The Value of Reading Fiction

December 28, 2016

by Ravi Raman

Reading fiction is messing with my brain, and I like it.

I had finished reading the book I was carrying with me over the winter holidays. We were at my in-laws home, and I was scouring the house for another book to read. There were a few to choose from, scattered throughout various bookshelves. Most were being used as decorative accessories to prop up picture frames or tchotchke. I grabbed a paperback that didn’t seem to have much of a purpose. “Water for Elephants” it was called. I put it back down in search of a non-fiction book. None were to be found. I almost resorted to reading the local newspaper. Gasp!

Then, I went back to the book and picked it up. I paged through it trying to sort out what it was about. It had nothing but quotes of praise written on the jacket. From the cover image, I knew it was about a circus in the early 1900’s. My mom and wife had both read it and said it was great, though they couldn’t remember specifics. I decided to give it a shot. When was the last time I’ve read fiction? It’s hard to remember. Perhaps my second or third reading of “The Alchemist.” It’s been years.

I used to read fiction all the time. Growing up, aside from the Encyclopedia Britannica (two versions), Guinness Book of World Records and a few of my dad’s personal development books (How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking), fiction dominated our bookshelves. We had comic books from India telling old fables and stories, a set of over a dozen classic books (think “Oliver Twist”) written for young adults, a few books by Mark Twain, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien and more. I read voraciously as a kid. Then, somewhere along the way, in high school I think, I stopped reading fiction.

I started to think of reading as serious business, a time to learn new things that could help me with school or business. I always focused on reading books to acquire skills instead of for enjoyment. Turns out, learning new things is fun. I devoured business books, self-help books, books on psychology, medicine, economics and more. Somewhere along the way, I got this idea in my head that fiction is gratuitous. If I am going to dedicate six hours to reading a book, I might as well learn something! Right?

After less than two days, I’m now 150 pages into Water for Elephants. As I read it, I notice something interesting happening. I periodically get lost in the story, totally immersed in it. I’m not worried about what page I am on or taking notes as I go along. I feel fulfilled after reading for an hour or so like I’ve done something very worthwhile. Most noticeably, I’m more focused and engaged with people after reading. I’ve had great dreams as well. Sometimes this happens with non-fiction, but only when these works include richly told stories with striking central characters (e.g. like David Brooks “The Road to Character” or Robert Greene’s “Mastery”).

Reading fiction is doing something positive to my brain. I’m visualizing things in rich detail in my mind. Characters, settings, colors, sights, sounds and smells. It all comes alive in my head, much more than these things would when reading a “How to blah blah blah” book. I’m also able to recall various and vivid details of the story as I move along.

It makes sense that reading fiction would be a good thing. It flexes the visual muscles of the brain. No doubts about that. It helps to build up empathy for characters that are going through struggles or successes. It serves up countless examples of masterfully told stories. Human beings are designed to communicate and absorb stories. There must be something useful to taking more well-crafted stories into our noggin.

I glanced at my reading list the other day and don’t recall seeing a single fiction book on it. That is going to change! If you have any recommendations for great works of fiction, let me know in the comments.

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