I love to read. Always have. To the point where as a little kid I would routinely get lost in the grocery store because I refused to put my book down even when walking and I wouldn’t notice my mom or grandma had turned off at some point.
I’ve noticed something though in my time spent within the circles of self-development and entrepreneurial minded folks – as much as many of them profess a deep thirst for reading so many disparage or at best ignore fiction.
Their reading lists are packed full of non-fiction, how-to books, motivational stuff, etc. with not a moment spared for a good story. I’ve had people tell me that reading fiction is a ‘waste of time’, or that it’s silly to devote hours to ‘entertainment’ when they could be reading something instructional. They say that, unlike fiction, non-fiction has value.
Fuck those people.
Not only does fiction have value, I’d argue it has a type of value that you can’t get from non-fiction. Here’s why you should make room for reading fiction again.
The Many Benefits of Reading Fiction
Whether you are a voracious reader like myself (I have such a close bond with my Kindle Paperwhite I named him Steven) or someone who considers getting through one short book a year an accomplishment, there’s so much you can get out of diving into a great work of fiction.
Reading Fiction Reduces Stress – Fiction reading is an excellent way to reduce your stress levels, something that everyone can benefit from. An ’09 study from the University of Sussex suggested just six minutes of fiction reading can reduce stress markers by up to 68%. Similar studies have noted that, while non-fiction reading can also reduce stress, fiction provided exponentially higher reductions in stress markers. It’s more relaxing to lose yourself in a story than it is to try to process and remember important information.
Stress is a serious factor when it comes to maintaining good health. Success in weight loss, getting stronger, learning new things effectively, maintaining productivity – all of these things are sabotaged by unchecked stress levels. Making sure to keep stress low is probably one of the biggest positive changes you can make in your life.
People who read regularly sleep better, show higher overall self-esteem, and report lower rates of depression. Making time for more fiction reading could actually save your life.
Reading Fiction Improves Your Vocabulary – All reading improves your vocabulary, but fiction reading does it best because for the vast majority of fiction word choice, sentence structure, and the composition of the prose itself is a concern.
Non-fiction, when it does improve your vocabulary, has a tendency to do so in a utilitarian and technical way. After all, that’s generally the goal – to get whatever information the author is trying to impart across to you in a way that is most easily understandable while possibly introducing some new terms for things or concepts you may be unfamiliar with. The focus is on clarity above all else.
In fiction the author stills seeks to convey a type of information, maybe particular emotions, better understanding of human nature, a moral about problem solving, or something like that. The difference is the goal of a fiction author is to convey that story as artfully and beautifully as possible. This builds both a reader’s functional vocabulary but also their sense of flow, meter, and adeptness in their use of language. Rather than teach technical words it helps expand the precision and depth with which we can describe the world around us and convey nuances in meaning.
Reading Fiction Boosts Your Creativity – What comes hand in hand with the expansion of vocabulary? A huge boost to your creativity.
Creativity, boiled down to its essence, is the ability to make connections between otherwise disparate concepts and ideas to forge something novel. (It should come as a hint that Latin ‘novus’ grew into both a noun for a fiction book and an adjective for something new and innovative.) Can absorbing a lot of non-fiction provide a lot of new ideas for you to start linking together? Sure.
Fiction does it even better though because fiction is nothing but ideas linked and scrambled into something interesting. It’s all ‘what if’s. What if a boy went on the classic hero’s journey but in space with a laser sword and (spoiler warning) what if the antagonist was his dad? What if magic was real and people got invited to go to a secret magical school via train in a castle in England? What if you could write down the stream of consciousness of people going about their day in Dublin but relate it to the structure of a Homeric epic poem? What if a woman and her son were trapped in a hot car in the midsummer sun by a rabid dog and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet?
Reading fiction cultivates your creativity in the same way that artists cultivate their skills by looking at and copying or mimicking beautiful paintings or drawings. Exposure to another person’s creativity is the best way to spark your own. It makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange exposing you to wonderful new things and forcing you to see the mundane from brand-new perspectives.
Reading Fiction Develops Your Theory of Mind – Theory of mind is one of the things that makes humanity special within the animal kingdom. It’s what sets us apart with chimpanzees, ravens, dolphins, and possibly elephants and pigs. Theory of mind is essentially the ability to recognize that another creature has its own mind separate of yours and then modeling it in your own mind to theorize about what and how they’re thinking.
Doing that might seem obvious to you now, but humans don’t pick that ability up until they’re about three or four years old. Kind of like an understanding of object permanency, it’s why small children think if they can’t see you then you can’t see them. The only thing that exists for them is their own mind and whatever they’re feeling or thinking everyone else must be too.
Theory of mind is vital for social interactions – and therefore vital for business and all sorts of other aspects of life. It cues you in when someone is trying to deceive you, because you can theorize that the grinning used car salesman is actually more interested in getting as much money from you as possible than he is in being your best friend. It lets you connect better with people because you can put yourself in the shoes of your significant other, family, or friends, and work through problems in a more cohesive way.
Fiction reading is on the very small list of things that actively improves your theory of mind. Studies have shown not only do the regions of the brain responsible for our theory of mind light up when reading fiction, but when tested fiction readers do far better at tests of theory of mind such as guessing emotional state from non-verbal or visual cues. Guessing at the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of characters and keeping straight all of the social ties and interactions within a narrative lets our brains practice those skills for use later with real people.
Reading Fiction Cultivates Empathy – If there’s something I definitely think we could use more of in 2017, it’s empathy. Empathy is similar to theory of mind, except instead of allowing us to postulate what the other person may be thinking, empathy allows us to connect with an understand what another person is likely feeling.
Why’s that important?
Empathy is one of the key driving forces behind people not being complete and utter dicks to one another. Empathy and understanding is a key force behind charity and positive social change. Empathy puts you in another person’s shoes so you can see the humanity with a person you might otherwise hate. A lack of empathy is part of what turns people into homophobes, racists, and serial killers. Not categories you want to be in.
Spending time reading fiction directly contributes to making you a more understanding, less shitty human being.
Reading Fiction Exposes You to Culture – Part of that increase in your capacity for empathy comes from being exposed to a wide variety of people in a wide variety of situations and being made to understand their personal struggles within them. Another part of it comes from being exposed to new cultures.
Fiction reading is an incredible avenue for being exposed not just to real cultures, but to constructed or fictional ones. Even fictional cultures have some kind of basis, intentional or not, in existing real-world cultural systems. Whether it’s experiencing a facsimile of classical Hellenistic culture through the Iliad, the racial prejudice of the southern U.S. through To Kill a Mockingbird, or even the ideas of family and honor presented by non-historical cultures like those in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, all of these things expose you to new ways of thinking and living.
Fiction from cultures outside of your own, even if they aren’t directly writing about their own culture, also broadens your understanding. Which is why I always advocate reading from authors with diverse cultural, racial, and national backgrounds.
Reading Fiction Builds Your Self-Confidence Model – When people reading fiction are run through an fMRI brain scan the same brain regions light up that would light up if they were having that experience firsthand. This is tied in strongly with why fiction helps us build both empathy and theory of mind, it forces us to experience something that someone else with a different background would experience.
Psychologists have found that this enables people to build internal models of self-confidence and fuel introspection and personal understanding.
Basically, reading about how some badass protagonist believed in themselves and stood up to defeat the antagonist despite overwhelming odds can contribute to making the real you more confident by providing a sort of comparison model in your subconscious to emulate. This process also allows for unbound self-exploration. Our normal day-to-day emotions are often obfuscated by the forces of peer pressure, normative expectations, and a thousand other factors outside of ourselves. It can make it difficult to understand how you actually feel about things and get in touch with your emotions.
Reading fiction creates an environment not only free of outside pressures (everything occurs entirely in your own mind), but also provides a safe analogue for examining your own emotions by letting another character experience them. Rather than go through the difficult process of coming to terms with emotions related to a trauma you’ve experienced, you can be a neutral observer as a character you identify with struggles with the emotions related to their own trauma. Through witnessing and experiencing their journey, you can learn about yourself without the fear and vulnerability normally associated with deep introspection.
Reading Fiction Improves Your Focus – The nature of the modern world is one in which we are constantly pestered and distracted by a thousand little things all constantly clamoring for just a few seconds of our attention. Being able to sit and really focus on a single task is an increasingly rare skill.
To learn how to focus better you have to practice focusing better.
What better way to do that than by committing to sit down with a compelling narrative and devote an entire hour (or however long) to a single, focused task like reading? The feeling of focus and the ability to tune out distractions that comes with getting lost in fiction is something that can be cultivated through reading and then applied to other areas like work or study where it’s a key tool for productivity. A little time spent reading fiction can mean more productivity later.
Reading Fiction Provides New Perspectives for Problem Solving – Exposure to all these new and myriad ideas and situations also benefits your capacity for problem solving.
One way of looking at the structure of fiction is to view it as an argument. The Dramatica theory of story structure for example is one method that I like of analyzing fiction this way. As an example, you could take Star Wars IV: A New Hope as being an argument about the value of trusting in your instincts. Throughout the story both sides of the argument are presented through the characters’ actions and, in the end, the story comes to the conclusion via Luke turning off the targeting system and successfully murdering hundreds of thousands of people on the Death Star that trusting your feelings is good.
When reading fiction we’re exposed to tons of these little mini-arguments and problems and presented not only solutions for them but examples of ways other people, real or otherwise, have approached the task of solving difficult problems and overcoming obstacles. This helps build in your mind a repository of different frameworks with which to tackle difficult problems. The wider variety of frameworks, the better the problem solver you become and the less trouble obstacles in your life present to you.
Making the Most of your Fiction Reading
The best part is, in addition to all these great benefits, reading fiction is fun.
It’s something most people will naturally enjoy. Even better when they’ve studied it they’ve found that all these benefits from reading fiction come no matter what type or quality you’re reading. You don’t have to be a huge snob and force yourself to trudge through Dostoevsky and James Joyce when you’ll get the same benefits from Brad Thor and Stephenie Meyer. I still think you should do your best to read from a wide range of genres and a diverse mix of authors, but you don’t have to read fiction you don’t enjoy to reap all the benefits – do what makes you happy.
If you need a boost of encouragement, or even some suggestions for new books you might like, Goodreads is a good place to check out for fiction reviews, recommendations, and a system where you can challenge yourself to read a certain number of books before the year’s end. You can try it out if you need that extra little bump of motivation although seriously with all those benefits I hope you don’t need more convincing to get started reading more.
Have any other benefits you think I’ve missed? Experiences of your own with the life improving effects of good fiction? Share in the comments! I love hearing from everyone.