“Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex storylines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar ice caps.”
I feel like there’s a perception that in order to be well read, particularly in the world of leadership and personal development, you should only read nonfiction. Many people with voracious reading habits commonly make the same mistake: They hardly, if ever, read fiction. Some of them even brag about it! I mean we can all probably find a productivity bro that proudly says they haven’t read fiction since they were forced to in high school.
It wasn’t until bschool where I took a course called Leadership Through Fiction, that I realized how powerful fiction reading can be. I remember sitting among skeptical MBA candidates while we read What Makes Sammy Run, and watched Game of Thrones. That was reenforced when I took Ryan Holiday’s Read to Lead course and an entire module was devoted to fiction.
Too many people want to know the secret sauce of the successful. They want to know exactly how this or that billionaire made it, want the “real” stuff. Hell, even I’m guilty of proclaiming that a nonfiction book allows you to download decades into days.
The characters in fiction look nothing like what we know? We’re too busy to waste time reading about yearning, and feelings, and complex experiences, and all that stuff. We can’t justify sitting down and trying to make it through the plays of Shakespeare. Where are the “takeaways”??? How do I possibly make Romeo & Juliet actionable for my business??? The Invisible Man can’t teach me how to increase my conversion rate.
We’re kidding at this point, of course, but the larger point remains the same: people will twist themselves into knots to find an excuse for why they don’t read fiction. Why they don’t need to. And they’re all nonsense.
“I’ve never read a novel. That kind of reading annoys me.”
—Adolf Hitler (super glowing endorsement to shun fiction right?)
Fiction is where the real knowledge is! Great novels, like all wonderful art, are filled with little bits of insight about the human condition that are worthy of pulling out and thinking on. Fiction can change your life and teach you just as much as any non-fiction book. Like Fran Leibowitz said, a book should be a door, not a mirror! Oh and fellas, I promise you if you pick up a romance novel you’ll start to get an idea of what women want, or at the very least book tok will help you understand why we’re all looking for Mr. Darcey, or a werewolf bad boy in the mafia (women…we’re complex creatures).
Some of the greatest philosophers looked to works of fiction. Seneca liked to quote the works of the great Roman poets Virgil and Lucius Accius, the legendary Homer, the playwright Plautus. He also wrote many brilliant plays himself, plays that anyone who would like to understand Seneca’s philosophy on a deeper level, ought to read.
Ryan Holiday has the perfect words (as always):
Fiction offers writers and thinkers a forum for expressing their ideas in their purest and most concentrated forms. These great minds knew the power that resides within works of fiction, thousands of years before the research proved it:
- Multiple studies have shown that imagining stories helps activate the regions of your brain responsible for better understanding others and seeing the world from a new perspective. When the psychologist Raymond Mar analyzed 86 fMRI studies, he saw substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals.
- A 2013 Emory University study compared the brains of people after they read fiction to the brains of people who didn’t read. The brains of the readers showed more activity in certain areas than those who didn’t read—especially the left temporal cortex, the part of the brain typically associated with understanding language. The website testyourvocab.com analyzed millions of its test-takers to discover that fiction readers were significantly more likely to have a larger vocabulary.
In his book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, cognitive psychologist Dr. Keith Oatley argues that fiction is a simulation for the social world. Just like your understanding of starting a company or a meditation practice is improved by reading books on the subject, reading fiction improves your understanding of social relationships. It improves your ability to step into someone else’s shoes and think about what other people might be thinking. In fact, Dr. Oatley says it allows you to experience a variety of social circumstances and explore alternate states of mind from a wide variety of people that you otherwise can’t always interact with in your typical day-to-day life.
As the great multi-genre author Neil Gaiman likes to say, “Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.” So whether it be for mere entertainment or for self-improvement, pick up a work of fiction today and get lost in the imagined world—it just may help you better understand the real one.
If you’re coming around to the idea of adding more fiction, or picking up a novel in 2022, here are some of my favorite fiction reads from 2021 with links so you can add them to cart now (full disclosure, not all of these are new releases, some are backlisted books I finally picked up this last year):
- The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
- The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
- Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
- The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
- Anna K by Jenny Lee
- Seven Days in June by Tia Williams
- White Ivy by Susie Yang
- Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson
- My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix
- The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan
- The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
- Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Like always, if you made it this far enjoy a video on the topic that I think you’ll like…