Ann Althouse, a legal blogger who can be found here, caused a furor by suggesting that teachers should use non-fiction instead of fiction to teach reading and thereby kill multiple birds with one stone (learn science and history facts, say, while practicing reading), and let kids explore storybooks outside of school.
Because I've made fiction my life's project, my first reaction was a bit of knee-jerk outrage -- but then I realized I don't completely disagree with her. Fiction doesn't appeal to every kid, and drawing practice materials from a variety of sources is a fine idea. Rich vocabulary and sentence structure can be found in all kinds of books, and even on the internets. And I don't remember encountering a decent piece of fiction in an English class until at least 8th grade. I wouldn't have minded missing all five volumes of that execrable "Adventures in Reading" textbook.
But I do object to leaving fiction out of reading lessons entirely, and for very specific reasons. Some kids, if not introduced to written narrative and storytelling early in their education, may never acquire a taste for it, and might be denied a huge source of cheap pleasure for the rest of their lives. Reading fiction when you're young teaches you to read it when you're an adult. I was lucky enough to have library-loving parents and shelves of Ray Bradbury at my disposal, but if I hadn't, would high school have been too late to uncover a love of reading? I think it might. I wouldn't be surprised if lots of kids I went to elementary school with thought literature began and ended with "Adventures in Reading" -- and who could blame them? After years reading no fiction except for that, The Scarlet Letter would seem even more impenetrable than it was for those of us who liked reading. (I had to open my window to the January night and stick my feet out of it in order to stay awake by the end.)
(Could the latest trouble the publishing industry is in have anything to do with the fact that the current crop of potential book-buyers were taught to read with truly horrible textbooks? There's hope for the future, then, once the whole-language kids move on from Harry Potter and start buying books on their own.)
And fiction teaches some excellent, if subtle, lessons. There's the basic one: Other people have some of the same thoughts and feelings as you do, and its relative: Other people have lives that are incredibly different from yours. Ann Althouse would no doubt think these pretty weak, namby-pamby lessons (one of her objections to reading fiction is that "it's not tied to economic success in life" -- can't argue with that!) but if our culture is lacking in one thing, I'd say it's empathy. I could be wrong, but I can't help but think that if GWB were a big reader of fiction, he might have a few qualms about such things as Shock and Awe. But that's another post.