Have you ever noticed how certain book-ish characters in novels and movies often tend to be all-around smart — like about everything — even if the only thing they read is fiction? It’s a pretty well-accepted stereotype that reading books makes you super-smart about all sorts of things (and it’s a pretty well-earned stereotype, too).
As any reader can tell you, novels can definitely teach you a lot about a wide array of subjects beyond vocabulary, grammar, and fantastical stories. You might learn about Russian history from a Tolstoy novel, or about complex physics principles from a play about a reimagining of a meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. You can even pick up a bit of chemistry from Agatha Christie and some behavioral psychology from Frankenstein. So, why not just skip that boring school thing and spend your days reading novels instead?
There’s no doubt that it would pretty much be the coolest thing ever you could ditch the hall passes and textbooks and just learn everything you’re taught in school from novels instead. Unfortunately, it turns out fiction is… well… fictional. So, although you might learn a little real herbalism from Harry Potter, you might be surprised when your mandrake root doesn’t actually scream.
Here’s what it would actually be like if you tried to learn everything you learn in school from novels instead:
Chemistry Would Require A Whole Lot More Eye of Newt
From Shakespeare to Harry Potter, there’s a whole lot more alchemy and "brewing" in fiction than there is modern chemistry. So, rather than titrations and centrifuges, if we learned chemistry from novels, we’d more likely be mixing up Polyjuice Potions and life-extending elixirs. But, never fear, old mystery novels like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie’s tales are full of real, if morbid, chemistry. So, you’d at least learn a thing or two from the likes of Christie on how to concoct a dose of strychnine from the contents of your local medical pharmacy…
You’d Learn All About 4th Dimensions, Fractals, And Fibonacci Sequences But Never Learn Your Times Tables
Math isn’t usually the primary focus in fiction, but when it is it’s not the stuff you learned you grade school. Hell, it’s probably not even the stuff you learned in your required freshman year college math course. Nope. The math nerds of the literary world go big and confusing when they bring math into their novels. Edwin Abbott’s Flatland takes on the idea of the fourth dimension, even Dan Brown brings Fibonnaci sequences and golden ratios into his mystery novels. If we learned our math exclusively from fiction, we might be able to solve big world-altering mysteries, but we’d never be able to split the check at the restaurant.
What am I saying? Nobody has ever successfully split the check in real life either.
Zombies, Vampires, And Aliens Would Make Up the Bulk of Biology Studies
Science fiction reigns in the literary world when it comes to covering topics of biology. So between the likes of Max Brooks’ World War Z, Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, and the Twilight series, the literary biology student would quickly become an expert on the biology of zombies, aliens, and vampires. And as any sci-fi nerd can tell you, there are some pretty complex and widely different types of all three, so you'd definitely keep busy.
Computer Science Would Be Renamed “Anti-Cyber Apocalypse Hacking”
...which is probably what most of us who aren’t computer scientists kind of assume computer science is all about anyway. A day in the life of a programmer means typing magical words on a keyboard and single-handedly taking down the evil corporation using the the new virtual reality system to take over the world.
You'd Learn You Actually Can Rewrite History
If there’s anything fiction writers love to do, it’s rewrite history. In real life, history is so fixed and unchanging (though there’s some really cool revisionist history that’s always flipping the script). If we learned our history from novels, we’d know so many different versions of history it’d be hard to keep them straight. Did Martin Luther start the Protestant Reformation? Or did he become a Roman Catholic Pope like in Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration? Did a time traveler stop the assassination of JFK, like in Stephen King’s 11/22/63? Yep, that’s right: We’d have to deal with all those well-meaning time travelers always mucking up things, too.
Physics Would Just Not Be A Thing
All the way back to Homer and definitely before, you’ve got all sorts of magic — flying gods who live in the sky, mortals walking through the nine circles of hell, talking animals, and humans traipsing about the universe willy nilly breaking all the rules physics worked so hard to figure out. With all that magic floating around in novels, all those rules physics imposes on the universe would just implode. So, hey, at least you wouldn’t have to learn physics!
Engineering Would Mostly Mean Robots.. .And, Of Course, Robot Feelings
Although I’m pretty sure that’s what engineering means in the real world too, right? Robots? Well, it most certainly does in literature. From Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to Asimov’s Robot series, it seems all that the engineers are doing in novels is building robots… robots that eventually go haywire or develop feelings and start massive rebellions. Which is why anyone interested in engineering would clearly also have to get a solid psychology education, like the famous fictional robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin.
For Foreign Languages You Would Choose Between French, Latin, Elvish, and Dragon
Latin crops up everywhere in literature, from the spells and cleverly crafted names in Harry Potter to the frequent uses of if in Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man. And in tons of European novels the heroes and heroines are often dropping French words left and right. But for the more adventurous student, literature has more exciting languages to offer up… like J.R.R. Tolkien’s well-crafted Elvish language, or the ancient language of the dragons in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea. Of course, LeGuin doesn’t actually write out any of the dragon language in her novels, but clearly that’s just because you’d have to become a dragonlord first, duh.
Literature Would Get A Whole Lot Weirder
It’s maybe one of the funnies things about literature, but, it turns out, there are a lot of books in novels. In Borges’s Library of Babel, for example, there’s a whole library of every possible 410-page book in the universe. But even in stories not about libraries, there are plenty of fictional books, and sometimes they get a little strange. If we learned about literature from novels, we’d probably have no idea who Leo Tolstoy is, but we’d probably all be familiar with Gilderoy Lockhart and his series of books on everything from hags to vampires and trolls. And, of course, every responsible adult (and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Reader) would have a copy of the Encyclopedia Galactica at home. To study literature would mean to study all the books that never existed...
Images: Giphy (9); Warner Bros. Pictures