hen I was younger, I rarely ever read any fiction. I thought it was a waste of time. I was too busy reading non-fiction books aimed at improving my life, my business, my relationships, my understanding of the world. Who had time for silly stories?
It wasn’t until about five years ago that I started taking a real interest in fiction. At first, it was for similar reasons that I had read non-fiction: I wanted to improve my writing and a number of books about writing stated that fiction was the best way to improve and practice your writing skills.
(Apparently, in baseball terms, writing non-fiction is like the minor leagues in terms of skill and difficulty while fiction is the major leagues, and literary fiction is like the World Series.)
Later, while researching and writing The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, I got burnt out on non-fiction. So I started reading fiction as a way to escape and take my mind off all the philosophical concepts and psychological arguments I was obsessing over every day.
And while I had read some fiction in the past, this is when fiction really began to shine for me. I grew an appreciation for it I had never had before. And dare I say, I discovered some benefits from reading it that I had never considered. Here are three of them.
1. You Can Never Know Enough People
I remember back in high school, my English teacher had a cheesy saying that, “We read books because we can never know enough people.” It’s one of those pithy truths that you don’t start to appreciate until you’ve gotten much older.
We tend to self-select the people in our lives. What I mean by that is that we tend to become friends with people who share our own interests, our own views and our own experiences. We tend to seek out experiences that confirm our prior experiences and our previously-held beliefs.
We’re bad at diversity. It’s not something that comes naturally for us.
I think storytelling, in all of its forms (film, spoken, written) is a cool hack that is designed to get humans to think outside of their own narrow experience and consider other points of view. I had never considered the emotional realities of being African-American in the US until I read Ellison’s Invisible Man. I didn’t have a respect for how relative and arbitrary most historical knowledge is until I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and I didn’t consider the non-romantic realities of war until I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
In many ways, these stories felt more true to me than any non-fiction for the simple reason that they exposed me to experiences far beyond my reach. Books are special in that they temporarily transport us into the brains of the author. And it’s through fiction that we can actually get a glimpse on the very real experiences of others. Which, if it sounds familiar, is because it is. It’s called human empathy.
Get Your Shit Together — Here’s How
2. Reading Fiction Increases Empathy
Medieval Europe was incredibly violent. People were burned alive in public, animals were tortured for sport, people were flogged and tarred and feathered and ripped apart limb by limb all across the continent. Domestic violence was rampant. Infanticide was common. And war was pretty much a constant.
Then, starting in the 18th century, these practices started to change. Public executions became less common. People stopped believing in witches (or burning them alive) and torture stopped being the recreational pastime it once was.
There are a lot of theories and reasons for why this happened. But one of the most prominent ones is actually startling in how simple it is:
People began to read.
The printing press was invented in 1440 but it took a couple hundred years for it to become widely used (and used for more than just printing bibles). It also took a few hundred years for large amounts of the population to become literate (part of this was thanks to the Protestants’ insistence on education for all, not just the clergy).
The effect was that by the 1700s, people were reading a lot of books and a lot of novels and serials. It’s no coincidence that around this time the great classic European authors like Dickens, Goethe, and Flaubert emerged.
It’s also no coincidence that people started becoming less violent and more sympathetic. And not just socially, but politically and economically as well. People began to not only realize that everyone else had unique internal worlds of their own, but that these internal worlds should be respected and empathized with. Hello, Enlightenment and human rights. Goodbye, Vlad the Impaler.
And this is why it’s so important that we read fiction, because it exercises our empathic muscles—it teaches us to see the world as others do, to understand their views and perspectives, even if we don’t necessarily agree with or like them.
3. It’s Possibly the Healthiest Form of Escape
But the cognitive benefits of reading go far beyond empathy. It increases your ability to communicate, your ability to reason, your creativity, your ability to see connections between events.
Reading is basically like doing bench presses for you mind. And reading (good) fiction is like you were doing bench presses without feeling any strain or pain.
Watching TV makes you passive and susceptible to suggestion. You are simply an empty vessel receiving noise. Music, while engaging, is abstract and formless and often occupies the background of our mind, not the contents of it.
But reading requires active engagement from your brain every second. Fiction allows you to practice this engagement while simultaneously providing the same escapism you get through other forms of entertainment.
Put simply: it’s probably the best way to have fun and get away from the day-to-day stresses of your life while still improving your cognitive functioning at the same time. It really is the self-improvement junkie’s most effective way to escape for 30-60 minutes a day while still making themselves a better person.
Some Recommended Fiction Books
I’ll wrap this up with some of my favorite fiction books. I’ve already listed a few above. But below are some of the ones I’ve enjoyed the most:
War and Peace by Leo Motherfucking Tolstoy – already mentioned, but I’ll mention it again because it is such an epic read, both in meaning and in scope.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Possibly the darkest and most sentimental post-apocalyptic book you’ll ever read.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – A flowery and irreverent picture of Latin culture. Follows a zany Colombian family through half a dozen generations.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – A recent favorite of mine, about children in France and Germany during World War II.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas – If you want to read a massive 1,200-page book that’s not only easy to read but also exciting and a page turner. This is a classic for a reason.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera – About a sex-obsessed man stuck in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis – Way better (and more fucked up) than the movie. A frightening satire on American culture that is perhaps becoming more relevant than ever today.
Choke by Chuck Palahniuk – Same author as Fight Club. Great if you want another example of his zany, unpredictable style. Very quick reading as well.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – One of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. It’s short and easy. Read this first if you’ve never read Hemingway and want to know what the big deal is.