it’s primary directive: don’t panic.
- The Odyssey, Homer
Coming in as the first of a handful of books I pretended to read in high school and didn’t understand until much later, I actually think the Odyssey is the quintessential modern story. The hero has, in a sense, already accomplished the task of destiny (overthrowing the walls of Troy) and now must find a way back home. And while on the surface, it might seem like a story of the unluckiest man of all time, I think the real story is that of Odysseus having to face his internal inadequacies shown through the lens of external problems before he can live in peace.
- Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield
This is a little bit of a cheater, because Gate of Fire is closer to historical fiction, but I think it’s one of the timeliest books on this list. Pressfield tells the story of the battle of Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans—but rather than just being about epic one liners and youtube-worthy battle scenes, he tells the tale of Spartan society and asks the quest: is there such a thing as an idea or virtue worth dying for? And if so, what is the nature of that virtue or way of life? While this book is about battle, and the gore and violence associated, its real power comes from the quieter moments, the display of true virtue in unexpected places.
- The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
If you’re anything like me, conversations of literary theory, poststructuralism, and sign/signifier don’t exactly “spark joy.” And yet while the philosophy behind those ideas can be inaccessible and, well, boring, we all live in light of their effects, trying to figure out the relationship between words and meaning. They Crying of Lot 49 is the kind of work of fiction that takes a great conversation—that of poststructuralism—and puts it into the form of a novel, allowing us to experience and content with ideas that are normally limited to the academy.
- The Fall, Albert Camus
One of the lesser known (but I think potentially best) books by Albert Camus, this book doesn’t just echo Dante and explore absurdism, I think it holds a powerful lesson for what it means to get too caught up in the theory of the 21st century to the point of failing to live your life. The Fall explores the extreme of the bystander effect, the personal hell someone can trap themselves in when they spend so much time wondering whether not they should act that they never do act.
- The Chronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis
I love these books, not only because I grew up with them, but for their simple beauty, optimism, and imagination. So many books, from the classics to the others on this list, are long—very long, and with good reason. And yet Narnia manages to capture a kind of childhood joy with beautiful landscapes and simplified worlds, bringing complex ideas and theories back to their places of origin: our imaginations.
- Moby Dick, Herman Melville
I know. I know. Bear with me. This book has a reputation for being impossible to read, up there with Infinite Jest and Les Miserable for being long and drawn out. And yet I also think it’s why this book has to be on this list—because it’s exactly the kind of thing only fiction can do. Reading a book like Moby Dick requires immense faith in the author, the belief that, despite how difficult the book is to read, the author knew what they were doing when they wrote it. Moby Dick is, at times, drawn out and boring—because life is the same way. And in order to teach you about what it means to be destroyed by the thing you spent your whole life pursuing requires that kind of dogged determinism. That kind of set up in order to tell that kind of punchline.