Great fiction has the power to heal, to change us, and even, to alter our lives. When it comes to reading, we may assume that reading for knowledge is the best reason to pick up a book. Research, however, suggests that reading fiction may provide far more important benefits than nonfiction.
Forbes says: we don’t just read great books — they read us as well.
The human condition is complex and contradictory. A great novel reflects that complexity. We may read it several times, as we do with our favorites, and each time it is like finding an old friend and gaining new insights from that friend. We put it down with changed understandings of the world around us and, most importantly, of ourselves.
Fiction Imbues Us With Empathy
When you do not read (especially fiction), you live only one life. Your own. When you read fiction though, you are gifted with the opportunity to experience other perspectives, experiences, and lives.
Doing this helps us to feel more compassionately, a sense of greater understanding, and to view differently (sometimes) the experiences, thoughts, and behaviors of others.
When you see the man in the restaurant snap at the waiter, then stand abruptly, knocking his chair back to the floor and storm out, you likely think to yourself, “what a jerk.” Yet, when you read his thoughts and story and learn that his beloved daughter or son was just killed in a car accident that week, well, you might see things differently. Empathy enters your heart, even if only a little bit. He shouldn’t have been nasty to the waiter. But, you understand better why he might be filled with anger and heartbreak, and why he might have acted like this in that particular moment.
You watch the young drug-addicted mother fail in her role as a parent to her children, and your first reaction is that she’s terrible. But when you read her story and are able to access her thoughts, as well as, learn details about her life that you didn’t know, while this is not an excuse for her failing her children in such a way, empathy might stir in your soul. You could see things a bit differently.
This is what fiction does.
It offers us perspectives, depth, nuance, and the experiences of other people that we never would have experienced otherwise. And this is a crucial thing in terms of creating a society that actually cares about and has empathy for and patience with each other.
Fiction Helps Us Build a Better Understanding of the World
I know almost nothing about the culture in Japan, or about what it might be like to live on the streets, or what it may feel like to live with schizophrenia, or what the world was like back in the early 1900s.
Guess what? I can gain entry into all of these experiences, times, and places with books and fiction. You can learn about the culture in Japan second-hand (if you aren’t able to experience it by going there) through books. You can fathom, even if only in small measure, what it might feel like to live on the streets through reading about it. You can delve into, at least somewhat, what it might feel like to live in the mind of someone with schizophrenia through reading. And you can experience the atmosphere of the world a hundred years ago through novels.
Fiction Fills Us With New Ideas for Living, Loving, and Being
As a heterosexual woman, reading about the experiences of those with different sexualities, I learn alternate ideas about love and loving. In our staunch monogamy oriented culture, it can be eye-opening and thought-provoking to read about people who do their relationships differently, and feel just as loved, happy and committed.
Reading a book like Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar teaches me insights and perspectives on America and racism that I may not have considered prior, which are important ones. Harry Potter shows readers the worth of loyalty, bravery, and unwavering friendship.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt is about young June, recovering from and grieving the death of her uncle, Finn. They shared an emotionally close, poignant friendship. They had similar temperaments and hearts, both more interested in the romantic aspects of life, as opposed to the shallow pursuits of many. Each was drawn to things like deep conversation, music, candlelight, museums, sumptuous meals, photographs, deep personal connection, leisurely tea, paintings, just sitting in quiet with one another, long walks outside, etc.
Finn dies of AIDS, which during the 1980s (when this book takes place) was perceived and handled very differently than it would be today. Thus, June must also contend with people’s outer perceptions of Finn upon their learning of the nature of his death. This is confusing and deeply angering for her.
The book paints for us beautiful scenes of the connection that June and Finn shared. This story teaches us about the meaning and power of love, though loves different from those we tend to value most highly in our culture (romantic love). It’s one of the more tender, beautiful love stories I’ve read.
I could go on and on with examples of how fiction shifts our idea of the world, of love, of people, and life, if only we allow it to. And we absolutely should allow it to.
Fiction Is a Grand Escape and Entertainment
During the current pandemic, I don’t know about anyone else, but I have found immense solace, escape, and respite in delving into great fiction. I tended to prefer non-fiction but lately, the last 6 months or so, I have been on a fiction tear. Losing yourself in compelling characters, a gripping story, an atmospheric world, can be such a balm, joy, a fun distraction, and even a source of healing.
Reading Is Actually Good for Your Health
“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body,” said Joseph Addison (about 300 years ago).
Today, science backs up his claim. Reading a novel increases blood flow and improves connectivity in the brain.
It improves and expands your vocabulary.
It can help hone and increase your knowledge, which gives you more to think about and discuss with others, and thus, makes you a more interesting, better conversationalist.
Reading also improves your ability to focus deeply on something, a skill many of us are losing rapidly as a result of the internet and our dependence on cell phones (check out The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr for a shocking, engaging, excellent read on this topic). Shoot for a minimum of 30 minutes a day of reading, though ideally, even more.
Reading and Fiction Inspires Us
Reading a fantastic story with memorable, awesome characters is like being around inspiring, incredible people. We can observe compelling actions and choices. We can meet unique, interesting people. We can be given new ideas for living or thinking, by observing great characters. We can stumble upon a different way of life that intrigues us, which we had never considered prior.
Reading Reduces Stress
It also aids in sleep readiness, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, can help fight depression (a big one for the current times with the pandemic), assists in preventing cognitive decline as we age, and, studies have shown, it actually contributes to living a longer life.
(Check out this article from Healthline that lists a lot of health benefits of reading).
Reading Helps With Problem-Solving Skills
Grab a Sherlock Holmes book and you’ll see what I mean. Reading a novel like this, your analytical thinking and skills of observation are stimulated and exercised. Reading helps us get better at observing, detecting patterns, solving problems, and considering the world anew.
Fiction Offers Us a View of the World From a Different Angle
What might it be like to have been an SS Nazi officer? How about someone who struggles with manic depressive disorder? A black boy or girl growing up in a white neighborhood? Someone who just lost the love of their life? A young person who packed up all their things into a few suitcases and moved abroad solo? A mafia gangster? Someone with Aspergers?
You can experience (second-hand) all of these through books and fiction.
And what a gift.
What an incredible opportunity and awe-inspiring thing is that?
When you read a book that confirms your worldview, this reinforces your opinions and convictions. If you read a book with different points of view, though, it broadens your perspective, opens your heart and mind, and causes you to reexamine things, which is a good thing.
And this, my friends, is one of the points of reading.
Reading fiction opens and expands our minds and world. It increases our empathy, vocabulary, and knowledge. It gives us more to talk about with others. It can inspire and move us. It offers us alternate perspectives and experiences we wouldn’t have the opportunity to see otherwise. It reduces stress and improves our health in numerous ways. It can lend us a grand escape from the world we are in, to another one temporarily. Read fiction. Your life will be emotionally and mentally richer, more inspired, less stressed. Reading fiction improves the quality of our lives in so many ways.