Never overlook the pleasure of reading a great work of fiction. Some people consider it a waste of time to read stories and novels and akin it to watching fictitious movies. There is no reason, they say, to let your mind wander off aimlessly in a fantasy land when there’s so much to be learned about the real world.
The truth is whether you read fiction or non-fiction, the fact that you read books puts you ahead of the pack. Men who read develop their minds by not only educating themselves with new information but also learning how to think. The latter, I would argue is of much greater importance than the former. Anyone can receive a piece of information and recite it back, but what is important is how you interpret that piece of information – how you can manipulate the perspective and perceive it from different focal points and through various narratives. Can you ask and answer why that information is useful, or how it can be applied to the real world? Are you aware of the biases behind the information as it is presented to you and can you think about it objectively? What does this information mean?
Whereas non-fiction can present cold hard facts and enable a man to self-educate, fiction further opens up our minds to the creative process, enhances our vocabulary, influences our emotions, and strengthens our cognitive functions. There are several reasons you should be reading works of fiction in order to become a better man.
Reason 1: Fiction Expands Creativity
Our creative processes are fed by new ideas, narratives, and perspectives. Works of fiction expose everything in a new light through a new lens. Our minds open up to think how the main character of a narrative thinks, or how events could unfold under circumstances exempt from our real world rules, laws, and timeline. Fiction expands our creative process to influence how we think so that we may discover new ideas.
The ability to develop our imaginations as children throughout adulthood depends on our ability to read fiction books from a young age and continue it through adolescence and beyond. Fiction is exactly that – a compilation of imaginations from authors that we, as readers, adopt and develop in our own minds. This is why when you see a movie, everyone sees the same thing that the director puts on the screen in front of you. However, with a book, our minds create our own visual interpretations that are never the same as someone else who reads the same exact book. Our creative imaginations continue to evolve through our lifetimes, ever-changing.
Reason 2: Fiction Elicits Emotions & Influences Empathy
Being swept up in an outstanding novel can elicit an entire range of emotions. When you are placed in a character’s shoes, you can feel how they feel if you were in the same setting experiencing the same plot line. Similar to a non-fiction diary that tells an emotional story, works of fiction play on mankind’s emotions. Several studies have found that works of fiction actually influence empathy to a greater extent than a work of non-fiction.
According to Goldstein, a person reading fiction tends to react more strongly towards a story than when he/she would read a non-fictional story, because fiction provides a safe arena in which a reader can experience emotions without the need for self-protection. Because fiction does not follow the reader into real life, the reader can allow oneself to freely experience strong emotions, without immediate transfer of these emotions to real life. Moreover, we can allow ourselves to sympathize strongly with a character of a fictional story, because we do not have obligations towards the characters of a fictional story, while sad reports in a newspaper may cause feelings of obligation towards the victims to help them.1
One study at the University of Buffalo concluded that fiction “books give readers more than an opportunity to tune out and submerge themselves in fantasy worlds. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment,” according to Dr Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young.2 A different study by Keith Oatley, a professor in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto had similar findings in empathy.
I think the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world. The subject matter of fiction is constantly about why she did this, or if that’s the case what should he do now, and so on. With fiction we enter into a world in which this way of thinking predominates. We can think about it in terms of the psychological concept of expertise. If I read fiction, this kind of social thinking is what I get better at. If I read genetics or astronomy, I get more expert at genetics or astronomy. In fiction, also, we are able to understand characters’ actions from their interior point of view, by entering into their situations and minds, rather than the more exterior view of them that we usually have. And it turns out that psychologically there is a big difference between these two points of view. We usually take the exterior view of others, but that’s too limited.3
Reason 3: Fiction Expands Your Vocabulary
Reading literary fiction develops your vocabulary, strengthens your speech, and makes you a better writer. This is the primary reason that I read in general, besides the pure enjoyment gained from reading. Literary fiction, rather than easy-to-read fiction, has the potential to expand your vocabulary because while it exposes you to new thoughts and ideas, it does so through a plethora of grammatical styles, forms of diction, and undiscovered words.
Fiction authors write in a very different manner than non-fiction authors. Have you ever noticed how a non-fiction textbook is sometimes bland and dull although full of information? On the other hand, the writing style of a fiction author is entirely based on presenting a story in the most structurally beautiful and engaging way possible. If a fiction author’s writing technique does not capture the reader, the reader has no reason to keep reading if not entertained by the way the story is presented. However, in non-fiction, the object of the book is not so much writing technique to keep the reader engaged as much as it is the ability to present concise and relevant information. In non-fiction, writing style is not so much a central point as it is in poetry, a drama, or novel.
Reason 4: Fiction Is Culture
A great work of fiction is just as much a piece of artwork as an oil on canvas. Just as each painting tells a story, so does a novel – literally. Reading reveals different cultures and attitudes from a variety of people from various time periods and places. An epic poem like theIliad by Homer can tell us a lot about conflict and war in fantasy-like classical Greece while a novel like The Call of the Wild by Jack London can illustrate life on the Yukon during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. Each great work of fiction is beautiful and an important piece of culture that shapes the different cultures which treasure it.
The great thing about fiction is that it doesn’t have to be 100% made-up. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a fiction book that doesn’t contain a lot of truth to it. As such, the Iliadand The Call of the Wild both serve as outstanding historical pieces. Most fiction novels contain real settings and perhaps even real characters but tell a made-up story, or include fictitious elements into a real-life timeline. In this way, works of fiction contain truths about our culture and history as people, which compliment non-fiction accounts.
Reason 5: Fiction Develops Your Theory of Mind
Theory of mind is the realization that other people have beliefs and desires that differ from their own. A developed theory of mind allows a person to interact socially and use their cognitive abilities to read thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Studies have found that works of literary fiction can impact our theory or mind so that we may guess motives and thoughts in social situations based on experiences gained from fiction.
The currently predominant view is that literary fiction—often described as narratives that focus on in-depth portrayals of subjects’ inner feelings and thoughts—can be linked to theory of mind processes, especially those that are involved in the understanding or simulation of the affective characteristics of the subjects. [David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of The New School for Social Research] provide experimental evidence that reading passages of literary fiction, in comparison to nonfiction or popular fiction, does indeed enhance the reader’s performance on theory of mind tasks.4
For instance, when a used-car salesman talks up a car and says it’ll be sold off the lot by the weekend, we can sense that he’s attempting to sell it quickly for the highest price, not giving you time to sit on it and think. Using theory of mind in this social interaction makes us wary of his motives and more skeptical about how good of a deal we’re really being presented here. Similar simulations in fiction translate well into the real life by teaching us a thing or two about social interaction. Different responses are elicited by different people based on what they read, and it has been found that fiction elicits a greater response than non-fiction.
This is why I liken fiction to a simulation that runs on the software of our minds. And it is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.5
Fiction develops our cognitive functions in social situations by simulating social models in our head based on fictional experiences. In essence, society throws a person who reads fiction less curve balls because he’s prepared for a variety of interactions picked up from works of fiction. Don’t neglect your cognitive abilities – read fiction!
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