Every so often people share with me that they don’t read fiction. As a fiction writer and an avid novel reader, I find these discussions immeasurably sad. Regardless of intention, my brain interprets such comments as little jabs. The implication being that somewhere along the way, those readers made the decision to grow up and thus, as a reader of novels, I’m clearly locked in a Peter Pan fantasyland that wastes time and offers no value.
So, it’s time. I’m standing up for fiction. I challenge the non-fiction-only readers that, in fact, you can learn and grow through reading novels. And further, I assert that reading stories may be one of the singular most significant ways we can enhance our emotional intelligence.
I went to the internet to back up my beliefs and found this article published by the BBC: Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People? Here’s a clip from the article:
“At the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling. Using brain scans, she has found that while reading fiction, there is more activity in parts of the default mode network of the brain that are involved in simulating what other people are thinking.”
Fiction is one of the best ways for us to grow empathy for others. We learn through stories; we always have. There is nothing as riveting as diving into a protagonist’s narrative and gaining a glimpse of the world through their eyes. I know that reading a wide variety of fiction has grown my ability to empathize with others. Travel can also offer this, but only when you travel and immerse yourself in foreign worlds. If you stick to the all-inclusive style of vacation, you’ll be left with a Disneyland version of reality. To gain empathy through travel, you must jump off the beaten path and engage in conversation with locals.
In her article The Importance of Reading Fiction, Hannah Frankman discusses how we can come to understand the concept of evolution through our intake of fiction. We all are perpetually evolving and following the character arc of a protagonist allows us to view the concept of growth in a condensed period of time. She says, “… fiction allows us to see the evolution of events, narratives, trajectories — even societies. … Fiction gives us context.”
There’s a reason so many of us feel compelled to write and create. We want to better understand human intentions and feelings. Anne Tyler said, “I read so I can live more than one life in more than one place.”
In Creativity Research Journal, researchers discovered that the fiction readers had less need for “cognitive closure” than those who read non-fiction: “These findings suggest that reading fictional literature could lead to better procedures of processing information generally, including those of creativity.”
What has fiction taught me? Here’s is a small sample of the cognitive growth I’ve achieved from reading a few recent novels:
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: As someone who never studied African American history, this book opened my eyes to so much. I learned firsthand what it was like to be captured in 1700s Africa and sold into the slave trade. As the novel is an epic tale spanning centuries, I gained an understanding of so much more of the African American story in America. The book spurred me to supplement with non-fiction, so I read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson.
- The Beantown Girls by Jane Healey: Prior to reading, I didn’t understand the role American Red Cross volunteers played in World War II and the importance of keeping up morale with donuts and coffee (and how dangerous donuts and coffee could be). WWII fiction is one of my favorite sub-categories of historical fiction so I continually seek out new takes on war experiences through story.
- The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Through this novel, I got a clear sense of what it means to be bisexual and how a person could love someone of their same gender, when previously, they had been attracted to the opposite gender.
From reading about the poorest of the poor in the lowlands of the Carolinas in Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing to the families who own penthouses on 5th Ave in New York as discussed in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, my life is richer and my happiness and appreciation is greater for all that I have thanks to the experiences I’ve been able to absorb in reading a variety of fiction.
If I have yet to convince you to give fiction a try, then perhaps broaden your reading to memoir; whether the stories are real or made up, it’s the stories that matter. Leave a comment about a novel that opened your eyes in a way they had never been open before. Once we learn something we cannot unlearn it. Fiction weaves a richness into life that I will treasure forever.